January 11, 2012.
Photo: The statue in Seoul that commemorates Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army during World War II is dressed in a woolen cap, scarf and mittens, with a blanket wrapped around her lap. (Credit: Matt Douma)
SEOUL -- She sits there alone, day and night, no matter what the weather. Her gaze is fixed at the building just across the street –- the Japanese Embassy.
She’s a bronze statue in the shape of a young girl, placed here last month as a reminder of the 200,000 Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II.
The life-size statue was placed in downtown Seoul to mark the 1,000th weekly protest that a handful of surviving former sex slaves, known here as “comfort women,” had waged at the embassy. Commissioned to a husband-and-wife sculptor team and placed by a nongovernmental organization in Seoul, the statue has prompted the Japanese government to call for its removal.
For activists, the statue is more than a symbol. It is a cause to be kept alive. In the frigid days of winter, they have assembled each week to dress the statue as they would a child sentry.
The statue is dressed in a woolen cap, scarf and mittens, with a blanket wrapped around her lap.
“People have said that the girl looked so cold, so the day after the 1,000th protest I went to put on a hat or a scarf on the statue,” said a blogger who goes by the name of Mongu. “Then I saw a scarf, wrapped around the girl’s bare feet. I was very touched by that, and decided to carry on with ... the outfit.”
Now, every week, new clothes adorn the statue. Some passersby even leave pocket money by the figure.
Mongu said it’s important to show South Korean support for the former comfort women.
“From the Japanese Embassy’s point of view, they can see that Koreans are not neglecting the statue but tending to it with care, treating her like a family.”
The sculptor said he is satisfied with the buzz his creation has made. “I’ve gotten comments from people that they are moved to tears when they see the dressed girl,” Kim Wun-sung said.
But the statue has also been a backdrop for violence. This week, a man who said his grandmother had been a comfort woman stood near the statue as he lobbed several incendiary devices at the Japanese Embassy.
None exploded. The man faces criminal charges.
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Japan apologizes to South Korea for decades of colonial rule
Comment: The term "comfort women" is an unfortunate and grossly inaccurate description of the sexual slavery that was forced onto as many as 400 000 women from China, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, by Japan during World War II.
Women in Japan were also used as prostitutes during the war but "comfort women" from the countries above were enslaved and shipped to "comfort stations" where they were used to 'service' military personnel.
There are personnel narratives that describe the conditions in "comfort stations" as nothing short of inhumane. Women were routinely brutalized by beatings, rape, and many ended up the further victim of sexually transmitted diseases.
It is a horrific story made worse by Japan's revisionist political view that has sought to obscure the inhumanity of its actions.
Japan has claimed that the Korean "comfort women" issue was settled in 1965 when it paid $300 million to South Korea.
Surviving Korean "comfort women" reject this claim and have staged more than 1000 protests outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul calling for a formal apology and meaningful reparations.
It is estimated that three-quarters of all "comfort women" died as a result of their sexual enslavement.
The past cannot just be made to disappear. It will remain an open wound until it is confronted and a measure of resolution is found.
In the case of Korean "comfort women" the Japanese government should commit to an engagement meant to reach back and to restore a sense of justice for the thousands who have been so severely wounded.