Features | Society | East Asia

‘Comfort Women’ Activism in the US

How, and why, activists and artists seek to tell the story of wartime sexual slavery to an American audience.

‘Comfort Women’ Activism in the US

Photographers at the unveiling of the Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden in May 2014.

Credit: Facebook/ Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues

In September of 2012, 22-year-old college student Dimo Hyun-Jun Kim sat on his couch in his New York apartment, watching the evening news with his friends. Kim, originally from Seoul, Korea, moved to New York to attend City College of New York for a degree in theater.

On TV was a story about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration explaining that World War II-era “comfort women” were “volunteers” or “professional prostitutes.”

Kim, who learned about comfort women from his grandmother’s first-hand experiences, turned to his American friends and asked, “Do you know who comfort women are?”

They responded with blank stares. One friend guessed, “They are women who are comfortable?”

“Not exactly,” said Kim, slightly amused by the answer. “They were sex slaves.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

“My grandmother told me about her cousin who was taken away during World War II,” Kim said later, recounting the story. “My grandmother was nine years old then, so they didn’t take her. But my grandmother had witnessed the Japanese military raiding houses and kidnapping young girls randomly.”

During World War II, Japan’s imperial army enslaved an estimated 200,000 women from all over Asia and the Pacific to become military sex slaves, or “comfort women.” The victims were from a wide range of countries, including Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, India, the Netherlands, and Vietnam.

In a 2015 agreement with the Korean government, the Japanese government finally admitted to humanitarian violations they committed during World War II. In a statement, Japan acknowledged that “the issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women, and the Government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective.” The agreement also saw Japan pledge to contribute $8.3 million to a fund designated to support the recovery of comfort women in South Korea.

Despite the diplomatic agreement, many activists and comfort women are unsatisfied with the statement. They are still fighting for an “apology,” as critics feel that the current agreement doesn’t cover the extent of Japan’s crimes. For one thing, compensation only covers the comfort women from Korea; there are many more survivors in and around Asia who are not recognized due to the lack of facilities in their countries.

Worse, the clock is ticking for survivors. Two former comfort women — Kyung-Soon Kim and a 90-year-old woman known only by her surname, Choi — passed away this year. There are only 44 comfort women alive today in South Korea.

Back in New York, director Kim responded to the agreement.

“How can we say that the Japanese government made the appropriate apology if the former comfort women didn’t agree with the apology? The right apology is to the individual victims in a manner that is clear, official, and unable to be overturned,” said Kim.

The Origin of the “Comfort Women” Movement

The issue first came to light in 1991 when a former Korean comfort woman, Hak-Sun Kim, courageously informed the public of her experience. Her stories traveled fast and far and in no time thousands of people heard and learned of the comfort women’s experiences.

By 1992, many more comfort women had come forward and shared their experiences. The stories were even aired on a Korean-American TV channel.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

That November, the Korean United Methodist Church in northern Virginia invited Keumju Hwang, a former comfort woman, to talk about her experience. After she spoke, many Korean-Americans were inspired by her story. As a result, the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues was established in December of that year.

Many more Korean-American activists became involved in raising awareness about the history of comfort women. The movement, though quickly organized, was very successful.

Twenty years later, the activists marked a milestone: In May 2014, the first commemorative memorial for comfort women, based on a private and public partnership, was built in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Dr. Julie Jungsil Lee, one of the main advocates for building the Fairfax County memorial, is now the president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues (WCCW). She oversaw everything, from sending letters to public officials to propose the idea to the designing of the memorial by the county government.

The initial goal was to build the commemorative memorial privately, but her undying devotion and passionate letters touched the public officials. The memorial exceeded Lee’s expectations.

“The Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden has been created to educate future generations with profound hope that the atrocities committed against comfort women will serve as a reminder and an affirmation to the world that such crimes against humanity will not be condoned, tolerated, forgotten, or repeated,” said Lee.

Originally, Lee had different aspirations; when she was about to finish her PhD in Maryland, she knew very little about comfort women. However, her life changed when she came across artist Young-Soon Min’s work about comfort women, which was dark and depressing.

“I was saddened and surprised that women during the war were treated as military supplies, not as human beings with dignity and worth,” said Lee. “After I went to Young-Soon Min’s comfort women art exhibition, my inspiration for participating in the comfort women issue was not for the resolution of historical conflict, but for the women’s dignity in general.”

