NHK recently aired a documentary that touched on the 50th anniversary of normalized relations between South Korea and Japan. The main theme was how after World War II Japan prioritized state-to-state relationships with countries it had invaded during the war. Individual victims were sacrificed to expedience, especially with regard to South Korea, a former colony. Many of Korea’s postwar leaders worked with their Japanese overlords during the war, and afterward they were desperate to build an economic base with Japan’s help.

In 1991, a 67-year-old Korean named Kim Hak-sun became the first former “comfort woman” to talk publicly about her experience sexually servicing Japanese Imperial troops. The revelation was embarrassing not only to the Japanese government, but to South Korea’s as well, since all war-related reparations had been resolved in 1965 when the two countries signed a treaty. Though NHK did not question Kim’s testimony or the Japanese military’s involvement in the comfort station system, it over-generalized the government’s subsequent approach to the issue by focusing on its dealings with Dutch women who had been forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers in Indonesia. The program gave the impression that these women and the Dutch government feel that Japan has been forthright in addressing their claims.

South Korea has not been as forgiving, owing to its more complicated relationship with Japan. Many of the comfort women were recruited and/or kidnapped by fellow Koreans, even if they ended up serving the Japanese, and their government’s guilt over its forebears’ historical complicity has been exploited by Japanese elements trying to neutralize their own guilt by splitting hairs as to who did the recruiting and whether or not the comfort women qualify as a compensated labor force. Each country’s media has been compelled to take sides. Japan’s has played up the state-vs.-state nature of the controversy at the expense of the surviving comfort women, who want Japan to officially acknowledge its responsibility for their suffering.

That’s why journalist Toshikuni Doi unpacked 100 hours of videotaped interviews he conducted with seven Korean comfort women in the mid-1990s and edited it into a 3½-hour film titled “Kioku to Ikiru” (“Living With Memories“) that has just been released theatrically. Doi is famous for his reporting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and nuclear-related issues. In a long post on his blog, he explains that he became aware of Korean comfort women in the early ’90s while corresponding with Hatsuko Tominaga, a hibakusha (atomic bomb victim) whose activism extended beyond anti-nuclear matters to address victims of Japanese aggression, including sex slaves, whom she wanted to meet. However, she was not well enough to travel, and Doi offered to go to South Korea to meet with former comfort women and record their interviews for her.

He started the project in 1994, and ended up devoting two years to it, traveling back-and-forth between Japan and a house in Seoul where the women lived communally, slowly trying to gain their trust so that they would open up about their experiences, which they were reluctant to do, especially in front of a Japanese man. However, Doi’s nationality and gender had one advantage.

While he was conducting the interviews, a Korean filmmaker, Byun Young-joo, was doing the same thing and the women seemed more comfortable with her. Byun’s documentary has since become one of the most famous in the history of Korean film, and Doi admires it but says his is different because, as an interlocutor, “I am a man representing the oppressor country.” He believes Byun, because she is Korean and a woman, drew a line in her interviews over which she would not step, but Doi could get at the core of their pain because their anger was directed at what he represents, and he admits that he exploited this situation.

“Perhaps it was cold of me,” he writes, “but I felt I had to convey their experiences to Japanese people,” and that meant pressing for detail, no matter how uncomfortable it made them feel.

All the women were teenagers from poor families when they were taken to comfort stations. The “recruiters,” both Japanese and Korean, told them they would work in factories or as nurses. Some went willingly and others were forced, but none knew the true nature of their occupation until they arrived at their final destinations. Men of rank had their way with the virgins first, as a kind of privilege.

Ninety minutes is given over to one woman, Kang Deok-gyeong, who really was brought to Japan to toil in a factory. Hungry and over-worked, she tried to escape and was caught and raped. After a second attempt to flee, military police sent her to a comfort station in Nagano Prefecture where she was mainly the concubine of one man. When the war ended Kang returned to Korea, pregnant at 16. The baby was given to an orphanage in Pusan, and later she was told he died. She never married, and went from one menial job to another until she moved into a house in Seoul for former sex slaves. Kang died of cancer in early 1997, but left behind a series of accomplished paintings illustrating her ordeal, which have since become symbols of comfort women in South Korea.

All the subjects are dead now, so no one gleaned any personal justice from their participation in Doi’s film. Some of the footage was shown on NHK in the late ’90s, but Doi says he wasn’t sufficiently motivated to revisit the tapes until Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto said that the comfort stations were “necessary” and a gallery in Tokyo cancelled an exhibition by a South Korean photographer about sex slaves left behind in China. Doi’s purpose is to supply “real faces” to the comfort women controversy. Without individual stories the issue remains an abstraction, and thus easier to ignore and deny. Nevertheless, the premiere, held in early June, was covered by only one Japanese national daily, the Asahi Shimbun.

“Kioku to Ikiru” is now playing at Uplink in Tokyo. It will open in various cities nationwide in coming months. In Korean and Japanese with Japanese subtitles.

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