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In July 2012, I visited the Nikon Gallery space in Tokyo to view an exhibition of photographs by Ahn Sehong. The exhibition featured portraits of former Korean “comfort women” left behind in China by the defeated Japanese army in 1945, whose lives Ahn had begun documenting in the late 1990s. Under pressure from Japanese rightists, Nikon initially shut down the exhibition it had agreed to sponsor, but a successful court challenge by Ahn compelled Nikon to permit it to continue.

The photographs depicted elderly women living in impoverished conditions in often remote, rural locations. Many had no means of returning home after the war; others, knowing the ostracism they would suffer if they did return home, chose to remain. They had assimilated to their new locales, even forgetting their native language. However, in some photographs there were moving expressions of longing for a still cherished homeland: a woman posing in a well-kept hanbok, another displaying her wartime identification documents, a third reaching out to touch a map of Korea on a wall.

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