Banned in Japan: The Little Statue that Roared
Welcome, dear readers, to Aichi Trienniale 2019, one of the largest Japanese contemporary art festivals in the country. Held every three years since 2010, this festival attracts artists from around Japan and the globe, while promoting such lofty goals as “contributing to the global development of culture and art” and “bringing culture and art into people’s daily lives” as its mission.
The exhibitions for year’s Aichi Trienniale are being held at several major art venues in the cities of Nagoya and Toyota (home of the famous Japanese Toyota cars), in central Japan, under the theme of “Taming Y/Our Passion”. The festival is running 75 consecutive days from 1 August to mid-October 2019.
But from the opening day of the festival, the organizers of Aichi Trienniale 2019 were getting flooded with phone calls, fax messages and e-mails from angry, upset people. Threats were issued mostly anonymously, including by one Japanese man, a truck driver, who threatened to bring a can of gasoline to the exhibition site and torch the place — just as the nation was recovering from shock over another unrelated arson case at an anime studio recently in Kyoto.
As a result, about a week ago, just three days into the Aichi Trienniale, festival organizers hastily announced they were cancelling the showing of a single exhibition at the festival over public safety concerns. The rest of the festival went on as scheduled.
The statue you see in the photo at the top of this page — titled “Statue of a Girl of Peace” — was the target of all that Japanese public ire. The statue exhibition was being shown at the Aichi Trienniale by two Korean artists. That statue, and various other exhibits, were located in a section of the arts festival titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’”, which was set up to showcase works that had been censored in Japan in the past and to promote freedom of expression.
This particular statue of a Korean girl sitting in a chair has in recent years come to symbolize the system of sexual slavery that many girls and young women from Korea and other Asian countries were subjected to by Japan’s imperial army during World War II. It was this statue of the Korean girl that prompted such a vocal outcry among the Japanese public (and by the extreme-right-wing mayor of Nagoya too) that led the arts festival organizers to shut down the Korean statue exhibit and remove it from the Aichi Trienniale completely.
It was a shameful act of intimidation and censorship that, sadly, is becoming all too common in Japan in these early years of the new century, especially under the reign of the right-wing nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe (better known as the Japanese equivalent of the American fake president, Donald Trump).
That recent act of censorship in Japan, of course, has deep roots in the past. Tens of thousands of girls and young women — estimates range from 20,000 to more than 400,000 — were mostly from Asian countries then under Japanese occupation during the Second World War. They were kidnapped or otherwise falsely deceived into serving as ianfu, literally “comfort women” or military prostitutes, for Japanese soldiers near the various battlefronts.
What makes this issue so incendiary all these decades later? In a word: Hirohito, then the emperor-god of Japan. Hirohito had nothing directly to do with the sexual enslavement of Asian women at the time, but he was undeniably the supreme military commander of Japan’s imperial army and the one for whom all Japanese young soldiers were expected to fight and die. Long after Hirohito’s death in 1989, many still hold him personally accountable for Japan’s military atrocities during the war. Conversely, any criticism of Japan’s military actions in the Second World War is automatically taken by some Japanese nationalists as an insult against Japan’s imperial monarch (who today is little more than a symbol of the Japanese state).
There is still something of an extreme-right-wing cult following for the emperor of Japan, especially for the late Hirohito. Along with that is a clear lack of regret or even awareness among most of the Japanese public over just how badly Japan treated other Asian countries during the war; the only part of the war that most Japanese seem to feel shame for today is having been defeated by the United States. A deep-seated sense of denial exists widely in Japan over the sexual slavery issue from World War II, and it is this issue that has continued to strain Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors, especially China and the Koreas, since the war’s end more than 70 years ago.
But what is it about that particular statue of the Korean girl sitting in a chair that gets folks in Japan so riled up? The symbolism of the statue itself is well-charted by CNN here in detail. The Korean peace girl statue literally roars its message without using many words, and that kind of unspoken criticism can often be the most damning kind — especially when dealing with the scars of wars past.
