Frame and shame

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am


When New York-based visual artist Lee Chang-jin read an article in The New York Times about 'comfort stations' - organised rape camps set up by the Japanese military in Asia during the second world war - some years ago, she was surprised she had not heard about them before. The article led her to three years of field research in Asia and a multimedia artwork designed to document the stories of the victims and bring the comfort stations to public attention.

Then in 2007, US congressman Mike Honda introduced Resolution 121 in the House of Representatives. 'That resolution asked the Japanese government to apologise to former comfort women, which is something it has never done,' says Lee.

In her testimony to the House, one former comfort woman said Japanese soldiers had raped her 50 times a day. 'I was shocked,' says the Korean-born Lee. 'I wondered how anyone could survive that. I decided that the stories of these women, who are now getting old, should be documented while there was still time.'

During the second world war, Japanese soldiers were dying of sexually transmitted diseases caught from Japanese prostitutes who followed them as they invaded Asia. So the Japanese military set up official rape camps in occupied territories. They kidnapped and imprisoned young girls and forced them to have sex with Japanese soldiers. As many as 200,000 young women, some as young as 12, were abducted and raped on a daily basis.

The comfort stations were rarely mentioned after the war, although evidence found in 2007 revealed that some documents about the atrocity were made public at the Tokyo war crimes trials in 1946. Most of the women were too ashamed to speak themselves, particularly as prevailing cultural attitudes in Asia often held women responsible for sexual abuse. The issue was buried until 1992, when a group of comfort women decided to speak out in South Korea. There has been a demonstration outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday since 1992, demanding an official admission to the sex crimes and an apology to the victims.

Comfort women in China, Indonesia and the Philippines also began to speak out. Testimonials written by survivors appeared. Museums such as South Korea's Museum of The Japanese Army's Sexual Slavery were founded to document the women's suffering. But to this day, the Japanese government still refuses to admit to the existence of the rape camps, or apologise to the victims for their treatment.

Lee travelled throughout Asia between 2008 and 2011 interviewing and sometimes videoing former comfort women for her project. 'Most of these women were from very poor backgrounds. The Japanese kidnapped poor women on the lowest rungs of society. They called it the 'virgin draft' in Korea. People didn't know what was going on. Young girls were disappearing. There were a lot of cases when a Japanese truck came to a small town and grabbed 10 to 20 young girls. No one knew what happened to these girls. It was human trafficking on a mass scale. In other cases, girls were tricked into thinking that they were being taken to jobs in China.'

The artwork that resulted from the project has now arrived in Hong Kong, after being shown in New York, Cleveland and Incheon in South Korea. It features video interviews with former comfort women, as well as a video of a surviving comfort station. Lee also interviewed a Japanese soldier about the army's war crimes.

The most striking element of the artwork is a poster of a young girl which displays the text 'comfort women wanted', the title of the exhibition. These posters are based on real ones made by the Japanese.

'At the start, they actually advertised for girls,' Lee says. 'But, of course, no one wanted to be a prostitute for Japanese soldiers. So they started to abduct women instead.

'I made billboards to reflect the posters for the exhibitions in South Korea and Cleveland. The picture I used on the billboard is one of a young comfort woman. The photograph was taken by a Japanese soldier at a comfort station.'

The Japanese tried to keep the camps secret from the rest of the world during the war, Lee says. They were already embarrassed by the Rape of Nanking where, Lee says, the Japanese army had raped at least 20,000 women and children.

'That is why they chose women from poor families. Most of these women could not even write their names. They ... didn't have a voice. The Japanese picked girls ... no one would listen to,' Lee says.

'All the women's stories are similar. They took a lot of girls who were 12 or 13 years old. They wanted virgins and young girls who were disease-free.

'In one case, the Japanese announced that they were giving out free candy at a train station. A bunch of girls went for the candy and got kidnapped by the army. They were just children. It was a systematic procedure that was well planned by the Japanese army.'

Lee says she immersed herself in the project because it deals with an important issue: the survivors are old and they are dying and it is important that they tell their story.

She also discovered a little-known fact: European women were also forced to become comfort women by the Japanese: 'When the Japanese took over Indonesia, Dutch colonial women were put in the comfort stations.'

Lee says that after the war, the victorious powers did nothing to bring Japan's sex crimes into the open. 'Everyone thought that the best thing that could happen for these women was to hide the fact that this had occurred. Prevailing sexual attitudes back then meant that the fact that these women had managed to survive was nothing to be proud of.

'For instance, in Korea, chastity was prized. Women used to carry a small knife. The idea was not to use it on a rapist but to kill yourself if you were raped.'

Lee's project was another avenue for the women to make their stories known, she says. 'They had kept silent for 50 years. They just want to tell what happened. They want justice and they want an apology from the Japanese government. It's not about monetary compensation. Many of them are so old they are not concerned about that, and some Koreans have been given money by the Korean government. They just want the Japanese government to acknowledge what happened so that they can die with dignity.'

Spending four years immersed in such a topic took an emotional toll on Lee. She says the stories she heard were often so upsetting that she cried. But she drew strength from the women themselves. Most had rebuilt their lives after the ordeal. 'I thought that if they had the strength to move on with their lives after what happened to them, I should be strong enough to overcome my depression.'

Comfort Women Wanted, 1aSpace, Unit 14, Cattle Depot Artist Village, 63 Ma Tau Kok Rd, To Kwa Wan, Kowloon. Tue-Sun, 11am-7pm. Inquiries: 2529 0087. Ends May 31