Korean Comfort Women
Yeseul Choi


Comfort women from all across the globe are awaiting for the long overdue apology from the japanese government. Sculptors Kim Seo-Kyung and Kim Eun-Sung have created sculptures signifying the young Korean teenage girls that were forced to work as Japanese sex slaves during Japan’s colonial rule during 1910-1945. Young girls from Japanese occupied lands were forcibly taken to military brothels by Japanese soldiers forcing them into sexual slavery. These young girls were from South Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Netherlands, Indonesia and China. The two artists have erected 40 statues in Korea, 7 in the US, 1 in Canada, 1 in Australia and 1 in Germany so far with more in the making.

The Statue of Peace depicts a young Korean teenage girl wearing the Korean traditional hanbok. She’s sitting next to an empty chair with a base with stone pieces attached together making up the shadow of the girl. The sculptors intended that the image was to be of a young girl to representent the voices of the victims.  

“It is a sculpture who tries to show that forgiving is possible only if Japan continues to ask for atonement until South Korea accepts it,” the artists were quoted as saying.

On social media, the South Korean public has shown mixed reactions to the sculpture, with some saying it is a piece of art that perfectly reflects the ongoing issue. But others have criticized it as being rude to the sitting prime minister in the neighboring country.

“We saw a small group of old women protesting in front of the Japanese Embassy in January 2011. We were shocked to find out that the ‘comfort women’ issues hadn’t been solved,” said Kim Eun-sung. The first instance of this issue being raised to the public was in 1991 by one of the surviving victims, Kim Hak-soo.

The first statue the artists created was in the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. A short haired teenage girl with her fists clenched in her lap and a bird on her shoulder. It was placed in December of 2011 to commemorate the 1000th Wednesday demonstration. This artwork demands Japan apologise for their wartime crimes. Protests and demonstrations have been conducted since 1992 and still continue today.

The statue has sparked international incidents, threatened trade deals, and exposed deep and bitter rifts between Japan and South Korea that go back more than seven decades.

The artists said they felt guilty for not doing anything to help resolve the issue. They visited the office of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and asked what they could do in support of them. The nongovernmental organization was planning to build a memorial stone for the victims who were deceased. The artists agreed to help them make one.

“Even then, there was pressure from the Japanese government, which demanded that the memorial stone not be erected,” said Kim Eun-sung.

“But we heard that the Japanese government was against the memorial stone being built, and this offended us as artists,” Kim Seo-kyung said

“A sense of rage came over us. We took the plan further to make a sculpture.” said Kim Eun-sung.

The memorial stone plan was replaced by a “statue of peace,” the first of which was erected opposite the Seoul embassy, staring at its doors.

“If the Japanese government didn’t react so excessively, it would probably have just been a small memorial stone,” she said.

Japan’s denial of accepting its past is troubling to say the least. The  demand for a formal apology that is made by the current institutional government apologising for past war crimes is wanted by the few remaining comfort women survivors as well as countries that have been victims . Just say sorry. There are less and less comfort women left in this world today and politics aside it is the right thing to do.

Japan’s wrongdoings have counterparts for those of us in Australia. We live in a country that kidnapped children from first nation peoples homes and placed them into a “good family”. We know that our history is forever tainted as those children never got to learn their culture, language or history and it was late but the long overdue apology was delivered. Most importantly that apology was received. We live in a post-colonialist country that has erased so much history we can see first hand how crucial and important formal government apologies are to the community and the people around us. It also portrays an institution that is aware of what the past has done and willing to fix things together to overcome those problems. This however is a case where its cat and mouse until the dispute is settled.     

Sparked debates of censorship have occurred through these statues. How much can one country dictate to another what is an acceptable memorial artwork when it has been placed on private property.

Japan has protested the installation of the statue in front of its embassy in the South Korean capital, saying it goes against the spirit of a 2015 bilateral accord on the comfort women issue and has demanded its removal. Korean comfort women are not satisfied with Japan’s apology; they demand an apology reflecting on the institutionalised government crimes that were done in the past as well as a reeducation of an unfabricated history. They believed that Tokyo greatly under signified their militarist past as well as waiting until the surviving comfort women have all passed.

Korean’s have also wondered why creating a piece that commemorates the comfort women in their own country have anything to do with Japan currently. It was originally supposed to be a memorial stone that has developed into this sculpture as a protest against censorship.

The statue of peace statues have been erected in Berlin as well as Japan. In Berlin it was erected then removed then reerected again due to protests. Germany was an ally to Japan during WW2 however as we know Germany is a model example of a country that has reflected, learnt from its past wrongdoings and actively sought to fix the issues that are present. In Japan however Japan’s Aichi Triennale censored its own exhibition about censorship. Over 700 complaints were filed on the first day as well as public threats and blackmail if the exhibition continued on.  

Even in Australia we have a statue of peace in the Ashfield uniting church. Which has caused much controversy and conflict from the Japanese community. It was proposed to be erected in Strathfield park in 2014 however it was met with a petition against it with more than 10, 000 signatures in a campaign led by the Japanese Women for Justice and Peace. As well as the lodgement of an official complaint under section 18C of the federal Racial Discrimnation Act against the memorial. Rev Bill Crews volunteered to have the statue at his church after hearing that the proposal to erect the statue in strathfield in 2014 was declined.

“It grew beyond Korea versus Japan, it grew to the point for me the way, How men treat women. That became the issue for me.” This is symbolic of that” Rev Bill crews said.

The Statue of Peace seems to have ironically not been a peaceful artwork at all when reviewing all the articles and public’s reactions. This artwork could be interpreted in so many nuanced ways that individuals deeply connect to. The end of violence against women, anti-war, feminist messages, a nationalist icon, consent, freedom of expression, child pornography, censorship etc the list goes on.

Reference List

https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2020/10/cb6dfd7e505c-berlin-allows-comfort-women-statue-to-remain-for-time-being.html

https://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/14/world/japan-admits-army-forced-koreans-to-work-in-brothels.html?scp=1&sq=Jan%2014,%201992%20comfort%20woment&st=cse

https://edition.cnn.com/2017/02/05/asia/south-korea-comfort-women-statue/index.html

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/07/28/national/statues-comfort-woman-man-said-resemble-japans-abe-stir-debate-south-korea/

There is a diagram with the cnn article that analyses the statue for the viewers*

https://iwspace.de/2020/10/for-peace-against-sexualized-violence-the-statue-of-peace-in-berlin/

https://news.artnet.com/art-world/censorship-aichi-triennale-2019-1617214

https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/wwii-peace-statue-in-canterburybankstown-divides-community-groups-20160801-gqi99s.html


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