Japanese and Koreans Stand Up

Joseph Essertier

“Japanese and Koreans Stand Up for Freedom of Expression, Peace, Memorialization of the ‘Comfort Woman’ Atrocity, and Women’s Rights in Nagoya, Japan”

The following is my summary of the situation now concerning the cancelation of the exhibit entitled “The Lack-of-Freedom-of-Expression Exhibit: Part II,” which was open for viewing for three days at the Aichi Triennale in Nagoya, Japan, until ultranationalists succeeded in having it closed (https://www.nagoya-info.jp/en/news/2019/08/aichi_triennale_2019.html ). The title of the Exhibit in Japanese is Hyōgen no jiyū: sono go, so I think the dominant translation “After ‘Freedom of Expression” is overly simplified. Sono go or “after that” indicates that the Organizing Committee intended to “follow up on” and “not forget” exhibits that have been censored previously. 

In any case, this exhibit was like a second chance for people in Japan to see these works. One of the works included in that collection was the “Girl of Peace Statue,” which is also referred to as the “Statue of Peace” (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/08/03/national/protests-may-see-comfort-women-statue-removed-japanese-art-event-aichi/#.XVPqbi2B2qA ). It was removed from an exhibition in Tokyo in 2015 after only three days (coincidentally). This was the one that offended ultranationalist sensibilities the most.

I have written the following report in a question and answer format. The first few questions are easy to answer, but the last one is much harder and thus my answer is much longer.

Q:  Who canceled the Exhibit and why? 

A: The Governor of Aichi Hideaki OMURA canceled it, after he heavily criticized Takashi KAWAMURA, the Mayor of Nagoya. Mayor Kawamura is one of Japan’s leading atrocity denialists and the politician who poured the most fuel on the flames of nationalistic anger over the Exhibit. One of those claims was that it “tramples on Japanese people’s feelings.” He said that his office would “conduct an investigation as fast as we can to explain to people how the work came to be exhibited” (https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/aichi-triennale-artists-wade-into-censorship-row ). In fact, the Exhibit might only trample on the feelings of those Japanese who deny history. Judging by the long lines and the request to visitors to stay for only 20 minutes, many Japanese welcomed the exhibit. It did not trample on their feelings obviously. 

Some in Nagoya are also saying that Artistic Director Daisuke TSUDA rolled over too quickly, but he and the Aichi Prefectural Government in turn were intimidated by the central government in Tokyo, who essentially warned them that their funding from the central government could be cut. It would be as if the Smithsonian had an exhibit about the hibakusha (A-bomb victims) alongside their Enola Gay, glorification-of-indiscriminate-violence exhibit, but when the federal government found out, they told Smithsonian that their funding could be cut the next year if they went through with this plan to shine a light on the sadism of Our Government. (Such a thing has never happened and may not happen in the near future, as our society continues to be in denial about US atrocities).

Q:  Has anyone been arrested?  

A: Yes, but contrary to the news reports, there are rumors among protestors that the police have not actually apprehended the one who threatened arson (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/08/08/national/crime-legal/man-arrested-alleged-arson-threat-aichi-museum-comfort-women-exhibit/#.XVJvmi2B2qA ). The Japan Times reports in this article that the “faxed handwritten message threatened to set fire to the museum using gasoline, according to the police, evoking the recent deadly arson attack on a Kyoto Animation Co. studio.” It is possible that this person endangering public safety is still at large. I have heard that many of the staff who fielded the phone calls threatening violence were young, inexperienced, and not well-equipped for dealing with such criminals. That is one other possible reason that these threats of violence were so effective. There was pressure on Mr. Tsuda to ensure the safety of the staff. But surely that is the job of the police. Just after about three dozen anime artists had been killed in the arson attack, wiping out a huge portion of Japan’s anime talent, one would expect that police would be on high alert for any copycat crimes. 

Q:  Why can’t the organizers of the arts festival just reinstate the Exhibit? What is to be done?  

