Passing down the Heart of the Survivors: STAND’s Activism to Commemorate the ‘Comfort Women’ Issues at Yale
Featured image: STAND members with the Statue of Peace.
By Keigo Nishio
“As far as my power reaches, I shall fight until the end” (words of Kim Bok-dong halmoni, a survivor of military sexual violence by the Japanese Imperial Army, appearing on the poster of a documentary film featuring her life, entitled My Name Is Kim Bok-Dong.).
It has been almost three quarters of a century since the end of World War II, but East and Southeast Asian countries have yet to accomplish historical reconciliation. With the Japanese government persistently denying its criminality and responsibility for the atrocities that Japan inflicted upon Asia during the war, there is no common language between Japan and its former colonies to learn, think, and talk about the miserable history. Irritated by this ongoing injustice, particularly given the aging of the war survivors and intensifying difficulty to compensate the survivors themselves, diverse activism is taking place, in pursuit of historical justice and reconciliation. Yale is part of this wave.
Stand with “Comfort Women” (STAND) is a student organisation at Yale formerly established last fall. STAND is working to educate people on campus about the issues of so-called “comfort women” and wartime sexual violence in general. In the last semester, it held the “Inaugural Yale International Conference on ‘Comfort Women’ and Wartime Sexual Violence” and two movie screenings (The Main Battleground and My Name Is Kim Bok-Dong). STAND is composed of members from different gender, ethnic, and racial backgrounds (for instance, the initial board members include a Korean, a Korean-American, a Chinese, a Chinese-American, a Filipino-American, and a Japanese (myself), three of whom are females while the other three are males), and trying its best to make its activism accessible to all people, including those who may not necessarily be familiar with or interested in the “comfort women” issues.
The “comfort women” issue is the issue of wartime sexual violence committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. According to Professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a professor emeritus of history in Chuo University in Japan who joined STAND’s international conference last October, “comfort women” are those women who were forced to provide sexual service at “comfort stations” established and administered by the Japanese Army throughout the Japanese colony since 1932. The Japanese Army built “comfort stations” for four purposes, namely, (1) preventing the soldiers from raping local women; (2) preventing the spread of venereal disease through private brothels; (3) alleviating the discomfort of the soldiers serving in depressing conditions on the battlefield; (4) reducing the risk of espionage by preventing the connection between the soldiers and the local women working at private brothels. For these “self-interested” purposes of the Japanese Army that never took into consideration human rights of the women forced to work in the “comfort stations,” women were recruited from Japan, the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, Chinese mainland, the Philippines, Indonesia, Timor Leste, Indochine, Thailand, Birma, and the Pacific Islands. These women were deprived of the right to refuse to provide sexual service, to quit the job, and the freedom to choose residence or go out. Professor Yoshimi asserted at the conference that “It is obvious that ‘comfort women’ were sexually enslaved.”
Yale is a witness of the testimony of the survivors and therefore has the responsibility to pass down their voice and courage. In 2016, two survivors, Lee Ok-sun halmoni and Kang Il-chul halmoni, visited Yale and gave testimony at the testimonial seminar organised by Lim Hyun-soo LAW ’18, where more than six hundred people from the Yale community attended. Inspired by the courageous activism of the survivors and their allies, as well as by strong interest from the Yale community, Hyun-soo began a petition to oppose the Korea-Japan announcement on the “settlement” of the “Comfort Women” issue in December 2015. Her movement received support from Yale students and ended up expanding it to colleges across North America. Furthermore, she established a “student task force,” which had developed into STAND, in order to install the Statue of Peace on the Yale campus. As for the importance of the Statue, she explains that “the Statue is a beautiful symbol of the fact that even after all survivors pass away, which is inevitable, their voices will continue to live.” For her, the Statue is “something so simple, yet visually striking and easily accessible to the community, [that] has a particularly lasting impact.” Accordingly, STAND rooted from the two survivors’ testimony at Yale and students’ efforts to commemorate and pass down the memory and courage of the survivors.
Today’s Japanese government, backed by right-wing and Shinto-religious activists, keeps on denying the historical fact that these women were forcibly recruited by the Japanese Army and exposed to sexual slavery, which was established by the testimonies of the survivors and the documents discovered by Professor Yoshimi (For those who are interested in the conflict around the “comfort women” issue, I would recommend you watch the documentary film The Main Battleground.). The Japanese government contends that these women were “prostitutes” who voluntarily served in sex work, thereby denying the legitimacy of the words of the survivors, which is an ethical crime equivalent to second rape that exacerbates the suffering of the survivors. The main target of the activism of the “comfort women” survivors and their allies is the ongoing injustice that the Japanese government commits by denying historical facts. For instance, Kim Bok-dong halmoni says, “We [the “comfort women” survivors] are not fighting out of greed for money. The problem is the Japanese government that argues that we voluntarily went [to the “comfort stations”] or that private agents [not the government of military officers] recruited [us]. Although our history is recorded, the Japanese government is hiding the fact, explaining away its own criminality as if it were not what it had done […].” Now that the number of the survivors is decreasing, it is all the more important for younger generations to pass down their memory, fighting against denialists and revisionists.
