During my recent visit to Seoul, I saw the first “Statue of Peace” in front of the Japanese Embassy that was installed there on Dec. 14, 2011.
The small bronze figure depicts a girl sitting on a chair, staring straight ahead with a look of determination. She has cropped hair and wears a “hanbok” — a traditional Korean dress. She’s barefoot. Her fist is clenched. Next to her is an empty chair.
The gaze has been directed at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul as a call for vigilance in the campaign for justice as stories and individual memories of “comfort women” tend to be forgotten.
The statue is an unsmiling girl frozen in time as a teenager at the age when she was forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese imperial military. It has become a gathering spot for groups protesting the Japanese wartime record.
There are more than 130 identical statues installed across South Korea since 2011.
It was 31 years ago, on August 14, 1991, when South Korean Kim Hak-sun became the first Korean to give a public testimony about her experience as a “comfort woman.” Hak-sun died in December 1997 at age 74.
About 200,000 women from Japanese-occupied countries such as Korea, China, Burma, New Guinea, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya, Manchukuo, Taiwan, the Dutch East Indies, Portuguese Timor, and the Philippines were held in captivity, and thousands more were raped as part of one of the largest operations of sexual violence in modern history.
The girls who were abducted, trafficked or brought to Japanese soldiers’ camps had their dreams and visions for the future that were shattered.
Due to their tender age, it was a painful experience for them to be subjected to sexual slavery, rape and other forms of sexual violence during World War II.
The victims spent their lives in misery, having endured physical injuries, pain and disability, and mental and emotional suffering. The survivors have had to live a life full of stigma and trauma.
The Women’s Tribunal that sat in Tokyo, Japan, from December 8 to 12, 2000, deliberated on the criminal liability of high-ranking Japanese military and political officials, as well as the Japanese state’s responsibility for military rape and sexual slavery.
On July 30, 2007, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution asking the Japanese government to apologize to former “comfort women” and include a curriculum about them in Japanese schools. The resolution was passed after three former “comfort women” (one Dutch and two Koreans) testified.
In 2012, the South Korean government declared August 14 as the International Memorial Day for Comfort Women.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in described Japan’s wartime use of “comfort women” as “crimes against humanity.”
In January 2021, a judge at the Seoul Central District Court ruled in favor of the “comfort women,” ordering Japan to pay compensation for the first time.
However, another South Korean court in April 2021 upheld Japan’s state immunity to dismiss a lawsuit, contradicting the earlier ruling.
I earlier saw a “comfort women” statue in San Francisco, California, called “Column of Strength,” one of nine, and the first sculpture placed in a major US city to remember the “comfort women.”
It depicts three teen-age girls, with each being of a specific nationality — Chinese, Korean, and Filipino. These three girls are cast in bronze, standing in a circle atop a pedestal and holding hands in a back-to-back posture. Standing next to the pedestal and gazing up at them is another bronze figure of a “halmoni” (Korean for grandmother).
A year after Hak-sun’s revelation, Lola Rosa Henson was the first Filipino comfort woman to come out on Sept. 18, 1992, with her story.
The “Lola” statue initially installed in December 2017 along Roxas Boulevard was dismantled on April 27, 2018. It was an unnamed woman wearing a traditional Filipino dress, blindfolded, with hands clutched to her chest. It was declared missing in August 2019.
Another comfort woman statue — a young woman with fists resting on her lap — was removed from the Catholic-run Mary Mother of Mercy shelter for the elderly and the homeless in San Pedro, Laguna, only two days after its unveiling in January 2019.
The remaining Filipino comfort woman “Lola” statue is now in Pandan, Antique.
The comfort women campaign highlights the urgency for justice as attempts to whitewash history and to distort narratives continue.
Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail [email protected], or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786