A:  In the opinion of one of the members of the Aichi Triennale Organizing Committee (Jikkō iinkai), the best pressure would be for large numbers of artists and art critics in Japan and around the world to share their opinion, confirming for the Aichi Prefectural Government that this exhibition is made up of quality art pieces and the public has a right to see them. (A photo of three of the people on the Executive Committee for Triennale are shown in this Asahi Newspaper article  https://www.asahi.com/articles/photo/AS20190803003110.html ). A hint of that view is reflected in the words “for solidarity amongst their fellow artists” that are found on the Aichi Triennale English webpage (https://aichitriennale.jp/en/news/2019/004036.html ). This page explains the view of the Mr. Tsuda about the decision to close the Exhibit.

Of course, the demands of citizens groups in Japan and of people outside Japan could also have an effect. Dozens of joint statements and petitions have come out, demanding that the Exhibit be reinstated. As of a few days ago, the Statue and other art pieces were still in a room in the Aichi Arts Center. The Triennale will continue until October, so the “Lack-of-Freedom-of-Expression Exhibit: Part II” may yet live. All that is required to turn this around is strong public opinion.

Contrary to the reports of the mass media journalists, who immediately reported that the Exhibit had been canceled and the fight was over, various Nagoya citizens groups are struggling everyday for historical truth about the sex trafficking, continuing their long struggle that has continued for years or decades, depending on the group. These include the Network for Non-war (Fusen e no network, https://www.facebook.com/antiwarnetwork ) that started a few decades ago, the New Japan Women’s Association (Shin Nihon fujin no kai, https://www.shinfujin.gr.jp/english/ ) that started a half century ago with the feminist Hiratsuka Raicho (1886-1971) and the artist Iwasaki Chihiro (1918-1974), the Tokai Action Executive Committee 100 Years After the Annexation of Korea (Kankoku heigō 100-nen Tōkai kōdō jikkō iinkai) that obviously started in 2010, the Support Committee for Women Abused Sexually by the Former Japanese Military (Kyū Nihon gun ni yoru seiteki higai josei wo sasaeru kai), the No More Nanking Nagoya Society (Nō moa Nankin Nagoya no kai, http://h-ryouhei.jp/nomore.html ), the Committee to Examine Mayor Kawamura Takashi’s Statements about the Nanking Massacre (Kawamura Shichō ‘Nankin gyakusatsu hitei’ hatsugen wo tekkai saseru kai, http://www.kawamura-nankin.com/english/ and my article https://apjjf.org/-Asia-Pacific-Journal-Feature/4786/article.html ), and Contemporary Missions To Korea: Aichi (Gendai no chōsen tsūshin shi Aichi). Those that I have contacted have been very generous, in terms of sharing with World BEYOND War their knowledge, wisdom, and various other resources, including audio equipment, and their network of contacts among activists, journalists, scholars, etc.

The Tokai Action Executive Committee 100 Years After the Annexation of Korea has been at the forefront of street protests for peace on the Korean Peninsula and against anti-Korean hate speech, while the Aichi Chapter of the New Japan Women’s Association sponsors yearly rallies during the summer called Rallies for Mothers (Haha oya taikai). They invited me to participate in last year’s rally as well as this year’s rally. These are large-scale events with roughly one or two thousand mostly women attending. Both last year and this year, they invited a lawyer, one or two scholars, and a few activists to speak about the history of the military sex trafficking of the Empire of Japan in a room holding 50 to 100 people. I was one of those speakers. Their events involve lively discussion rather than one-sided lectures, and the vast majority of their participants are now middle-aged or elderly. Just as with other peace organizations in Japan, the New Japan Women’s Association lacks young people. They are working on a book of photos of paintings by a local Japanese artist that will serve to educate people about the history of sex trafficking by the Empire of Japan. 