The statue of the Korean girl first made its public appearance nine years ago in the United States. Here are some of the places in the world where the Korean peace girl statue and/or related commemorative monuments have since been erected to show solidarity with the plight of Asian women during the war, eliciting strong Japanese criticism and opposition all along the way:
• Palisades Park, New Jersey, USA (2010). The first such monument was erected in the United States, with strong support from the Korean-American community, to commemorate the suffering of Korean girls and women under sexual enslavement by the Japanese wartime forces. The mayor of Palisades Park steadily resisted Japanese calls to take down the monument, which sits on the grounds of a local library.
• Embassy of Japan, Seoul, South Korea (2011). The first Korean “comfort women” statue to appear in South Korea came next, as activists erected a version of the statue in front of the Japanese embassy to mark the 1,000th week of protests in the South Korean capital of Seoul. This would become the most well-known of the statues. The Koreans demanded an apology and compensation by the government of Japan; the Japanese government insisted the statue should come down.
• Eisenhower Park, Long Island, New York, USA (2012). A memorial was created at this New York public park site in 2012, then another memorial added to the same site a couple years later.
• Garden Grove, Orange County, California, USA (2012). The first such monument on the U.S. west coast is unveiled on the grounds of a private local shopping mall.
• Bergen County Courthouse, Hackensack, New Jersey, USA (2013). International Women’s Day was marked here with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque honoring the many Asian women who were sexually enslaved by Japan’s military in World War II.
• Central Park, Glendale, California, USA (2013). This one evoked an especially strong reaction, including from right-wing local Japanese politicians. A year later in 2014, a federal judge ruled against attempts to take down the Korean peace girl statue and plaque in this public park near Los Angeles. More recently, just a couple weeks ago, the monument was reported as being vandalized at a time of increased political and economic friction between the countries of Japan and South Korea.
• Fairfax County Government Center, Fairfax, Virginia, USA (2014). The Korean peace girl statue was formally placed on the grounds of a local government office complex in Virginia, not far from Washington DC, where Japan’s embassy is located. The embassy registered a protest against the existence of the statue.
• Liberty Plaza, Union City, New Jersey, USA (2014). Two Korean women who had experienced being sexually enslaved by Japan’s military during the Second World War were present for the dedication ceremony of the new “comfort women monument”.
• Korean American Cultural Center of Michigan, Southfield, Michigan, USA (2014). A Korean peace girl statue is unveiled after a long delay due to local Japanese opposition.
• Croydon Park, Sydney, Australia (2016). A Korean peace girl statue was unveiled at a park in Australia, another country whose women were also sexually victimized by Japan’s military during World War II. A few months later, the monument was removed from the park due to lobbying by Japanese community groups in Australia. The Korean peace girl statue was then moved into a Christian church in Sydney, where it continued to be the focus of controversy.
• Embassy of Japan, Busan, South Korea (2016). A new Korean sex-slave statue is set up by protesters outside the Japanese embassy in the city of Busan, sparking a major diplomatic row between Japan and South Korea.
• Nepal Himalaya Pavilion, Wiesent, Germany (2017). The first monument in Europe to honor the Korean sex slaves victimized by Japan’s military during wartime is unveiled in a park here.
• Blackburn Park, Brookhaven, Georgia, USA (2017). Originally slated to be built near the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, those plans were inexplicably scrapped at the last minute and the Korean peace girl statue moved to a new location in the city of Brookhaven.
• Cliffside Park, New Jersey, USA (2017). A marble tablet honoring the Korean women enslaved by Japan’s wartime military is unveiled in front of a local Christian church.
• St. Mary’s Square, Chinatown, San Francisco, California, USA (2017). As the first major U.S. city to host a public monument to Asian women sexually enslaved by Japan’s military in wartime, San Francisco was “punished” by the far-right-wing mayor of Osaka, Japan, who broke the official longstanding San Francisco-Osaka sister city ties in retaliation for the statue being built.
• Museum of Korean American Heritage, Manhattan, New York City, USA (2017). The Korean peace girl statue makes its debut in New York City.
• City buses in Seoul, South Korea (2017). In addition to about 50 other locations in this country where the Korean peace girl statue has been erected, passengers using public transportation in the South Korean capital city started seeing the statues placed within city buses, including on buses that made a stop in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
• Baywalk, Roxas Boulevard, Manila, Philippines (2017). A bronze statue commemorating the estimated 1,000 Filipina women who were forced to serve as sex slaves by Japan’s military during World War II was erected along a busy bayside promenade in the Philippine capital city. Vociferous complaints about the statue by Japanese officials in the Philippines followed, and a few months later in early 2018, the Philippine government removed the statue from public view. The statue is now on display at the private studio of the sculptor who created it.