Nonetheless, Yale has not been supportive of STAND’s activism. The former task force’s proposal for the installment of the Statue of Peace was rejected by Yale’s Committee on Art in Public Space (CAPS). In May of 2019, STAND once succeeded in installing the Statue in the property of the Asian American Cultural Centre (AACC), with its agreement that the “comfort women” issue was an important facet of the Asian American diaspora. However, Yale removed the Statue in two weeks due to the CAPS’s initial rejection of the proposal made by the task force in 2017. Yale explained to STAND that the Statue does not fulfill CAPS’s criteria that require artwork to be a “unique expression of one artist” and to have “a particular connection to the site in which they are placed.” Clint Min-seung Yoo ’20, who is current President of STAND and has been devoted to the activism since the birth of the task force, criticises Yale’s decision, saying that “their arguments for why the statue could not be there made very little sense.” He contends against Yale’s rationale, arguing that “the Statue of Peace is a ‘unique expression’ of a sculptor couple in Korea [Kim Eun-sung and Kim Seo-kyung] who have dedicated their lives for the activism and the statue had been made specifically for Yale.” He continues that “the statue had absolute support from the AACC and the ‘comfort women’ issue was categorically linked to the Asian American history.” Despite STAND’s efforts for negotiation, Yale did not even allow it to exhibit the Statue only temporarily during its international conference. Yale forcibly relocated the Statue to a parking lot at 344 Winchester Avenue, almost one hour’s walk from Old Campus. The Statue, Clint explains, was left “next to objects such as lamp posts that seemed to have been thrown out rather than kept in storage.” It is such a grave injustice that Yale, which once welcomed the “comfort women” survivors on campus, now neglects its responsibility to commemorate their efforts and courage.
Fortunately, the Statue eventually found its place for permanent residence at Korean-American Society of Connecticut in Hamden, which is approximately fifteen minutes car ride from Yale campus. On March 1st, 2020, STAND and the Korean-American Society co-hosted the unveiling ceremony of the Statue. Board members of STAND gave short speeches about why we think it important to learn, think, and talk about the “comfort women” issue, in terms of human rights, gender justice, and historical reconciliation (I, too, gave a speech as a Japanese member of STAND, talking about my frustration with Japan’s failure to fulfil its responsibility for the history and pledging to dedicate myself to the resolution of the issue). A piece of music entitled Recollections of a Girl, composed by Isabel Guarco ’20, was also performed, in Isabel’s hope that music will play “a role in cultivating historical memory.” “Perhaps music, and art in general,” she says, “cannot convey specific historical facts, but the sentiments of music and art, the feelings of a time and place that are evoked are no less historically true. In this sense, I believe music and art can serve as a kind of historical education.” The ceremony was the place where attendants got unified under the same task of passing down the memory of the survivors so that the same atrocity shall not be repeated.
The “comfort women” issue is too often framed as a political conflict between Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Indeed, it is impossible to avoid the “political” nature of this issue, particularly since the survivors themselves are, of course reasonably, calling for the apology and compensation by the Japanese government, and activism on the “comfort women” issue cannot avoid criticising the Japanese government’s denialism and lack of responsibility. That the unveiling ceremony took place at the Korean-American Society due to the removal by Yale intensifies a mistaken image that the “comfort women” issue is a Korean issue, despite the fact that there are victims and survivors of the same sort of sexual violence throughout the world. In fact, there are numerous Twitter posts criticising STAND for establishing the Statue in the US, which is “not relevant” to the “comfort women” issue.
It is not a coincidence that many of my interviewees warned of the risk of “politicising” the “comfort women” issue. “The most common phrase I have used during my time at STAND is ‘this is not a story about Korea,’” says Clint. According to him, the “comfort women” issue has the universal aspect as structural human rights violation against women, which has been taking place all over the world until today, particularly during wartime. Clint maintains that “we all [emphasis mine] carry the responsibility to make up for the years of negligence that the world has imposed upon the victims and the consequential societal structure against women. It is our job as the current generation to remember, so that we build the capacity to decipher what is just at the face of injustice.” Hyun-soo agrees with Clint, saying that “I think it’s simply incorrect to label this as a Japanese vs. Korean conflict. It’s unfortunate that what I view as fundamentally a human rights issue has become a political contest between the two governments.” Mr. Park Hyung-chul, President of the Korean-American Society, thinks the Statue of Peace has special importance in that “it does not represent specific persons but symbolises all those who were sacrificed [by wartime sexual violence].” He continues that “the Statue of Peace [represents] the hope that [we] can inform people of the atrocities of war taking place in the world and that war shall not be repeated again.” Framing the “comfort women” issue as a Japan-ROK conflict or mistakenly reducing the value of the Statue to a representation of Korean nationalism prevents us from deriving lessons from the tragic history of the “comfort women.”
