Com­fort Women Want­ed: a video instal­la­tion and art exhi­bi­tion by Chang-Jin Lee

Review and com­men­tary by Dou­glas Harp­er, Depart­ment of Soci­ol­o­gy, Duquesne Uni­ver­si­ty, Pittsburgh

WANTED: COMFORT WOMEN” is a video instal­la­tion and art exhi­bi­tion by Chang-Jin Lee at the Wood Street Gal­leries (Wood​Street​Gal​leries​.org) in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia, on dis­play from Novem­ber 1 to Decem­ber 1, 2013. The project includes a blog that con­tains short­ened ver­sions of most of the inter­view mate­r­i­al includ­ed in the exhi­bi­tion and addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion on the research behind the project.

(Fig­ure 1. All pho­tos by Dou­glas Harper)

His­tor­i­cal Context

The exhi­bi­tion presents images and voic­es of women who were held against their will to pro­vide sex for Japan­ese offi­cers and sol­diers before and dur­ing WWII. The sys­tem of sex­u­al slav­ery was intro­duced after the Japan­ese inva­sion of Chi­na in the late 1930s, and then recre­at­ed in regions Japan invad­ed as WWII evolved.

While the sys­tem part­ly relied on pri­vate con­trac­tors to trick and kid­nap vic­tims, it was designed and imple­ment­ed by the gov­ern­ment and the mil­i­tary. The title of the exhi­bi­tion, “Com­fort Women Want­ed,” refers to adver­tise­ments for vol­un­teer pros­ti­tutes that appeared in news­pa­pers dur­ing the war, which includ­ed images that have been trans­formed into artis­tic state­ments in the exhibition.

The basis of the sys­tem was coer­cion or decep­tion. For exam­ple, in the case of Dutch women in Indone­sia, a for­mer Dutch colony invad­ed by the Japan­ese, women who were interned in camps were select­ed by Japan­ese mil­i­tary offi­cials and moved direct­ly to broth­els where they were enslaved as pros­ti­tutes for the dura­tion of the war.

Most of those enslaved came from Korea, a coun­try long oppressed by the Japan­ese, and they were first shipped to Chi­na in the late 1930s to serve as invol­un­tary pros­ti­tutes for Japan­ese sol­diers and offi­cers. While there are no defin­i­tive records, the com­mon assump­tion is that more than 200,000 women were forced into sex­u­al slav­ery and that as many as three quar­ters of these per­ished. Women from des­ti­tute vil­lages were told they were sign­ing up to become nurse helpers, or to work in fac­to­ries. Oth­ers were promised pay­ment for ill-defined tasks that would unbur­den their fam­i­lies from debt. Many were sim­ply cap­tured from the ter­ri­to­ries Japan invad­ed and pressed into sex­u­al labor.

The com­fort woman phe­nom­e­na was the described after WWII in reports com­piled by the US Army; by a US mis­sion­ary who observed it first­hand, by reports com­piled by the Dutch gov­ern­ment, and by inter­nal doc­u­ments of the Japan­ese mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ment. How­ev­er, it was large­ly over­looked in Japan for sev­er­al decades, as the sur­vivors of the sys­tem most­ly lan­guished in shame, blamed as vic­tims for their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pro­gram. How­ev­er, in the ear­ly 1990s the com­fort women phe­nom­e­non came to light due to inde­pen­dent research by schol­ars in Japan, Korea and Chi­na. For exam­ple, a 2002 book by Yuki Tana­ka includ­ed the tes­ti­monies of more than four hun­dred women who had been invol­un­tary participants.

In light of these rev­e­la­tions, in the ear­ly 1990s then Japan­ese Chief Cab­i­net Sec­re­tary Kono Yohei acknowl­edged the com­fort woman pro­gram. Speak­ing for all of Japan he offered an offi­cial apol­o­gy, and cash pay­ments were paid to the few hun­dred sur­vivors who came forth. Sub­se­quent Japan­ese gov­ern­ments, how­ev­er, pulled back from Yohei’s direct acknowl­edge­ment and have vac­il­lat­ed in their accep­tance of blame. Cur­rent­ly, Japan­ese text­books either do not men­tion the exis­tence of the com­fort women sys­tem, or min­i­mize it, and as such Lee’s work is an anti­dote to the grow­ing creep of offi­cial denial.