• Constitution Park, Fort Lee, New Jersey (2018). Local high school activists worked for several years to get a “Comfort Women Memorial” located in their community.
• Nanjing, China (2018). Reportedly the first monument in mainland China specifically to commemorate the Chinese women who were sexually victimized by Japanese soldiers during World War II. This major monument is based in the same buildings once used by occupying Japanese forces as sexual “comfort stations” where Chinese women were sexually enslaved. Nanjing was the site of a mass slaughter of local Chinese citizens during Japan’s military occupation of China in the 1930s.
• Tainan, Taiwan (2018). Tainan becomes the first Taiwanese city to host a public statue commemorating the girls and women of that country who were sexually enslaved by Japan’s wartime military. A right-wing Japanese activist caused a national stir in Taiwan when he was caught on film trying to kick the monument.
• And finally: Nagoya, Aichi, Japan (2019). CENSORED! The art festival Aichi Trienniale 2019 bows down to Japanese public pressure and hateful threats, and cancels the Korean sex-slave exhibit at the festival — proving once again that censorship is alive and well today in the former Japanese empire.
If you’ve been following all of these links closely enough, by now you will have seen that there are big differences in the ways in which the Japanese news media cover this issue versus how other countries’ media report on it.
One of the biggest differences is in the use of the Japanese word ianfu or jugun ianfu, translated as “comfort women” and “military comfort women”, respectively. This word “comfort woman” is the former Japanese military’s term for the Asian women that it forced to sexually serve its troops at the battlefronts.
Other countries’ news media regularly borrow that Japanese “comfort women” phrase in news stories. But unlike news media in other countries, however, the Japanese news media — both the vernacular and English-language press — studiously avoid using terms like “sexually enslaved” or “sex slaves”, which is what the women, in fact, were. A “comfort woman” sounds much less brutal and less inhumane than, say, a “sex slave”. But there is nothing comforting or comfortable about institutionalized rape.
Recently, the Japan Times daily newspaper of Tokyo (my former employer as a staff reporter back in the 1980s) embroiled itself in international controversy when it announced that from now on, it would use an explanatory set phrase in any news stories related to the wartime Asian sex slave issue. Here is the Japan Times’ new and improved, politically correct set phrase:
The term comfort women is a euphemism used to refer to women who provided sex, including those who did so against their will, for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
The Japanese press, like the Japanese government and, it is safe to say, most people in Japanese society, are quick to draw a line between those Asian women who were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers “against their will” versus Asian women who did so willingly as paid prostitutes. As if any woman, then or now, would actually enjoy making a little extra money by being held prisoner, starved, raped, beaten, infected with sexual diseases, impregnated and then left for dead by members of the former Japanese military (or any other military, for that matter).
By inserting the stock phrase “including those who did so against their will” in every single news story about the sex slaves of World War II as a matter of news policy, the Japan Times and other domestic Japanese media are assuaging Japan’s collective sense of guilt in these horrendous crimes and, by extension, releasing the Japanese public from any moral responsibility in the matter.
“Taming Y/Our Passion”, indeed: Leave it to a humble-looking statue of a Korean girl that literally roars a message of women’s pain to the world to become the latest victim of censorship in Japan. There is no shortage of such censored cases in this country, be it in the arts, the news media, education or elsewhere. But banning the truth in Japanese society can serve no positive purpose. The ones who really stand to lose out by such acts of censorship are the people of Japan themselves — the very ones who need to see it most.
The rest of us out here in the world already see and understand the facts of history, and we will not turn our gaze away, no matter how discomforting or uncomfortable the truth may be to accept.
UPDATE: This very same sex-slave statue, considered to be so offensive to Japanese sensibilities, has since been bought up by a businessman from Spain, it was recently reported. The new Spanish owner of the controversial Korean peace girl statue hopes to display it as part of a collection of censored items from around the world in the near future. Go figure. The Spanish entrepreneur would need a massive museum complex just to exhibit all the things in Japanese society alone that are considered to be “taboo” and that have been publicly censored over the years. Stay tuned to LifeTimes for further updates on the sex-slave issue here in Japan....