Efforts to preserve and pass on the memories of the “comfort women” have become more urgent as the victims of wartime sexual violence age.
An international alliance of nongovernmental organizations filed an application in May to have over 2,700 comfort women-related documents listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, while a project that digitizes audiovisual records of those forced into wartime Japanese military brothels is underway in Tokyo.
“It would be a great loss to the world if the memories and records of former sex slaves vanish,” said Mina Watanabe, secretary-general of the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace, or WAM. “We hope to enshrine them in history forever.”
WAM was established in August 2005 on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II as Japan’s only comfort women information and resource center.
In a bid to gain public support for the UNESCO listing, the symposium “Voices of the Japanese Military Comfort Women” was held recently in Tokyo, with those working on the project in China and South Korea attending as panelists.
Among them was Shin Hei-soo, an invited professor at Ewha Womans University’s Graduate School of International Studies.
“While the UNESCO listing action had initially started in 2014 under the initiative of the South Korean government, we decided that it should be multilaterally promoted at the private level,” Shin said.
Shin, also a member of the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, enlisted the support of civic groups of South Korea, and the move eventually developed into the International Solidarity Committee involving 14 groups from seven nations — China, East Timor, Indonesia, Japan, the Netherlands, the Philippines and South Korea — and Taiwan.
It is known that females from these countries were sexually exploited during wartime, in addition to those in other countries, including Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
In Japan, several groups supporting former comfort women and their legal battles jointly formed the Japanese unit of the committee.
“We were approached by a South Korean member in 2015,” Yang Ching Ja, a member of the Japanese unit, told the symposium, which was watched by around 100 people. “After studying the significance of the application, we concluded that not only official documents but also testimonies of the victims and records of their struggles should be recognized” as a valuable heritage of the world.
The documents applied by the Japanese unit include taped recordings of interviews with former comfort women and a statement record of a victim from court.
Shin also sought the cooperation of war museums and national archives in Australia, Britain, China, the Netherlands, South Korea and the United States for the listing.
The result of the comfort women-related application is expected to be announced around October next year.
Bilaterally, Japan and South Korea agreed last December to resolve the comfort women issue “finally and irreversibly,” leading Tokyo to last month transfer ¥1 billion to a South Korean fund set up to support the women.
The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said in March, however, the agreement did not fully adopt a victim-centered approach to address issues of those affected, urging Tokyo to take “due account of views of the victims/survivors and ensure their rights to truth, justice, and reparations.”
On the digitization project, meanwhile, WAM’s Watanabe said, “There are many photos of the victims and tape recordings of their testimonies, but they degrade with age.”
It will also become difficult to identify who is in the photos and to determine the shooting date and time “as it is not only the victims but also their longtime supporters who are aging,” she said, showing concern that worthwhile records these supporters have collected may be lost in the future.
The comfort women issue came to light when Kim Hak-sun came forward in Seoul in 1991 to demand that Japan take responsibility for its actions.
“We hope to create an archive where people can be aware of how each victim has suffered and struggled to live,” Watanabe, also head of the Japan unit of the solidarity committee, said. “The project is at the core of our activities over the next 10 years.”
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