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

"Statue of a Girl of Peace” artwork

By Joseph Essertier, August 19, 2019

The following is a summary of the situation 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. The title of the Exhibit in Japanese is Hyōgen no jiyū: sono go (usually badly translated as “After Freedom of Expression”). Sono go or “after that” indicates that the Aichi Triennale Organizing Committee aimed to not forget previously censored exhibits. I translate sono go as “Part II” in the sense that Japanese were being given, in essence, a second chance 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”. This is the second time it has been blocked after only three days. The first time was in Tokyo in 2015. This “Girl of Peace Statue” offended ultranationalist sensibilities more than any other.

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 severely 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 soon as it could so that they could “explain to people how the work came to be exhibited”. In fact, the Exhibit would only have trampled 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. This may be true, but the Aichi Prefectural Government for whom he did the work of planning the Exhibit was itself intimidated by the central government in Tokyo. They were warned that their funding from the central government could be cut if they proceeded with it.

Q:  Has anyone been arrested?  

A: There are news reports that the police have apprehended the one who threatened arson. 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.” Nevertheless, as many protestors have noted, it is not completely clear that the man in the custody of the police is actually the one who threatened arson. 

Q:  Why can’t the Aichi Triennale Organizing Committee just reinstate the Exhibit? What is to be done?  

A:  In the opinion of OGURA Toshimaru, professor emeritus of Toyama University and member of the Organizing Committee (Jikkō iinkai), the most effective pressure would be large numbers of artists and art critics in Japan and around the world sharing their opinion, confirming for the Aichi Prefectural Government that this exhibition is made up of quality art pieces that the public has a right to see. This is a point that the Organizing Committee emphasizes at a website that provides information about their activities. 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, where Mr. Tsuda discusses 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. 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 a strong public outcry, both domestic and international.

Contrary to the reports of the mass media journalists, who immediately reported that the Exhibit had been canceled as if to say that the ultranationalists had won, various Nagoya citizens groups are struggling everyday for historical truth about the sex trafficking even now, continuing their long struggle. These include the Network for Non-war (Fusen e no network), the New Japan Women’s Association (Shin Nihon fujin no kai), the Tokai Action Executive Committee 100 Years After the Annexation of Korea (Kankoku heigō 100-nen Tōkai kōdō jikkō iinkai), the Support Committee for Women Abused Sexually by the Former Japanese Military (Kyū Nihon gun ni yoru seiteki higai josei wo sasaeru kai), Contemporary Missions To Korea: Aichi (Gendai no chōsen tsūshin shi Aichi), and the Committee to Examine Mayor Kawamura Takashi’s Statements about the Nanking Massacre (Kawamura Shichō ‘Nankin gyakusatsu hitei’ hatsugen wo tekkai saseru kai). Here’s more about this group.

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. They sponsor lectures and films, and this year led a history study tour to South Korea. They will show the hit film from South Korea “I Can Speak” on the 25th of this month. They are one of the main groups taking the initiative to organize daily protests at the Aichi Arts Center.

The Aichi Chapter of the New Japan Women’s Association sponsors yearly rallies for women, lectures on war and women’s rights issues, educational sessions for adolescents, and solidarity events for the South Korean Wednesday Demonstrations that are held weekly in front of the Embassy of Japan. The New Japan Women’s Association is a large, nationwide organization that publishes newsletters in both Japanese and English, and the Aichi Chapter also publishes newsletters in Japanese. Like Tokai Action above, they are at the forefront of the struggle to educate people about Japan’s history, but they tend to focus on it as part of women’s history.

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”. 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 remember, 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 with the aim of preventing sexual violence in the future.

Of course, the 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).

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”. In today’s world, in many countries, this is a crime, as it should be. No longer is the blame laid at the feet of the prostitute or the sex-trafficked victim, and there are more and more demands to prosecute those 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. 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. “The deal was clinched without any consultation with surviving victims.” 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

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.  

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, consoling themselves that it is all just “sex work,” that prostitutes provide a valuable service to society, and we can all go back to sleep now. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Vast numbers of women, girls and young males are being incarcerated, scarred for life, with the possibility of a normal and happy, injury-and-disease-free life being denied them.

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”.

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 in “The Innerview (Ep.196) Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, the sculptors _ Full Episode”. This high-quality 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’” ; “South Korea marks first ‘comfort women’ day, joined by protestors in Taiwan,” Reuters 14 August 2018). 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 begin to erode certain patriarchal “privileges.”


The struggle continues in Nagoya. There were 50 protestors in one rally right after the Exhibit was canceled, and there have been protests almost every single day since then, often with dozens of protestors. On the 14th of August, there were dozens again, in solidarity of course with the big rally in Seoul

We had a 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! 見たかったのに!). One sign read, “Do not violently force out freedom of expression!!” Bōryoku de “hyōgen no jiyū wo fūsatsu suru na!! 暴力で「表現の自由」を封殺するな!!).  Mine read, “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. 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, and she seemed to be imagining the feeling of women in their twilight years, who were strong enough to speak the truth but whom many are now trying to silence. Will any journalists dare to keep alive the memory of the halmoni and their epic struggle to protect others from these crimes against humanity?


Many thanks to Stephen Brivati for comments, suggestions, and editing.

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