Lee has continued to commit her life to learning about the current situation of comfort women. She celebrates the memorial annually with either a film screening or an art exhibition. Lee has also worked to immortalize comfort women through her role as an art professor and curator, conducting many art exhibitions and seminars, and even leading protests.

She has encouraged people to sign a petition urging Japan to repent and apologize for enslaving these women. On July 2015, she stood outside of the Japanese Embassy in Washington D.C., requesting a formal apology and compensation from Japan for sexual crimes.

Lee also arranged for Yong-Soo Lee, a former comfort woman, to take a trip to Washington D.C., where Japanese Prime Minister Abe was to address Congress in 2015. Yong-Soo Lee staged a protest and demanded Abe make formal amends.

“The representatives of [the] embassy don’t take the issue regarding comfort women seriously,” said Julie Jungsil Lee. “I hope that a formal apology and appropriate compensation will come quickly, and it is my goal to [see the victims] receive what all former comfort women deserve. I believe that more awareness about this issue will help achieve my goal. That is why I continue participating in this activism.”

Like Lee, most major comfort women activists in the United States are Korean-American. They help with fundraising, participating in seminars, leading protests, and more. However, despite their efforts, it is difficult to reach younger generations, even in the Korean-American community.

“The comfort women issue is not popular with all of the Korean-American community,” said So-Jung Lim, the president of the Korean American Association of Washington D.C. area.

From her experience, she determined that “less than one-tenth of 200,000 Korean-Americans” in the United States are interested in the movement.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

“Korean-Americans are busy taking care of their own lives as normal U.S. citizens,” said Lim. “There are very few reasons to fight for the events of history. Resolving the comfort women issue is not a priority for them.”

After the memorial for Korea’s comfort women was built next to the Fairfax County Government Center, many Korean-Americans sought more information from Korean history books, news, and community events.

“It is hard to say that not all Korean-Americans are fighting for the issue, but at least we are trying to support their work by fundraising, picket rallying, and supporting any type of event,” said Lim.

Although Lee, Kim, and other activists work hard to bring awareness about comfort women and consistently demand accountability, they (and their counterparts in Korea) believe the Japanese government still refuses to be held completely liable for the inhuman acts their troops committed in the past.

A “Comfort Women” Musical

After the conversation Kim had in 2012 with his friends, he was inspired to create a musical production that would enable him to reach a large audience and shine a light on the comfort women issue.

“When people discuss the victims of World War II, they usually think about the Holocaust, and they neglect to acknowledge these women’s stories,” said Kim. “I became furious and then motivated to spread their story through my ability—in producing musicals.”

In July 2015, Kim brought the comfort women’s issue to the public through his new musical, “Comfort Women,” at the off-Broadway Theatre in St. Clements. Sixteen out of 18 performances were sold-out, and each production ended with a standing ovation.

The musical follows several Korean female characters who were either kidnapped or tricked into enslavement at comfort stations in Indonesia during World War II. At the end of the war, these comfort women were finally able to return to Korea. They were not able to take part in the celebrations with the other Koreans because their personal sorrows had not ended. Instead, these survivors huddled together. As one of the characters sings: “Find this girl and see her, keep her, try to free her mind from all the pain. Free her mind from all the shame.” 

Kim knew that the comfort women issue would be a sensitive topic; most of his Broadway colleagues told him that. He risked having a performance that would potentially lose money and flop.

Not afraid of failure, Kim spent about three years working on the comfort women Broadway project. Among the many problems he had along the way, one was the lack of major sponsors. Companies did not want to sponsor the play because they didn’t want their brands associated with the issue of sex crimes.

To fund the musical — and to survive in New York — Kim worked several part-time jobs: serving tables and cleaning restaurants, cleaning theaters, managing a studio, and even catching mice in the theaters. In addition to his own money, he procured funding from individual donors and minor sponsors. Because of the lack of money for the production, a majority of the talent worked for free.

“Usually the quality of this kind of musical is low because of lack of funds. However, I wanted to produce the perfect musical, so I fundraised for the performance myself,” said Kim.

To ensure the musical portrayed the sensitive parts of the issue—like daily rape and “comfort stations”—Kim spent a great deal of time gathering first- and second-hand information. In order to understand the comfort women’s feelings, he interviewed several women who had experienced sexual violence. Kim was determined to properly capture the emotion in their voice, and encompass the emotional trauma these women lived through.