This year they also organized an excellent lecture, Q & A session, and kamishibai storytelling presentation about a girl deceived and coerced into “comfort woman” sex trafficking in a colony of the Empire of Japan. (For more about kamishibai, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamishibai ). This was for junior high and high school students. Only four girls attended, but in terms of lectures in schools about the history, this was a rare opportunity. The Aichi Chapter of the New Japan Women’s Association has subgroup or an affiliate group called the Aichi Society to Advance Solutions to the Japanese Military “Comfort Woman” Problem (Aichi Nihon gun ‘ianfu’ mondai kaiketsu susumeru kai), and they also contribute to these educational events. Once a month on a Wednesday at noon they do a solidarity action with/for their sisters and brothers in Seoul who every week do what are called Wednesday Demonstrations in front of the Embassy of Japan. (For more about that, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wednesday_demonstration ).

The main national office of the New Japan Women’s Association publishes newsletters in Japanese as well as in English. The one in English is entitled “Japanese Women Today,” and No. 46 (August 2019) of that newsletter has a report entitled “Resolve the Issue of Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Military.” It starts with “There is no time to lose in resolving the issue of the Japanese military “comfort women.” And it briefly explains the tense relations between the government of South Korean and Japan at present. (The trade war that Prime Minister Shinzo ABE started with South Korea is also behind the anti-Korean hate speech and the wave of suppressions of this history of Japanese Imperial violence against women, too).

The Tokai Action Executive Committee 100 Years After the Annexation of Korea has sponsored lectures, films, and a history study tour to South Korea during the last two years. They will show the hit film from South Korea “I Can Speak” on the 25th of this month (https://actionnetwork.org/events/i-can-speak-2017-and-lecture-by-prof-nogawa-motokazu ). A lecture will be given by NOGAWA Motokazu, who is a philosopher and the author of many books and articles on Japanese ultranationalism and the controversy surrounding the history of the military sex trafficking. Some of his writings have been translated into English. Educational events such as this are held a few times a year.

Q:  Why is this incident so important?

A:  Let us start with the two sculptors who created the Girl of Peace Statue, Mr. Kim Eun-sung and Ms. Kim Seo-kyung. Kim Eun-sung expressed surprise at the reaction to the Statue in Japan. “Which part of a statue of a girl is harming Japan? It’s a statue with a message of peace and for the rights of women” (https://edition.cnn.com/2017/02/05/asia/south-korea-comfort-women-statue/index.html ). He was talking about what is called the “Statue of Peace,” or sometimes the “Girl of Peace Statue.” Forgiveness by Koreans followed by sincere apologies from Japanese, especially from the government, will set the stage for reconciliation. But is it wrong to not forget, to document the atrocity and learn from it? “Forgive but do not forget” is the feeling of many victims of sex trafficking and those who take up their cause, who aim to reduce sexual violence in the future.

Of course, Japanese are not the only people in the world who have ever committed sex trafficking, or the only ones to engage in sexual violence, or even the only ones who tried to protect the health of military men by regulating prostitution. State control of prostitution for the benefit of soldiers began in Europe during the French Revolution. (See p. 18 of Do You Know the Comfort Women of the Imperial Japanese Military? by Kong Jeong-sook, The Independence Hall of Korea, 2017). The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 allowed the “Morals Police” in the UK to force women they identified as prostitutes to submit to a “[cruel and demeaning] medical examination. If a woman was found to be free of venereal disease, she was then officially registered and issued a certificate identifying her as a clean prostitute.” (See Endnote 8 of Do You Know the Comfort Women of the Imperial Japanese Military? or p. 95 of The Prostitution of Sexuality, 1995, by Kathleen Barry; and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contagious_Diseases_Acts ).

Sex trafficking

Sex trafficking is an example of obtaining a kind of sexual satisfaction in a way that hurts other people—enjoying physical pleasure at the expense of others. It is “human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, including sexual slavery. A victim is forced, in one of a variety of ways, into a situation of dependency on their trafficker(s) and then used by said trafficker(s) to give sexual services to customers” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_trafficking ). In today’s world, in many countries, this is a crime, as it should be. And no longer is the blame laid at the feet of the prostitute or the sex-trafficked victim (at least by the well-informed), but there are more and more demands to prosecute the johns (i.e., the “customers”) who pay for sex with people who are enslaved, or who are coerced into doing this work.

