World War II witnessed a profusion of horrific and inhumane human rights violations, among which is the history of comfort women. The phrase “comfort women” refers to the system of sexual slavery created and utilized by the imperial Japanese government during World War II. In an attempt to boost army morale and control the behavior of their soldiers, the Japanese military coerced and kidnapped women and young girls—some as young as twelve—from multiple countries to sexually serve their soldiers. Scholars estimate that anywhere between 170,000 and 200,000 women were forced to service anywhere from 5 to 60 soldiers a day. Comfort women were treated harshly and were often physically abused. They were under heavy surveillance and those who tried to run were captured and killed, oftentimes execution style to dissuade any other women from attempting to escape. The system of comfort women marks the largest case of government-sponsored sex trafficking in modern history, but after the war was over, this history was largely ignored, especially by Japan, or unknown.
While the system of comfort women ended in 1945, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the history of these women finally began to be openly discussed. Women, who had previously been shamed or threatened by the Japanese military, began to come forward and share their stories. Comfort women were taken from China, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, East Timor, and the Dutch East Indies, but the majority of these women were from Korea. As the Korean people were made more aware of this history and began listening to the personal experiences of their own women, outrage, and action took hold of the community. Beginning in 1992 and continuing to the current day, Korean people have come together every Wednesday to protest. They seek justice, awareness, and an apology for the atrocities comfort women faced at the hands of the Japanese government and military.
In 2011 The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, an organization working to solve matters surrounding Japan and comfort women, proposed the creation of a memorial stone to commemorate the suffering of these women and girls. In response artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung designed a bronze statue known as The Statue of Peace and installed it directly in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul, South Korea. The weekly protests now take place around this statue which features a seated young girl wearing traditional Korean clothing. The girl sits with her hands placed in her lap and stares forward with a determined look on her face, a small bird is perched on her right shoulder and an empty chair sits next to her. The statue is powerful and filled with symbolism. The girl’s short hair speaks to the abrupt end of her childhood and the removal from her family. Her facial expression shows her resolve to obtain justice, and the small bird acts as a symbol of freedom and peace. Her feet are left bare as many comfort women were not allowed to wear shoes as a way to prevent them from running away. Her heels do not touch the ground to remember the many other girls and women who were killed by Japanese soldiers, unable to ever return home. The empty chair acts as an invitation to the viewer to sit next to the comfort woman, to console her, and attempt to understand her pain and suffering. A shadow of the statue is also embedded into the floor through a mosaic. The shadow is shaped like an elderly woman to signify the many decades that have passed while waiting for justice. At the center of the shadow is a small white butterfly that symbolizes reincarnation and the hope for a sincere apology. Japan has fought to have this statue removed, but the determination and outcry of the Korean people have thwarted any attempt at removal.
In 2015, four years after the installation of the Statue of Peace, Japan did issue an apology and gave the few remaining comfort women in South Korea 8.3 million dollars in reparations. While Japan said this would be the final admission, many Japanese people felt that this apology and the reparations were unnecessary while many Koreans did not feel that this apology was sincere. The Korean people asked Japan to send a letter of apology directly to the few remaining comfort women but the request was denied, leaving a continued tension between the two countries.
Since its initial installation, the Statue of Peace has been recreated and installed in many other countries around the world including China, Australia, Germany, Canada, and the United States. The statue and the story of comfort women have transcended national boundaries and brought greater awareness not only to wartime abuse of women but to sex trafficking and sexual violence as a whole. Other versions of the statue and other memorials remembering comfort women have been erected around the world. Their history and experiences are important and should never be forgotten. Statues play important roles in remembering and honoring the people and events of our past, they help shape public opinion. With each new installation of the Statue of Peace, Japan has fought for its removal, including its most recent installation in Berlin, Germany in September 2020. Around 100 of these statues have been placed around the world, and many of the communities in which these statues are placed embrace the young girl and add their voices to the continued fight for awareness among victims of sexual violence. The continued placement of these powerful statues helps ensure that these women’s experiences and history are never forgotten.
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