“The subject matter itself was very challenging,” Kim said. “It was very difficult to do. Either the music was too upbeat or too dull. Our team had a hard time with the story; usually a musical has comedy, or a love story, and it’s near impossible to put that into the comfort women’s experiences.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Kim experienced a creative slump because there seemed to be no solution to the dilemma about the musical’s direction. As a result, he decided to focus on the escape story of these women.

Although many prior theatrical productions, novels, and other artistic works about comfort women had been presented overseas, most of them failed to make a mark outside of their respective country.

“While other movies, novels and productions showed excessive national characters, or the patriotism of comfort women, I wanted to focus on the pain and suffering of these coerced sex slaves,” said Kim. “Their pain and suffering violates their basic human rights in these horrible situations.”

When he tried to find actors to portray the comfort women, it was an obvious opportunity to involve Asian actors. At the auditions, the actors had to perform on the spot. Sandra Lee gave an incredible performance, and was given a lead role as Goeun, one of the three main comfort women.

Sandra Lee has quite a story herself, which resulted in her being the perfect actress for the part. During her time serving in the U.S. Army, a U.S soldier raped her. During her deployment to Baghdad, Iraq, Lee was involved in many firefights and roadside bomb attacks. She was later diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a traumatic brain injury.

Lee turned her tragedy into a triumph when she delivered an unforgettable performance in Kim’s musical.

“Nearing the end of my deployment, I was raped by another soldier,” said Lee. “It took years for me to even begin the healing process, but acting and doing theater is one of my therapies.”

Director Kim and Sandra Lee met Kim Bok-dong, a former Korean comfort woman, when she came to Washington D.C.to attend event organized by Julie Jungsil Lee, an experience that colored the musical’s production.

“To be face to face and hold hands with one of the survivors was just incredible,” said Sandra Lee. “I could feel her emotions just by holding her hand. I could feel her pain and anguish, but also her strength. I took that experience and absolutely relayed it into my performance.”

The time spent with the former comfort woman not only helped Lee’s acting but also inspired director Kim to change the musical’s ending. The image at the conclusion is very powerful: three survivors are embracing each other, crying with happy tears, even though they could not be with the other Koreans celebrating the end of the war.

During the events in D.C., Kim observed the manner in which the comfort women were supported by organizations from Korea. However, he came to believe that the groups did not honor the women. Three of the groups instructed the survivors to limit what they had to say in the media. Rather than hearing the first-hand experiences of the women themselves, the media wanted to focus solely on the work of the activists.

“Those support organizations just cared about their own reputation in the media,” said Kim. “I felt that the comfort women are still victims at present, so that’s why we changed the ending as the survivors in my musical can’t join in with the celebrations at the end of the war.”

The musical was a huge success, reaching far beyond an Asian audience. Tears were shed, hands were held, and the New York community was united in compassion and heartache for the comfort women’s experiences.

“They said that I did an excellent job and that such productions related to human rights should continually be made,” said Kim. “Whenever I hear these types of comments, I feel a sense of calling to spread this story. Their support was very meaningful to me.”

Kim noted that the musical reverberates beyond the Korean-American community. “Southeast Asian viewers were waiting for me in the lobby. They told me that they would read about the comfort women issue, and that they were grateful I was spreading awareness,” said Kim. “I believe that as a result of increasing the awareness of this subject through this musical people will keep these women’s stories in mind, as with the Holocaust, when they discuss the victims of World War II.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The next step for Kim is to take his musical to Korea and China in the summer of 2017. An agent in China has already bought the rights to the performance, and is planning to develop the story as it fits in with the comfort women of China.

“I will be looking forward to a repeat performance even after 30 years,” said Kim. “The ongoing musical will be living evidence of history, and reminds people of the comfort women’s deep and enduring history. I hope for each and every performance to touch the audience and create long lasting impressions.”

Kim’s overall goal is to make the comfort women musical as well-known as other historical musicals, such as the animated films Prince of Egypt and Pocahontas.

“I hope that people will take an interest in the comfort women’s stories and never forget the history and the survivors,” said Kim. “What I am trying to say to the audience is that this happened, and it is what our new generations have to confront if we want to move forward in the future.”

Jeonghyun Kim holds a masters of Journalism from Georgetown University.