The so-called “comfort women” were women who were sex-trafficked and forced “into prostitution as sexual slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army in the period immediately before and during World War II.” (See Caroline Norma’s The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars, 2016). Japan had a large domestic sex trafficking industry in the 1910s and 1920s, as did many other countries, and the practices in that industry laid the foundation for the Japanese military’s licensed-prostitution, “comfort women” system in the 1930s and 1940s, according to Caroline Norma (https://worldbeyondwar.org/hot-asian-babes-nuclear-war-east-asia/ ). Her book provides a shocking account of the dehumanizing practices of sex trafficking in general, not only of the specific type of trafficking engaged in by the government of the Empire of Japan. This is a big deal because sex trafficking was already illegal before the Empire of Japan started tapping into the industry to serve the goals of their “total war,” which became a total war largely because they were up against some of the world’s most formidable militaries, especially after 7 December 1941. 

Norma’s book also emphasizes US government complicity in the postwar silence surrounding the issue by looking into the extent to which US government officials knew about the atrocities but chose not to prosecute. Japan was occupied by the US military after the war and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (AKA, “Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal”) was largely organized by Americans, of course, but also by the British and Australians. “Some photos of Korean, Chinese, and Indonesian comfort women captured by the Allied forces have been found at the Public Record Office in London, the US National Archives, and the Australian War Memorial. However, the fact that no record of interrogation of these comfort women has yet been found implies that neither the US forces nor the British and Australian forces were interested in investigating crimes committed by the Japanese forces against Asian women. It can therefore be concluded that the military authorities of the Allied nations did not regard the comfort women issue as an unprecedented war crime and a case which seriously violated international law, despite their having substantial knowledge about this matter.” (They did pay a little attention to the case of 35 Dutch girls who were forced to work at military brothels though). 

So the government of the US, one that is always presented as a hero in WWII, as well as other hero governments, are guilty of cooperating with the coverup of the crimes of the Empire of Japan. It is no wonder that Washington was completely satisfied with the 2015 deal made between Prime Minister Shinzo ABE of Japan and President PARK Geun-hye of South Korea (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/01/10/national/politics-diplomacy/south-korea-leader-moon-calls-2015-comfort-women-deal-undeniable-says-japan-must-still-offer-apology/#.XVQOOy2B2qA ). “The deal was clinched without any consultation with surviving victims” (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/04/01/national/politics-diplomacy/abe-park-agree-implement-comfort-women-deal/#.XVQO1C2B2qA ). And the deal was designed to silence the brave victims who spoke out, and to erase the knowledge of what was done to them. 

As I have written before, “Today in Japan, as in the US and other rich countries, men prostitute sex-trafficked women in shockingly large numbers. But while Japan has hardly engaged in war at all since 1945, except when the US twists its arm, the US military has attacked country after country, beginning with its total destruction of Korea in the Korean War. Ever since that brutal assault on Koreans, there has been the continued violence of American soldiers brutally assaulting women in South Korea. Sex trafficking for the sake of the US military happens wherever there are bases. The US government is considered one of the worst offenders today, turning a blind eye to the supplying of trafficked women to American soldiers, or actively encouraging foreign governments” to let the profiting and violence continue (https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/hot-asian-babes-and-nuclear-war-in-east-asia/ ). 

Since the US government, the supposed protector of Japan, allowed its soldiers to prostitute sex-trafficked women in the postwar period, including Japanese women in a type of comfort station called a Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA) facility set up by the Japanese government for Americans, and since it has the world’s largest military machine and owns 95% of the world’s military bases, where sex trafficked and incarcerated women frequently have become victims of sexual violence perpetrated by US soldiers, there is a lot at stake for Washington. This is not just an issue for Japan. And it is not even only an issue for militaries around the world. The civilian sex trafficking industry is a dirty but very profitable industry, and many rich people want to keep it going (https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/human-sex-trafficking ).  

