15 January 2017

Seoul Searching

by Leigh Lundin

Comfort Women
© Japan Daily Press

A simple sculpture of a small, Asian woman is causing a big uproar.

I’m not a believer that blame and shame should be a life sentence, nor that the sins of the fathers must be visited upon anyone else. On a global level, I commend governments that have apologized for war crimes or, in the case of our own country, wrongful imprisonment of our own citizens because of ethnicity.

While humans are capable of horrid barbarity, they’re also capable of great forgiveness. Even so, atrocity denial is making a resurgence.

Comfort Women

Asia had its own version of the holocaust. Leading up to and throughout the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, the Japanese Army institutionalized slavery of men and women. The scale was so huge, it’s easy to be blinded by the sheer volume of statistics. But the sexual enslavement of perhaps 200 000 young women from Korea, Philippines, and China bring matters into a more personal focus. The term ‘comfort women’ became a euphemism for what Japan considered captives turned into state-owned prostitutes.

Japanese are good at many things, but national responsibility is a tough hurdle for them. Deniers argue
  • it never happened… but if it did,
  • ‘only 10 000’ women took part,
  • they willingly ‘volunteered’,
  • they must have been, uh, ‘prostitutes’,
  • they queued up to offer themselves,
  • they could freely choose which soldiers,
  • it was ‘necessary to maintain discipline,’
  • it's racist and divisive to discuss it,
  • they're all ‘lying’,
  • and really, it didn’t happen at all.
The few comfort women still living are affectionately called ‘grandmothers’ in both Korea and the Philippines, and are highly regarded. In the 1990s, South Korean and Japanese governments agreed to let bygones be bygones. A former prime minister apologized and Japan even paid compensation, but the attitude of Japan’s mass denial offends Koreans, Filipinos, and the Chinese as well.

Ordinary citizens groups did something about it. Activists placed a statue memorializing the comfort women in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, mirroring similar sculptures in forty other South Korean cities including Seoul. Japan withdrew its ambassador in protest.

The sculptures have appeared in other parts of the world including the US. The first here was erected in Palisades Park, New Jersey, and the second in San Francisco, Osaka’s sister city. Japanese denial organizations unsuccessfully sued to prevent one going up in Glendale, California and at present, a Change.org petition is circulating to remove the one in San Francisco. It insists there’s no documentation or evidence of forced sexual slavery.

Deniers had more success in Australia. A Sydney suburb banned a park statue, but a Uniting Church of Australia volunteered to host the comfort woman memorial.

Unintended Consequences

Apparently Japan has never heard of the Streisand Effect, the phenomenon where attempts to hide or censor information result in further widening distribution of that information. And now you know.

Nobody hates the Japanese– I’m pretty sure South Korea doesn’t– but glossing over a wartime atrocity rankles the public. If I might be so bold as to advise Japan, even if you can’t admit it, stop denying it. Then some day the misdeeds might become a sad footnote in history.

What is your take?


  1. A clear case of the power of art. Not only the pen but the sculpture is mighty.

  2. Thanks for bringing this to our attention and rattling my memory about this. Art is a good response because politicians are basically cowards. Statues and stories, books, movies. I'll share this on my social networks. We must persist in reminding everone about the atrocities of war. Again and again.

  3. Janice, I like that the sculpture is so understated, its very innocence lending the power and drama to the message.

    Thanks, O’Neil. That was my hope, too. We have our share of deaf-and-blind citizens and politicians, but such reminders may help people remember the horrors that must not be forgotten.

  4. It's possible nobody hates the Japanese now, but some ppl sure used to. My cousin, who is now deceased, married a Japanese woman in the early 1940s & they had three children. A side note about the cousin ... his first name was Ralph, but for some reason everyone called him Google. He was such a bigot that he later became membership secretary of the local KKK in rural Maryland.

    Anyway! Back to the 1940s, the Japanese wife went into a clothing store owned by some other relatives, wanting to buy a gift for Google. They wouldn't take her money & said they wouldn't allow Japanese people in their store.

  5. Thanks for this post, Leigh. I'd known about the "comfort women" but not about the statues. I think they're a quiet but eloquent way of reminding us about a sad truth that's been denied too often.

  6. Elizabeth, you cousin sounds like a character. How unusual he'd be a principal in the KKK and yet marry a foreigner. My little Indiana hometown welcomed home a GI who announced he was engaged to a young woman back in Japan. His socialite mother had a fit, but was pleased when he announced he'd broken off the engagement. She lost some of her enthusiasm when he instead became engaged to the Japanese woman who'd been translating their love letters.

    Bonnie, isn't that the truth. Thank you.

  7. Google was a person who could build, or fix, anything at all. No joke, he built a car for my sister from the front end of one Peugeot 403 & the back of another! He married the Japanese woman & after they were divorced he married a Peruvian woman. His mother despised both of the foreign women he married, kind of like the socialite woman in your home town.

  8. "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

    Sobering column. Clever title. Powerful monument.

  9. I love the sculptures. Japan has been in denial about almost everything it did in Asia since the get go. Check out "Who Was Responsible?" from the Yomiuri Shimbun Japan (a major Japanese newspaper) on Japan in WW2. Apparently, Japan "went into" Korea and China to stop Western aggression and preserve Buddhist purity... Purest of motives; the war was inevitable, and none of the atrocities (from comfort women to the rape of Nanking to Manchukuo's Unit 731) ever happened. It's a large steaming pile of bull and it was published in 2006.

  10. Leigh, your list of Japan's explanations/excuses reminds me of the old joke about the woman who was accused of borrowing her neighbors pot and bringing it back damaged: "First, I brought it back in perfect condition, second, it was dented when I got it, and third, I never borrowed it in the first place!"


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