Visitors to a photo exhibition would not typically be asked to open their bags or walk through a metal detector before entering the exhibition site. Nor would they expect to catch the inquisitive gazes of various plainclothes police officers lurking in the crowd once inside.

But that’s exactly what nearly 8,000 visitors to the Shinjuku Nikon Salon in Tokyo experienced from June 26 through July 9, when the gallery hosted an exhibition of photos featuring former Korean “comfort women” left behind in China at the end of World War II.

It was certainly an experience unlike any other for Ahn Sehong, the Nagoya-based South Korean photographer behind the exhibit. Ahn, whose earlier works include a documentary on Korean shamanism, was selected by the salon in January to display his works at the prestigious photo exhibition venue in Tokyo, and had been preparing for the show for months. In May, just a month before the scheduled start of the show, Ahn was informed by employees at the salon that Nikon had decided to cancel it. When Ahn asked the salon for a reason, Nikon would only say it was called off “under the circumstances,” and refused to elaborate further.

Ahn decided to challenge the decision in court, and only then did the reasons for Nikon’s new position on the matter come to light. In statements submitted to the Tokyo District Court, the camera manufacturer alleged that Ahn made changes to his exhibition title that posed a problem for the company. Nikon also claimed it had learned through media coverage surrounding the exhibition that Ahn was attempting to use the display at the salon “for his own political activities.”

When the district court ruled in Ahn’s favor on June 22, ordering Nikon to host the exhibition as originally planned, the salon complied, but only grudgingly. The salon’s official website stated that it had “temporarily” agreed to set aside the space for the exhibition, but ratcheted up pressure against Ahn by appealing the district court ruling.

In the end, Nikon lost its appeal on June 29 and Ahn was ultimately able to put on his exhibition — titled “Juju (meaning ‘layer by layer’) Project: Military Sexual Slavery by Japan During the Second World War” — as planned.

But with all the disruptions that frequently occurred as a result of having the extra security guards, undercover cops and protesters on site, it was hard for visitors to devote their full attention to the photographs. This only compounded Ahn’s woes, because he was hoping visitors would be able to absorb all the emotion of each woman’s experiences in each individual image. Unfortunately, however, the commotion and distractions that were constantly present rendered this impossible.

The 41-year-old native of Gangwon-do, the northeastern province of South Korea, says he made five visits to the barren countryside of China over a period of several years, tracking down a total of 12 women who were victimized by Japan’s wartime sexual slavery.

“They were abandoned and didn’t know where to go or who to believe,” he said last month at a cafe in Shinjuku, speaking to me through a translator. “As I got to know them better, I became personally concerned about them. They had no choice but to continue to live there and were therefore unable to forget their experience (of having been forced to serve as sex slaves). They were deeply scarred by the experience.”

Many of the women — most of whom were in their teens and early 20s when they were taken to China, either by force or with a promise of a different job — were so traumatized by the ordeal that they became infertile, he said, noting that some became mistresses of local Chinese men after the war. What’s more, he said, they all felt ashamed they had forgotten the Korean language over the years.

“They don’t know how the world has changed since the end of the war,” he said, noting that seven of the 12 women that Ahn took portraits of had since died. A further two had disappeared without a trace. “They aren’t asking for anything from either the Japanese or Korean government. All they want in their lives is to heal their wounds, yet they don’t know how. That’s why I wanted to (act as a conduit and) help share their true feelings.”

To express their feelings, Ahn said he wanted to let the black-and-white photographs of the women speak for themselves. He didn’t wish to be drawn into any debate over whether these women were forced into providing sexual services at the so-called comfort stations that were set up throughout the region occupied by Japan during World War II, including not only China, but also such places as Taiwan and the Philippines.

Ahn said he also wanted the exhibition to be “void of any preconceptions” about the women and therefore opted to display the photos without captions. Ultimately, this made the exact details of an individual woman’s situation quite hard to follow, but Ahn was more interested in challenging viewers to use a little imagination when viewing his subjects. He asked visitors to take in the subtle details of each image — the deep-set wrinkles on a woman’s face, or the sedated expression of another woman lying on the floor, with steam from a boiling pot rising tempestuously in the background (a scene, I later learned, depicting a woman being taken care of by her neighbors after bleeding from her womb).

What does Ahn himself think about the ongoing controversy surrounding the issue, 70 years later?

“This is not an issue of Japan-Korea relations,” he said. “It’s an issue of how war can infringe on the human rights of women who are the most vulnerable members of society. Japanese prostitutes were also taken (to other parts of Asia) as comfort women, and their rights were significantly trampled upon as well.”

He realized his message was not going to please everyone.

An exhibition volunteer in her 20s, who is also a Korean resident in Japan, recounted an odious visit by a male protester in which he asked her, “How much are you worth?” Others were not as blatant, but huge differences in perception remained.

One afternoon in July, Shuhei Nishimura, leader of the conservative Tokyo citizens’ group Shuken Kaifuku wo Mezasu Kai (Re-establishing Japan’s Autonomy), turned up at the salon surrounded by an entourage of 10 or so. A number of undercover police officers in dark-blue suits accompanied him. A placard dangled from Nishimura’s neck that read: “Ahn Sehong should apologize for Vietnamese women raped by Korean soldiers.”

Nishimura walked up to Ahn demanding that he receive an open letter of questions and a request for a public forum to discuss the comfort women issue. Ahn refused, saying through an interpreter that Nishimura should send the letter by mail instead.

“Give us your address,” Nishimura said.

“It’s out there on the Internet because rightwingers have uploaded it,” Ahn said.

“I’m not a rightwinger,” Nishimura said.

As tension rose, a Nikon official cut in, saying the salon was not an appropriate venue for political debate. As Nishimura accused Ahn of dodging the discussion, Ahn said he would be happy to discuss his images.

Nishimura paced around the room, briefly examining each picture.

“What’s your favorite photographer who has taken pictures of Japan?” he asked.

Ahn paused for a minute and replied, “Eugene Smith.”

“Right. The one who took pictures of Minamata disease (sufferers),” Nishimura said. “I like him, too.”

Nishimura then left.

On the streets outside Shinjuku Station, Nishimura and a younger man, who wore a T-shirt depicting a map of Vietnam, called Ahn a “coward” through a loudspeaker. They called on Ahn to come out and explain the rapes of Vietnamese women that they alleged were committed by Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War. They also said they would keep chasing Ahn until he gets “expelled out of Japan.”

I approached Nishimura after the rally and asked him what he thought of his exchanges with Ahn.

“It’s fine for him to take pictures of people, because it’s his freedom of expression,” Nishimura said. “But he keeps saying that these are poor ‘comfort women attached to the Japanese military’ and that they were ‘victims of Japan’s sexual slavery.’ Did Japan have a system of sexual slavery?”

Asked whether he viewed himself as a rightist, a conservative or a citizen activist, Nishimura, 62, said he considered himself none of them.

“If you brand people as right or left, you’ll never narrow gaps between them,” he said. “I’m a revolutionist.”

Prior to changing its stance on Ahn’s exhibition in Tokyo, Nikon had asked the photographer to hold the same show at its Osaka Nikon Salon for a week from Sept. 13. Ahn has called on Nikon to host the exhibition in Osaka as scheduled, as well as apologize for its treatment of him at the Tokyo show. Nikon spokesman Takuya Moriguchi said the company has no plans to feature Ahn’s works in Osaka, noting that “the company’s policy to call off the exhibition remains unchanged.” Ahn is planning another exhibition in Tokyo later this month. For more information about the Juju Project, visit juju-project.net/en/

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.