To this day, religious and some Korean political leaders have withheld their support for comfort women, choosing not to take a stance on this issue. Although disappointed, I remain resolute in our mission. Now it has fallen upon me and our organization to outline the direction that the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues should take.
The issue of “comfort women” has been the epicenter of heated debates for the past two decades. These women were coerced by the Japanese imperial military into sexual slavery during World War II. During his last visit to the United States, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe produced an official statement that clearly fell short of a sincere apology, disappointing both the victims and their supporters.
Of course, it is hard to avoid the issue’s political ramifications, but we should remain cognizant of and keep fresh the horrific atrocities that these women, most of them barely into their teens, endured. If this were not enough, the silence and inaction of the Japanese government have only added to their suffering.
There are several dimensions that add depth to this issue: the human rights grass-roots movement, the feminist perspective, anti-war sentiment, healing rituals, artistic expressions, educational possibilities and many more.
In spite of these many approaches, the comfort women issue has generally been viewed through a pinhole, creating a moral dichotomy, an all-or-nothing, black-or-white outlook. The impression that it is only a Korean-Japanese issue has prevented the movement from achieving global attention. Despite its worldwide implications, having the two countries at the root has kept others from seeing the larger picture.
Although the experiences of the comfort women led to some of the most appalling wartime atrocities, the inaction of world powers and the general ambivalence regarding these human rights violations are baffling and unacceptable. Such is the frustration of the supporters of the movement. Although we have protested and continue to protest the Japanese government’s wartime injustices, our demands for an official apology and reparations have been met with silence. Despite passage in 2007 of House Resolution 121, sponsored by Rep. Mike Honda, there has not been much progress in shifting the mindset of the Japanese government.
As Japan continues to sidestep the issue, the fight for justice has slowly become one of attrition. One by one, the victims are passing away, and soon none will be left to tell the tale. Yet those of us in this fight refuse to keep silent, not allowing the Japanese government to sweep the matter under the rug. The Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues will make sure that these women occupy a prominent place in the annals of history. What are we doing to make this happen?
I first encountered the issue back in 2009. At the time, while I was organizing art exhibitions and seminars, I saw that this could be used as a powerful tool to highlight the matter. I also learned that a traveling exhibition in Japan depicting artwork created by the surviving comfort women had moved many Japanese. Letters poured in from them, apologizing on behalf of their government. Japanese children wrote letters to the sufferers, which were later compiled into a book, creating one strand between Korea and Japan. Even these small gestures have contributed to the healing that these women desperately need.
This summer, I attended a concert dedicated to comfort women where three distinguished Japanese musicians performed. It was another gesture toward healing. Before that, I watched the musical “Comfort Women” at an off-Broadway theater in New York. These events have unlocked the gates of artistic expression, and more continue to pour in. Last year, we celebrated the publication of a book about comfort women, “Daughters of the Dragon” by William Andrews. And this summer I saw the “Last Tear,” a documentary film on this issue directed by Christopher Lee. The Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues was active in promoting all these events.
I was even asked to teach a graduate course on comfort women as part of a curriculum on feminist narratives and women’s rights. While this course couldn’t be organized, the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues has launched a Web seminar for people around the world who want to learn more about this unfortunate time. Among other things, the students research and archive the stories of victims and connect their experiences to atrocities committed against women today. These include women trafficked by the Islamic State group and children kidnapped and used as sex slaves. We will even turn our sights inward, to our own borders, and link this issue to sex trafficking in the United States.
The Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues will take a leading role in teaching others and working toward a just and equitable resolution to this problem. Each little gesture, each letter written, each song sung, and each book written in honor of these victims is like a drop of water. As more drops come together, they create ponds, which grow into lakes, which grow into roaring oceans. Our movement will become like the waves of a tsunami — unstoppable.
The rainwaters are calm yet rapid, incessant in their descent. These waters will one day cut through mountains. We at the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues continue to urge President Obama and Congress to pressure the Japanese government to issue a long-overdue apology to these women, who have suffered enough. We also welcome support from anybody who would like to help us in this pursuit, especially by expressions in artistic or academic forms.
• Jungsil Lee is an art historian and professor and director at the Washington University of Virginia. She is also president of Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues (Comfort-Women.org).