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 ( 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.