Looking at 84-year-old Yong Soo Lee today, one would never guess that almost 70 years ago she was the victim of a horrendous World War II atrocity. At the age of 15, as a young girl in Korea, she was abducted and forced into brutal sexual slavery by the Japanese military that conquered her country.
Known by the deceptively benign name “comfort women,” more than 200,000 women (exact numbers are still being disputed) in Korea, China, the Philippines and other Japanese-occupied territories suffered this ugly and inhumane fate.
Dressed in brightly colored traditional Korean garb and looking younger than her years, Yong Soo Lee, sitting last week in the Atrium Gallery of Mason Hall on George Mason University’s Fairfax campus, exuded a tranquility that concealed her painful past.
Along with her calm, gently smiling demeanor, however, is an unassuaged determination to see justice done in the form of an official apology and compensation from the Japanese government.
An activist and “living witness,” Yong Soo Lee, one of about 65 former Korean comfort women who are still alive, traveled from her home about an hour outside Seoul in South Korea to Fairfax for a special two-day event dedicated to raising awareness about this still unresolved atrocity.
Opening last Friday and continuing through Dec. 14 (free and open to the public) in the Mason Hall Atrium Gallery is a powerful collection of art works in various media, inspired by the issues surrounding the comfort women.
Entitled “Unveiling the Truth: The Sorrow and Hope of Comfort Women,” the exhibition, which includes the works of nine artists, is jointly sponsored by Mason’s School of Art and its Korean Studies Center and the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues (WCCW).
“This exhibition addresses the injustices of sexual violence, explores historical truths and examines the physical and mental pain and trauma that these women suffered,” said Jungsil Lee, curator of the exhibition and a WCCW vice president. A key purpose, she added, is “to expand the discourse.”
A symposium, featuring Yong Soo Lee, as well as keynote speaker U.S. Rep Mike Honda (D-Calif.), was held the following day to commemorate the 20th anniversary of WCCW’s founding.
According to its president Christine Choi, WCCW was founded in December 1992 “to promote research and education pertaining to war crimes against the so-called ‘comfort women’ during World War II.”
In addition to raising awareness, WCCW, Choi added, seeks to “reframe the cause of comfort women for what it truly is: a human rights violation and a continued failure by the Japanese Government to clearly and unequivocally acknowledge its responsibility in the crimes committed against these women.”
Soon Ku Yoon, a Korean Embassy general counsel and another special guest at the opening, commended the WCCW for the “crucial role” it continues to play in “expanding awareness.”
Seven decades later, there continues to be official denial in Japan, including by some recognized historians, regarding whether there was an organized and forced recruitment of “comfort women” by the Japanese military.
For Yong Soo Lee, the issue is uncontestable. Asked if she would forgive, she sighed deeply and said she would “accept an apology if it was sincere, but there should be consequences.” Sami Lauri, another WCCW vice president, served as her interpreter.
Yong Soon Lee, who lives in a government-funded group home — a “House of Sharing” — with other survivors, may look like your archetypical grandmother, but she never married, never had a family of her own. In Korea’s highly traditional society, these women, though acknowledged as victims, besides being traumatized, often were regarded as unsuitable for marriage, Lauri said.
Last Friday, however, Yong Soo Lee was thrilled with the exhibition, describing herself as “grateful” and the art as “empowering.”
Currently a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Japanese government asking that documents related to the comfort women be made available, she said, “I sincerely thank you for your ongoing assistance in the United States. … I am encouraged.”
Jungsil Lee, 49, an adjunct professor at Towson University in Maryland and the Corcoran College of Art + Design, said as curator she selected artists, who, to varying degrees, were already creating works either directly or indirectly inspired by the issues surrounding comfort women.
Also president of ArTrio, a company involved in global art exhibition, education and art exchange, she said, the exhibition’s themes go beyond the conflict between Korea and Japan. The art also speaks more universally to crimes against humanity, especially violence against women, war crimes involving rape and the violation of human rights throughout the world.
“The amazing thing is these very brave [comfort] women became activists,” she said, noting, as an example, some also have participated in raising funds to support others victimized by sexual violence — such as African women who are systematically raped as a strategy of warfare.
A good place to start at this exhibition is with the documentary, “Silence Broken,” by award-winning independent filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, who was born in North Korea during the Japanese occupation. About an hour long, the film was initially broadcast in the U.S. in 2000 by PBS and by Korean Broadcasting System as an Independence Day special.
Providing important and previously lacking background material, though it interviews people on both sides of the issues, its orientation is clearly pro comfort women survivors.
Breaking a half century of silence, the film shows surviving comfort women, who face the camera and tell their individual and always painful stories.
Demanding “justice and an apology for crimes against humanity,” one survivor says with palpable disgust: “The soldiers treated us like military supplies.”
Another explains why an official apology from the Japanese government and redress in form of compensation, despite private offers of payment, are so important. “If we receive private funds, we become prostitutes,” the aged woman tells the unseen interviewer.
“There is not one line of narration,” pointed out Kim-Gibson, at the exhibition opening. “I let them tell their own stories. … So little is known about this period. This is a primary source.”
Artist Steve Cavallo, whose large-scale watercolors are in the exhibition, credited Kim-Gibson’s documentary with inspiring his art and initiating his dedication to comfort woman issues.
Cavallo — who “considers art a strong and essential tool to express human conditions which may otherwise remain buried in oppressive silence” — related at the opening how he became the driving force behind a small memorial to comfort women in front of the library in Palisades Park, N.J., the first such memorial in the U.S.
Cavallo, who visited a “House of Sharing” in South Korea and stayed with eight former comfort women, said: “As the surviving victims of sexual slavery are dwindling in number, I am honored that my art can be the voice of those who remain unheard.”
Many members of WCCW wore black T-shirts embroidered with various dates. A project of artist Yong Soon Min — who was born in South Korea in 1953, educated in the U.S. and is now a professor at the University of California, Irvine — the dates count every year since Japan established the first “comfort station” in 1931.
Selling her T-shirts at the opening and asking people to write their own reflections on a poster, she explained that the project would continue until Japan officially recognized its responsibility.
Other artists whose works are in the exhibition include: Sasha Yungju Lee, Youngmi Song Organ, Yoshiko Shimada and In-Soon Shin, whose works deal with the exploitation of the female body using real and symbolic images; Arin Yoon, whose series of candid photographs feature former comfort women as they look today; and Chang-Jin Lee, whose vivid series of “Comfort Women Wanted” posters, comment on the organized and forced recruitment of these women and their aftermath of suffering.
Sasha Yungju Lee told those at the opening that her mother was active in bringing the issues of the comfort women to the public in Ottawa where she grew up. She said, “I never thought 20 years later, all this would come together this way. We can never let this repeat.”