Set in Stone: Memorializing World War II’s forgotten “comfort women”
Bronze-skinned, barefoot, and dressed in a hanbok, she is seated in a chair facing the congested streets of downtown Seoul. She is decorated in flowers and guarded by a security rope. A small bronze bird rests on her left shoulder. Positioned across the street from the city’s Japanese Embassy, her carefully sculpted face gazes straight ahead with a hint of expectancy. She is a survivor of war and a witness of history. She is the Statue of Peace.
Known as Sonyeosang in Korean, the Statue of Peace was installed in Seoul in 2011 to memorialize the hundreds of thousands of women and girls forced into sex slavery for the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War. These women, who hailed from countries and territories under Japanese rule, were treated as objects of military conquest and coerced into “comfort stations,” military brothels established across Asia.
The term “comfort women” is a euphemism for the women and girls whose dignity and human rights were trampled upon during the war. Seoul’s Statue of Peace, which depicts a teenage girl, was the first-ever statue built to commemorate the “comfort women” and remind the public of the sexual violence perpetrated against women in Asia during World War II.
Kim Bok-dong, who in the 1990s became one of the first women to publicly identify as a “comfort woman,” reminded the world of this past and ongoing wartime degradation when she passed away this January at the age of 92. Widely admired by her fellow activists, Kim inspired hundreds of survivors to share their stories.
Kim’s death was covered extensively by international news outlets, sending a shockwave through the network of women’s rights activists around the world. Today, the Statue of Peace stands as a powerful reminder that the generation of women and girls that it represents will soon be lost: Fewer than 30 “comfort women” are still alive, with most already in their 90s.
“Comfort women” advocacy is a movement with no national bounds. And it is gaining traction not only on the streets of Seoul but through the construction of statues and memorials in cities across the U.S.—and even through student activism at Yale.
In 2017, Hyun Soo Lim LAW ’18 founded Yale’s “Comfort Women” Task Force, a student-led effort that aims to foster productive conversations on survivors through educational projects. For Lim, current discussions help break decades-old patterns of shaming and stigmatization that the victims endured until the 1990s, when the redress movement took off and the experiences of “comfort women” were revealed publicly for the first time.
“We should always prioritize victims who tend to have the smallest voices,” Lim said. “The fact that the majority of ‘comfort women’ are women of color is a large part of the reason this issue wasn’t addressed for decades.”
“If we’re really serious about being a voice for the marginalized people, I think this issue is really something we can’t ignore,” she added.
Lim, a Korean Canadian, became involved with advocacy for “comfort women” in high school, when she volunteered for the Association for Learning and Preserving the History of World War II in Asia, a Chinese-Canadian group advocating for the inclusion of the Nanking Massacre and other Japanese war crimes in Canadian social studies textbooks. This desire to re-examine wartime histories and injustices eventually led Lim to spearhead awareness efforts at Yale.
As a first-year law student, Lim organized an event at Yale in April 2016 that featured a movie about “comfort women” and the testimonies of two survivors. The event was organized in partnership with the House of Sharing, one of two major “comfort women” advocacy groups in Korea. To Lim’s surprise, more than 500 people from the Yale and Greater New Haven communities showed up.
The Connecticut branch of Hope Butterflies, an international network of “comfort women” advocates, reached out to Lim after the event and inspired her to assemble a student task force to educate the Yale community on issues of wartime human rights violations. Since then, Lim and the task force have hosted a number of events to raise awareness, the most recent of which was a discussion with Dimo Kim, the director of “Comfort Women: A New Musical.”
One of the main goals of the task force is to show the Yale community that the issue reaches far beyond South Korea. While the topic of “comfort women” is often depicted in the media exclusively as a political conflict between Korea and Japan, in reality, many Korean men played a role in trafficking young women and were complicit in these wartime atrocities.
“War results in excessive violence towards people who are not involved. It’s really not about Korea-Japan relations,” Clint Yoo ’20, one of the task force’s founding members, said. He continued, “Unfortunately, the only country that is nationally active in figuring out a resolution for this issue is Korea. This is why people perceive this to be a very Korean issue.”
However, the diverse backgrounds of the task force’s members point to the necessity of intersectional advocacy.
To Lillian Hua ’21, who joined the task force during spring 2018, the “comfort women” issue is “a gateway analysis into a bunch of awful gender dynamics that were going on during World War II.”
After attending the task force’s screening of the documentary film The Apology, which follows the lives of three survivors from Korea, China, and the Philippines, and the decades-long sexual trauma they faced after the war, Hua was reminded of her own Chinese grandmother, who lived close to Nanking when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded China. While her grandmother was not directly affected by military violence, Hua said, “I thought, ‘That could have been her.’”
Keigo Nishio ’21, another Task Force member, is a native of Japan and the cultural chair of Yale’s Japanese American Students Union. To Nishio, “comfort women” remembrance and redress “has a universal aspect” encompassing issues of women’s rights and the rights of sexual minorities.
“I don’t think it’s an issue of nationality or a conflict between governments. From a universal standpoint, I think that the Japanese government should apologize for it,” Nishio said.