Finally, the struggle in Nagoya between peace-loving Japanese citizens, feminists, liberal artists, and freedom-of-speech activists on the one hand and Japanese ultranationalists on the other could have a significant effect on the future of democracy, human rights (especially those of women and children), and peace in Japan. (That there are not many anti-racism activists is sad, as racial discrimination is surely a major cause of the currently very intense denialism surrounding the history of the sex trafficking atrocity). And it will, of course, have an effect on the safety and well-being of children and women around the world. Many people would like to ignore it, the same way that people turn a blind eye to pornography and prostitution, and console themselves by concluding that prostitution is all just “sex work,” that prostitutes provide a valuable service to society, and we can all go back to sleep now. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. A lot of women are incarcerated, many people are being scarred for life, and the long futures of children are being ruined in many cases. Statements from police like the following should give us pause: 

“The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12 to 14. It is not only the girls on the streets who are affected; boys and transgender youth enter into prostitution between the ages of 11 and 13 on average.”  (I assume these are the average ages for first-time victims under the age of 18 in the US).  “Although comprehensive research to document the number of children engaged in prostitution in the United States is lacking, an estimated 293,000 American youths currently are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation” (https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/human-sex-trafficking ). 

First in August 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei KONO, and later in August 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi MURAYAMA, gave official recognition to Japan’s military sex trafficking history, as representatives of the government of Japan. The first statement, i.e., the “Kono statement” opened the door to reconciliation between Japan and Korea, as well as the way to possible future healing for the victims, but later governments slammed that door shut as elite, conservative politicians wavered between complete denial and watered-down, vague, pseudo recognitions, without any clear apology.

(Every year, these historical issues come together in August in Japan. Harry S. Truman committed two of the worst war crimes in history in August when he killed one hundred thousand Japanese and thousands of Koreans with one bomb in Hiroshima, and then with only three days pause, dropped another on Nagasaki—surely the most unforgivable atrocity in human history. Yes, thousands of Koreans were also killed, even when they were supposed to be on the right side of history with the US. Whether it was recognized or not, Koreans fighting against the Empire of Japan in Manchuria, for example, were allies in the violent struggle to defeat the Empire and its fascism).

The huge gap in understanding of the history of Japanese colonialism in Korea stems mainly from the poor atrocity education in Japan. For the rare Americans who know that Our Government and its agents (i.e., soldiers) committed atrocities in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and East Timor (let alone Central America, the Middle East, etc.) such ignorance in Japan will not be surprising. Unlike many or most Germans who widely recognize their country’s crimes in World War II, Americans and Japanese are often in for a shock when they talk to people from countries who suffered from our/their countries’ past imperialistic violence. What is considered common, basic history—what might be taught in a high school history class in many countries—is viewed as the propaganda of the extreme Left in the US or as “masochistic history” in Japan. Just as a Japanese patriot is not supposed to admit that 100,000 people were slaughtered over the course of several weeks in Nanjing, China, no American could be considered a true patriot if he admitted that Our slaughtering a similar number of people in Hiroshima in a matter of minutes was unnecessary. Such is the effect of a decade of indoctrination in public schools. 

The ultranationalist Abe administration and its loyal servants in the mass media need to erase this history because it diminishes the respect for their “Self-Defense” Forces in Japan, and the honor of war-fighting men, and because this history will make it difficult for Japan to remilitarize. Not to mention the problems Prime Minister Abe would face if everyone knew about his grandfather’s leading role in colonialist violence in Korea. Nobody wants to fight to re-establish an empire in order to steal again from people in other countries and make the rich richer, or to be following in the footsteps of soldiers who committed sexual violence against helpless children and women. It is not for nothing that the statue by the sculptors Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung was named the “Statue of Peace.”

Consider these sculptors’ very articulate and sophisticated explanation of the meaning of the Statue (“The Innerview(Ep.196) Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, the sculptors _ Full Episode” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oabuV0Cqg7g ). This film demonstrates once again that it is just a “statue with a message of peace and for the rights of women.” The former is often discussed in the mass media while the latter is only rarely mentioned. 