It is this con­text that the exhi­bi­tion appears. The artist, Chang-Jin Lee, inter­viewed a large num­ber of the few remain­ing com­fort woman sur­vivors, and orga­nized their words and images into an artis­tic pre­sen­ta­tion. One Japan­ese sol­dier is also pre­sent­ed in a video and image. Many of these women first spoke out in the ear­ly 1990s, but were inter­viewed by the artist in the imme­di­ate past. They are now in their late 80s or 90s and their age reminds us that in very few years all direct evi­dence of this past will be gone. Thus the exhi­bi­tion seems more an ele­gy than a cat­a­logue; an invi­ta­tion to expe­ri­ence the sen­ti­ments of peo­ple who speak as poets rather than vic­tims and perpetrators.

The orga­ni­za­tion of the exhibition

One enters the exhi­bi­tion though a rec­tan­gu­lar room in which, at one end there are sev­er­al artis­tic posters drawn from the adver­tise­ments for com­fort women placed into the news­pa­pers of the time, re-inter­pret­ed by the artist.

In her blog, the artist describes these images as: “…based on his­tor­i­cal pho­tos of the Tai­wanese, Kore­an, Chi­nese, Fil­ipino, and Dutch women sur­vivors when they were young, … jux­ta­posed with con­tem­po­rary sil­hou­ettes of the now aged com­fort women, in their cur­rent homes. One icon­ic image is of a Tai­wanese "com­fort woman" tak­en by a Japan­ese sol­dier dur­ing her enslave­ment. The images of the young women are sur­round­ed by gold leaf, sug­gest­ing the halo of a saint from Renais­sance paint­ing, and hon­or­ing their courage in speak­ing out. Images of the elder­ly com­fort women, by con­trast, are emp­ty sil­hou­ettes, and are intend­ed to evoke a sense of loss.” The images, remade by the artist, are com­pelling and beautiful.

In the adjoin­ing room are three video pro­jec­tions. Two project images that reach from the floor to the ceil­ing and the third offers a video image of about two feet square. The two dom­i­nant visu­al voic­es (on fac­ing walls) are con­tin­u­ing loops of inter­view excerpts. One is ded­i­cat­ed to the words and image of a Japan­ese sol­dier, and the sec­ond presents the words and images of six women who were sex­u­al slaves. The small video loop on a per­pen­dic­u­lar wall offers a mon­tage of com­fort hous­es and oth­er places where the sex­u­al slav­ery was enact­ed. There are bench­es in front of each of the large screens, invit­ing par­tic­i­pants to engage the inter­views in depth.

Fig­ure 2

There is a brief intro­duc­tion on one wall that describes the videos. There is no fur­ther elab­o­ra­tion; the view­er must immerse her or him­self in the videos to expe­ri­ence the art and embrace the history.

The con­tent of the exhi­bi­tion: appear­ances and words

The pri­ma­ry video loop, which is about an hour in length, con­sists of six inter­views with com­fort women sur­vivors. Their main theme is resis­tance and resilience, although each inter­view has a dif­fer­ent focus and purpose.

The women speak in their native lan­guages (with the Dutch woman speak­ing Eng­lish) as trans­la­tions scroll across the top of the screen. The women are visu­al­ly rep­re­sent­ed in cropped por­traits (See Fig­ures 3, 4 and 5). We see enough of the faces to grasp at the emo­tions of the speak­ers, but we do not see their full faces. Some are vivid­ly in focus and one is so far out of focus as to appear as a dream-figure.

Fig­ure 3

Fig­ure 4

Fig­ure 5

Each inter­view begins with a favorite tra­di­tion­al folk song sung by the com­fort woman sur­vivor, and black and white images that refer to their cur­rent lives.

Fig­ure 6

Then the image becomes a por­trait, and each sub­ject speaks. The male sol­dier is intro­duced with refrains from a mil­i­taris­tic pro­pa­gan­da song pop­u­lar dur­ing the war, so that when one sits on the bench in front of the women’s inter­views, there is a dis­con­cert­ing­ly jar­ring sound track each time the soldier’s video recy­cles.  The soldier’s face is also cropped dif­fer­ent­ly. While we see either the right or the left side of each woman’s face; for the sol­dier we see a fore­head wrin­kled in con­ster­na­tion and both of his eyes.

Each voice has a dif­fer­ent tone and feel­ing, and a dif­fer­ent role in the col­lec­tive narrative.