Politicisation of the issue threatens to entrap the efforts to resolve the issue into political calculation, while overlooking the universal nature of the issue and thereby committing another human rights crime. Professor Yoshimi pointed out that the memory of the “comfort women” survivors in Southeast Asian countries is still marginalised due to these nations’ economic reliance upon Japan, particularly in the form of development assistance. His concern echoes what Isabel observed in the Philippines during her research on the memory of “comfort women,” through which she found “how poorly the comfort women issue is remembered and taught there [in the Philippines]”
Reducing the “comfort women” issue to a “Japan-ROK conflict” has another negative effect of depriving people of their sense of connection to the issue. Mr. Park argues that “given the history of the mutual treaty between ROK and the US, the US, too, has responsibility for history.” Indeed, the so-called “agreements” between Japan and ROK in 1965 and 2015 were made under the mediation of the US, pressed by its own security concerns. Mr. Park thinks it important to build the Statue of Peace in the US and discuss the complicate history among the US, ROK, and Japan. We should not think of ourselves as irrelevant to the “comfort women” issue, by thoughtlessly politicising the issue as a “Japan-ROK conflict.”
STAND has tried to frame its activism as an educational initiative, talking to a wide range of audience and connecting the “comfort women” issue to other cases of wartime sexual violence and historical trauma. For instance, in the international conference last year, STAND invited experts and activists working around the issue of historical trauma in diverse fields, including a survivor of wartime sexual violence in Kosovo and a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. At the same time, STAND always represents itself as a diverse group, so that it will not be perceived as a “Korean organisation” and instead canl be open to a wide range of people at Yale. Durel Crosby ’22, a student who is not a member of STAND, shares his impression after joining the unveiling ceremony that “It was inspiring to see people from various nationalities/ethnicities coming together on the ‘comfort women.’” He continues that “If we are going to avoid the mistakes of yesterday, we must be aware of them,” and that “it [the Statue of Peace] serves as a symbol that we do not accept this kind of behavior and want a future that is free of it.” STAND’s message that the “comfort women” issue provides lessons to people, regardless of their gender, ethnic, or racial identities is gradually spreading.
The unveiling ceremony is not the goal of STAND’s activism but its small first step. The real problem is how STAND can proceed with its educational initiative, cultivating a tie between people at Yale and the Statue of Peace. As people living on campus where two survivors gave testimony and which has the Statue of Peace in the vicinity, we have the responsibility to pass down the memory and courage of all the victims and survivors of wartime sexual violence. Mr. Park requests that students at Yale should “commemorate those women who were tortured under a massive power of war” and “join the activism of informing the true history without distorting it for the sake of future generations, even if the history is something that we want to conceal.” We are tested whether we can fulfil our own responsibility.
STAND is now turning over its board to the new generation, with four of the six first board members graduating this year. With the Statue installed in the vicinity of Yale campus, STAND has to intensify its efforts to communicate to a wider range of people while taking advantage of the Statue, so that the memory of the survivors will be a common memory throughout campus. Clint says, “STAND’s mission to educate the issues of ‘comfort women’ and wartime sexual violence principally resides in the members of Yale. I hope that through our continued efforts of activism, more Yale students take the short ride to Hamden to see and interact with what was once at Yale.” Isabel says, “I think the very fact that not many people are aware of the issue makes researching it incredibly significant. The past can so easily disappear in the present. History relies heavily on memory and public awareness. The atrocities of World War II in the Pacific, such as the comfort women issue, deserve to be remembered in a similar way the Holocaust is in the United States and globally.” It is integral for STAND to find the way to appeal to those who are not necessarily familiar with or interested in the “comfort women” issue.
The prospect of the resolution of the issue is bleak, with too many Japanese people refusing to admit and learn from the historical fact. When the news of STAND’s unveiling of the Statue was transmitted in Japan, the news article attracted so many antagonistic, hate-laden comments and personal slurs against me, which were tainted with misunderstandings and misinformation. For instance, I encountered multiple tweets arguing that the “comfort women” issue is ROK’s fabrication, that the Statue of Peace does not commemorate “comfort women” but Korean women run over by a US tank during the Korean War (this is obviously false), that I am following only ROK’s logic, or even that I am not a Japanese. Given that the future is approaching when there is no longer living survivor, it is all the more important for us, younger generations, to pass down their memory, so that denialist and revisionist claims shall not win over the historical fact. When Hyun-soo initiated her movement, people at Yale responded with enthusiasm. What we have to do now is to turn this enthusiasm into a continuous, long-term initiative. Reflecting on her activism at Yale, Hyun-soo says, “I believe the Yale community knows and appreciates that ‘an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Many Yalies share and stand for the values that the survivors have been advocating.” Today’s Yalies are tested whether we can fulfil this responsibility.
If STAND’s activism has an aspect as “protest,” it is the protest against the tide of historical denialism and thoughtless politicisation of the “comfort women” issue. It’s goal is human rights, gender justice, and historical reconciliation, which have universal values that can unite us, transcending differences in gender, race, and ethnicity. I hope that people at Yale will unite together and say, “As far as our power reaches, we shall fight until the end.”
Keigo Nishio is a rising senior in Branford College. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.