So please let those four words sink in—the rights of women—as we reflect on the meaning of this statue and its value in Japan, as art, as historical memory, as an object spurring on social reform. The sculptors decided to “depict a teenage girl between the ages of 13 and 15.” Some say that Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung are not artists but propagandists. I say they have crafted a work of art in one of its noblest traditions, where art is created in the service of progressive social change. Who says that “art for art’s sake” is always best, that art must not speak to the big questions of the age?

Today, as I begin to write this, it is the second official Memorial Day in Korea, when people remember Japan’s military sex trafficking (“South Korea designates August 14 as official memorial day of ‘comfort women’,”   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVyt2f8VdHM . “South Korea marks first ‘comfort women’ day, joined by protestors in Taiwan,” Reuters (14 August 2018).  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-asia-comfortwomen/south-korea-marks-first-comfort-women-day-seen-drawing-japans-protest-idUSKBN1KZ07O ). From the perspective of the ultranationalists of Japan and the U.S., the problem with the Girl of Peace Statue is that it might end up shaming anyone who commits sexual violence, and might erode the privileges of patriarchy. But is it such a valuable privilege to have power over women, if it means that women must fear you but can only rarely love you, either as a friend or a lover? The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks (who likes her name in lower case letters) has really opened my eyes about the significance of the Statue of Peace.


The struggle to reinstate the Exhibition continues. There were 50 protestors in one rally right after the Exhibit was canceled, and as far as I know, there have been protests every single day starting from right after the Exhibit was closed, weather permitting, often with dozens of protestors. On the 14th there were dozens again, in solidarity of course with the big rally in Seoul (https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1V40XX ). That was just Nagoya.

Similar rallies have been held in cities throughout Japan, including Tokyo on the 14th, Sapporo on the 12th, Toyama on the 10th, Kyoto on the 14th, Osaka on the 14th, and Hiroshima on the 10th. Kobe will have events to remember this atrocity history on the 18th, 23rd, and 25th. 

In countries that face less denialism, events to remember the history this month will be held or were held in the following places:  there were events in municipalities throughout South Korea. I have been told that there were also events in Taiwan; in Glendale, Chicago, and D.C. in the States; Ottawa, Canada; Sydney, Australia; Auckland, New Zealand; Berlin, Germany; Oxford, UK; and Gulu, Uganda.

Here is a summary of our rally on the 14th in front of the Aichi Arts Center in Sakae, Nagoya City. A few news networks attended and interviewed protestors. Although it rained quite unexpectedly, and only a few of us had thought to bring an umbrella, we persisted with the rain coming down, giving speeches, singing, and chanting together. The English song, “We Shall Overcome” was sung, and at least one new playfully polemical song was sung in Japanese. The largest banner read, “If only I could have seen it!” (Mitakatta no ni!) One sign read, “Do not violently force out freedom of expression!!” (Bōryoku de hyōgen no jiyū wo fusatsu suru na!!) I wrote mine in easy English: “See her. Hear her. Speak her.” I wrote the word “her” and put it in the middle of the sign. I had in mind a twist on the words from the Three Wise Monkeys, “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” 

For a report in Korean, which includes many photos, see this OhmyNews report:  http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0002562207&PAGE_CD=ET001&BLCK_NO=1&CMPT_CD=T0016 . The first photo in this report in Korean is of an elderly Japanese woman and peace activist wearing a jeogori and chima), i.e., semi-formal attire for traditional occasions. This is the same kind of clothing that the girl wears in the Statue of Peace. At first she sat motionless, like the statue, without speaking. Then she spoke out very loudly and very clearly. She delivered a passionate and thoughtful message of sadness that such violence has been done to women. She is roughly the same age as the halmoni, or “grandmothers” in Korea who were mistreated this way by agents of the Empire, so she could perhaps imagine the feeling of women in their twilight years, who were strong enough to speak the truth but whom many are now trying to silence. A report on our rally today has also appeared in Japanese in the paper Tokyo Shimbun: https://www.tokyo-np.co.jp/article/national/list/201908/CK2019081402000263.html . What other journalists will dare to keep alive the memory of the halmoni and their epic struggle to protect others from these crimes against humanity?

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