Young­soo Lee, a Kore­an com­fort woman sur­vivor: I hope to be reborn as a woman sol­dier. To pro­tect our coun­try, Korea. I would want to be a woman sol­dier, to become a woman gen­er­al, if I am ever born again… She speaks to her image in the mir­ror: If I cry, it cries … Love your ene­my and one day they will repent …it is real­ly bad to put your­self down…*

Han Ruff Oherne, the only Euro­pean com­fort woman sur­vivor rep­re­sent­ed, spent her child­hood in a Dutch colo­nial fam­i­ly in Indone­sia.  When the Japan­ese invad­ed Indone­sia, women and chil­dren were impris­oned in intern­ment camps, with as many as 3,000 pris­on­ers crammed into bar­racks that had been designed for 200 sol­diers. At age 21 she was tak­en from the camp to become a sex slave. She tells her story:

The Japan­ese would inspect, and to take our jew­el­ry and mon­ey. One day they inspect­ed and it was dif­fer­ent … they walked up and down … and some girls were sent back to the line, sev­er­al times, until they were 10 girls who were their choice, I was on of them. These ten girls were tak­en to the front office where there were Japan­ese guards and a truck wait­ing for us, to take us away. We were scream­ing and cry­ing. It was just absolute­ly terrible. 

The first night we didn’t know what we were there for. We thought that per­haps we would work there. We were so scared … The next night we real­ized we were in a broth­el, for the sex­u­al plea­sure of the Japan­ese offi­cers. … We were all very innocent. 

One by one the girls were tak­en hud­dled togeth­er. I said to the girls let’s pray togeth­er. I had my lit­tle Bible. Until one by one we were taken…

You could hear the girl scream­ing try­ing to fight off this Japan­ese officer. 

When it was my turn I tried to hide under the table; it was just deranged. I was so inno­cent. I fought him with all my might. I fought with all my might. He took out his Samu­rai sward; he threat­ened me, ‘if you don’t give your­self to me I’m going to kill you.’

You can kill me,’ I said, ‘I’m not going to give myself to you. He grabbed me, threw me on the bed, and just raped me.

I thought it would nev­er stop. 

I felt so dirty to soiled, all I want­ed to do was go to the bath­room and wash it all off. We all want­ed to wash all the same off, wash the dirt off our body. But of course we were dragged back and it and it start­ed again. To think that this is going to hap­pen every night. I can nev­er describe the fear every day when it starts to get dark. Fear, all over your body. All over your body. There is noth­ing you can do about it.

No Japan­ese raped me with­out me giv­ing a fight. 

I don’t know how I survived.

Emah Kas­timah, a native Indone­sian, was 17 when she was kid­napped from a mar­ket. Her par­ents tried to save her, and died and dis­ap­peared before she ever saw them again.  I don’t even know where they died.

Then she was held at a camp, exam­ined by a doc­tor, when, she says: Japan­ese sol­diers came to rape us. The sol­diers came in one by one. This was not work, this was an assault. It hurt me inside. Some of them beat me. It hurt my heart. I hat­ed being treat­ed like that. Bet­ter they kill me…

The women’s sto­ries tell of abduc­tion, deceit, out­right kid­nap­ping, and phys­i­cal tor­ture aside from the scenes of sex­u­al vio­lence, only end­ing with the final defeat of the Japan­ese. But they also tell of redemp­tion gained. Tales of pain and suf­fer­ing appear in lit­er­al tran­scrip­tion and also in metaphor and alle­go­ry. The strongest mes­sage is resis­tance and sur­vival. There is no hatred expressed by the women, aside from frank hor­ror of the his­to­ry they endured.

One sur­vivor ends her inter­view: That was a mar­velous moment, when we spoke out. Unless you speak out these things will hap­pen again.

Fig­ure 7

On the wall fac­ing the women the lone Japan­ese sol­dier, Yasu­ji Kaneko, speaks:

We got on a ship, went to Chi­na. … Then we were taught how to shoot; we were taught how to kill peo­ple. Four months lat­er we became sol­diers, somehow. 

It was very hard to kill peo­ple. We thought we were being faith­ful to our coun­try, so we went to war. We went to Chi­na and we expe­ri­enced life or death sit­u­a­tions. In Chi­na we killed peo­ple, set hous­es on fire and stole things.

Espe­cial­ly because women can bear chil­dren we had to kill women. It was an order. Kill chil­dren too because they would be against Japan when they grew up. 

Regard­ing the com­fort women, he says:

All we know about com­fort women was that we just paid mon­ey and we have 20 min­utes. We had sex and that was it. 

It must have been very phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing. We had no idea about that. We just paid mon­ey for sex. So many sol­diers were waiting. 

Sor­ry about this. And a man came in, stood in front of one of them, and we just had sex. One after anoth­er came. Women just kept sit­ting like this, sleep­ing or smok­ing. Men insert­ed their penis into them, had sex quick­ly, and that was all. So, it took only 10 or 15 min­utes. It was fast. No hug, no kiss. We had no time. Do you understand? 