Yale’s “Comfort Women” Task Force is part of a trend. “Comfort women” advocacy is gaining momentum across the United States, and generally reaching a larger audience beyond Asia. In 2010, the United States’ first memorial commemorating the “comfort women” was installed in Palisades Park, New Jersey, which has one of the country’s largest Korean immigrant communities. And in 2013, a replica of Seoul’s original Statue of Peace was installed in Glendale, California. A grassroots organization called the Korean American Forum of California (KAFC) advocated for the Glendale statue’s installation. It was the first memorial depicting an actual “comfort woman” installed in the United States.
In 2007, Phyllis Kim, the current director of the KAFC, was involved in the effort to pass U.S. House Resolution 121, which urged the Japanese government to accept full responsibility for the history of “comfort women.” After Kim and other supporters lobbied successfully for the resolution—which was approved unanimously in Congress in July 2007—they decided to form an organization aimed at bringing a “comfort women” memorial to California. The KAFC was formed in 2012.
To Kim, installing a statue in a public area was critical to expanding the breadth of education on the issue and challenging the often-Eurocentric approach to studying history. “The reason why we need to understand, remember, and educate about this issue is no different from the reason why we need to remember the Holocaust,” she explained.
After the KAFC revealed its plans to install the Statue of Peace in Glendale, the city held a special hearing to seek citizen input. While dozens of right-wing Japanese groups showed up at the hearing to oppose the installation of the statue, Glendale’s city council members ultimately demonstrated solidarity with the victims rather than their deniers. Eventually, the memorial was approved at a city council meeting and placed in Glendale Central Park in 2013.
In San Francisco, activists engaged in a similar, eventually successful effort to install a “comfort women” memorial. Lillian Sing, retired state judge and the first Asian-American female judge in Northern California, described her experience founding the multi-ethnic and multi-national Comfort Women Justice Coalition in August 2015 along with retired judge Julie Tang. Both women stepped down from their judge positions to lead the coalition and advocate for the memorial full-time.
“I feel that I dispense a great deal of justice on the court, but there was so much injustice connected to the ‘comfort women’ issue, so I needed to spend all my time and energy and resources trying to find some justice for these girls,” Sing explained in an interview with The Politic.
Bringing the memorial to San Francisco took two years and required over 30 appearances before public bodies. Some conservative Japanese groups lobbied hard against the memorial at hearings, eventually demanding that the memorial at least be installed in a private area. However, in September 2017, Sing, Tang, and their colleagues ultimately succeeded in bringing the memorial—the Pillar of Strength—to Saint Mary’s Park in San Francisco’s historic Chinatown.
The Pillar of Strength, sculpted by artist Steven Whyte, depicts young Chinese, Korean, and Filipina women standing on a metallic pillar and holding hands while the likeness of Kim Hak Sun—the first “comfort woman” to come forward publicly about her experiences—looks up at the girls from below. It is both a multi-ethnic and intergenerational symbol of survival and strength.
The successful installation of memorials in Glendale and San Francisco would not have been possible without the presence of surviving “comfort women,” many of whom traveled to sites across the United States to share their stories.
Phyllis Kim, who had invited Ms. Kim to Glendale twice and recalled Ms. Kim’s pivotal efforts in helping to rally support for the installation of Glendale’s statue, reaffirmed the mark that surviving “comfort women” have left on the movement.
“All the city council members of Glendale met with Grandma Kim, and they were really inspired by her,” Phyllis Kim explained. During Kim Bok-dong’s visit to Glendale, the KAFC organized an event at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance that featured her testimonies as well as those of Holocaust survivors and modern-day human trafficking victims.
“The death of Kim Bok-dong shows that many of these women have died without receiving any apology or justice from Japan,” explained Sing. “What her death did do was help other comfort women come out and break their silence. Two Chinese ‘comfort women’ recently broke their silence two months ago,” she maintained.
“It was the grandmas who broke the silence in the early 1990s to tell the whole world that they want justice,” Kim explained. “I think they were the pioneers of the #MeToo movement, actually.”
At Yale, the “Comfort Women” Task Force continues to spread the stories of these women and the messages of resilience and hope promoted by advocacy organizations like the Comfort Women Justice Coalition and the KAFC.
Eui Young Kim ’21, a “Comfort Women” Task Force member from Korea, described the history of “comfort women” as a “basic part of education for every Korean.” She explained: “It was jarring for me talking to people about ‘comfort women’ because a lot of people have no knowledge whatsoever about the issue at Yale.”
Memorials serve as a means to remember. Young people who pass by the Statues of Peace in Seoul and Glendale or the memorials in San Francisco and Palisades Park will be reminded of their grandparents’ generation who, like many “comfort women,” came of age during the 1940s. They may wonder if the young women depicted in these monuments could have been their very own grandmothers if circumstances had lined up differently. They will witness the tangible persistence of the activists who have gathered in front of Seoul’s Japanese Embassy every Wednesday since 1992 to demand full redress. They will remember an era of history that remained in the dark for far too long and the women who continue to fight for the remembrance they deserve.