Com­fort women had to have sex with 50 or even 100 sol­diers a day. And, if they wiped their pri­vates with paper sheets every sin­gle time the parts would they would get swollen. So they nev­er did that. Their bod­ies would break down, fall apart. This is the sad­ness of being a com­fort women. 

Women suf­fer from war much more. 

It is very impor­tant to learn about com­fort women. 

We should nev­er have a war like that again. 

Younger peo­ple should nev­er do the same things we did.

I am already 88 years old. I’m just watch­ing for death. I hope that peo­ple will not do what we did.

Art as sociology

The com­fort woman pro­gram was designed and imple­ment­ed by the gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary to smooth the func­tion­ing of a mass army. Records are scarce but it appears that tens of thou­sands of the women died as a result. Research sug­gests that most of the sur­vivors did their best to erase the expe­ri­ence from their post war lives, because of the shame asso­ci­at­ed with their vic­tim­hood. The hand­ful of hero­ic sur­vivors giv­en voice by Chang-Jin Lee are the excep­tion; a beam of light from a long buried terror.

Yet her pur­pose is not to demo­nize Japan. In her gallery talk,  she said: “Please do not use this work to hate the Japan­ese; just like we should not use the Holo­caust to hate the Ger­mans; or use slav­ery as an excuse to hate white Amer­i­can cul­ture.” Rather she describes her hope that her work will bring atten­tion to human traf­fick­ing, “the sec­ond largest crim­i­nal indus­try in the world.”

Fig­ure 8

In her words, the women were an inspi­ra­tion that she hopes to share with audi­ences in sev­er­al coun­tries, includ­ing sev­er­al in the Asian coun­tries where the com­fort woman slav­ery oper­at­ed. Her hope is also to off­set efforts in Japan to min­i­mize or deny what was a state spon­sored pro­gram of ter­ror, and to make us vig­i­lant to ongo­ing forms of the same terror.

As an art project the exhi­bi­tion suc­ceeds admirably. Just as the women often speak in min­i­mal­ist metaphors to describe what is near­ly unspeak­able, the show is under­stat­ed and requires the active par­tic­i­pa­tion of the audi­ence. One must watch the videos, which loop con­tin­u­al­ly, to begin to under­stand. How­ev­er, the under­stand­ing is very deep, based as it on empa­thy achieved.

I would have wel­comed a pan­el that explained the com­fort woman his­to­ry in more depth, per­haps sim­i­lar to the pan­els of infor­ma­tion and images hung at the “Topog­ra­phy of Ter­ror” muse­um in Berlin, on the site of the for­mer SS, Gestapo and Nazi head­quar­ters. But Chang-Jin Lee is not a soci­ol­o­gist nor an his­to­ri­an; rather an artist in the ser­vice of soci­ol­o­gy and his­to­ry, and her choic­es reflect her train­ing, skills and ori­en­ta­tion. The exhi­bi­tion cre­ates empa­thy, rather than a demog­ra­phy of terror.

We can be thank­ful for her efforts. Voic­es that would oth­er­wise have dis­ap­peared are pre­served; a con­test­ed his­to­ry is chal­lenged and cor­rect­ed. By lim­it­ing her words and images each ele­ment is vivid­ly etched in the con­scious­ness of the view­er. Her under­state­ment triumphs.

*The words of those inter­viewed includ­ed in this review were typed out while watch­ing the videos. They are seg­ments select­ed from the longer interviews.

Dou­glas Harp­er is pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Duquesne Uni­ver­si­ty in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia (USA), where he teach­es visu­al soci­ol­o­gy, qual­i­ta­tive meth­ods, social the­o­ry and glob­al stud­ies. He is the found­ing edi­tor of the jour­nal Visu­al Stud­ies and was one of the founders of the Inter­na­tion­al Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy Asso­ci­a­tion, of which he is now Pres­i­dent. He has writ­ten sev­en books. His recent ethnog­ra­phy, The Ital­ian Way, was coau­thored by Ital­ian soci­ol­o­gist, Patrizia Fac­ci­oli, and his book Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Land­scapes and Jour­neys, was co-authored by British soci­ol­o­gist Car­o­line Knowles. His 2012 pub­li­ca­tion: Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy, is the first com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of visu­al soci­ol­o­gy and his first book, Good Com­pa­ny: A Tramp Life, has been pub­lished in trans­la­tion in France and Italy. His vol­ume Chang­ing Works: Visions of a Lost Agri­cul­ture, won the North Cen­tral Soci­ol­o­gy Association’s Schol­ar­ly Achieve­ment Award and the Col­lier Award from the Visu­al Anthro­pol­o­gy Association.