Japan's World War II 'Comfort Women': Now the Musical

Some 200,000 Korean young women were forced to work at brothels run by the Japanese Army during World War II. Haaretz speaks to the director and leading actor of a new off-B’way play that spotlights this still-controversial, painful story.

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NEW YORK – An unusual musical began its off-Broadway run two weeks ago. Titled “Comfort Women: A New Musical,” the show is based on the testimonies of young girls and women abducted from Korea during World War II by the Imperial Japanese Army, and forced to work in army brothels.

August 15 marked the 70th anniversary of VJ Day, the surrender of the Japanese Empire to the Allies – specifically, the date on which Emperor Hirohito announced the move, even though the declaration was formally signed only on September 2, 1945.

The New York musical is yet another attempt to raise awareness about the “comfort women,” as they were called by Japanese soldiers. Human rights organization Amnesty International estimates that at least 200,000 such women and teens were brought to Japanese brothels, mostly from Korea, but also from China, Taiwan, the Philippines and other countries under Japanese occupation during the war. Some of the women were abducted from their homes by soldiers; others were enticed by promises of jobs.

Last Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech marking the anniversary, and while the remaining survivors of the abuse in the brothels hoped to hear an honest apology along with recognition of their suffering and the injustice done to them – he only repeated previous Japanese apologies and obliquely referred to the women’s plight.

Even though the story of these women is one of the most painful in the history of Korea, and a number of documentary films have been made about it, the new musical spotlights the testimony of the victims for the first time in a popular format.

Steven Anderson

In an interview with Haaretz, director Dimo Hyun Jun Kim said he was shocked to discover that many people around the world have never even heard this story.

“I love documentaries, but there are people who are bored by them. Especially if it’s not about your nation’s history, many are going to say, ‘Okay, okay, I understand, you were victims of human trafficking, so what?” said Dimo, who was born in South Korea, and adds that he hopes the audiences will become interested in the topic and want to learn more about it.

The director recalls that Bryan Michaels, who composed the music for the show, said to him, “Dimo, you understand that you writing a musical about the Holocaust?”

As opposed to other musicals, he explains, the plot does not include romantic or comic elements, rather focuses on a group of young women from a small town in Korea, who are enlisted by a Japanese agent ostensibly to work in a factory in Japan. But instead of that, they are sent to a Japanese army camp in Indonesia, where they are cruelly abused in an attempt to turn them into sex slaves.

To make the musical more accessible to the audience, Dimo says he added the character of Minsik Lee, a young Korean man who is forcibly drafted into the Japanese army. Minsik meets the women imprisoned on the base and decides to help them escape.

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“We had a hard time with the story: Usually a musical has comedy, or a love story, and it’s really hard to put comedy into the subject of comfort women,” said Dimo. “I decided to focus on the escape story, although I could not find any testimonials of successful escape stories: Women got killed when they tried to escape. That character – I always write him as me, because whenever I read the testimonies I want to help them escape. “

Koreans were indeed drafted into the Japanese army, but Minsik’s escape plot is fictional. The rest of the story line is, however, based on real testimony of survivors who appeared before an official government commission on the matter in 2005 in South Korea. As opposed to the testimony of Jews who fled the Nazis, for example, there are virtually no stories of successful escapes by comfort women from the Japanese military brothels. Most of these women were only freed when the Allies liberated them.

In 1993, Yohei Kono, then Japan's chief cabinet secretary, admitted that the country had abducted women to work in military brothels during the war, and he published a declaration, called the Kono Statement, officially recognizing this on behalf of the government. However, after Abe took office, many senior officials denied the admissions made in it.

In fact, in 2007, Abe called the comfort women “professional prostitutes,” and denied they were victims captured by the Japanese military for use as sex slaves. He later retracted his statements in the wake of harsh public criticism, both from inside Japan and from neighboring countries. Since Abe returned to the prime minister’s office in 2012, he has made it clear that he supports statements on the subject made by previous Japanese governments. In any event, it is still provoking controversy in the country.

'Grandmother' sex slaves

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A number of Japanese actors have been cast in the new musical, who are interested in raising awareness about this embarrassing period in the history of their country. One such actor, Edward Ikeguchi, made a sculpture of a young comfort woman with a butterfly – a symbol used in demonstrations by survivors – which was placed at the entrance to the Theatre at St. Clement’s on 46th Street in Manhattan, where the show opened on July 31.

In the past, Japan has tried to prevent Koreans in the United States from using similar symbolic statues. For his part, Dimo says he received numerous threats in Japanese over the past year, in advance of the opening of the musical: “I got so many death threats, people writing ‘stop lying, stop distorting history.’”

During the war, the producers of the show write on its official website, "approximately 200,000 'comfort women' were enlisted to serve about 50 to 100 men every day. The men were supposed to use condoms as a safety precaution, but this rule, along with the rule about age, was not enforced. Moreover, when the condom supply was running low, the soldiers would often save the used ones to wash and reuse later. As a result of these horrible practices, only 25 to 30 percent of women survived the war, and some of these women are still alive today."

There is still a strong sense of shame and a social stigma around the issue, in part due to the conservative nature of Korean society, that prevents women from speaking publicly about their past as comfort women, or even revealing their painful past to their families. Most of those who testified before a state inquiry commission in 2005 asked for their statements to be published anonymously. The survivors resent the Japanese euphemism “comfort women”, seen as an attempt to white wash the brutal and involuntary nature of sexual slavery in the military brothels, yet shrink from the more accurate term “sex slaves." They usually prefer to be called “grandmother,” an affectionate term in Korean.

Dimo explains sadly that the organizations that aid these survivors have in essence become “political parties,” which compete with one another in organizing events and raising money, but the welfare of the survivors does not always seem to be their top priority.

Taly Krupkin

“I wanted to show that we lost focus on the women, their wellbeing,” he says. “It’s about human rights. Just think about the 14-year-old who lost her youth and had to serve 40, 50 men per day. There are many survivors who are hiding their story, who never spoke about it with their husbands, their children. They are suffering to this day from PTSD, struggling alone.”

The Korea JoonAng Daily newspaper reports that only 47 of the comfort women who were willing to speak publicly about their story remain, after seven others passed away this year.

In an interview, Dimo criticized the South Korean government on the issue of these women, declaring that its policy toward Japan has been too conciliatory, because of the economic ties between the two countries. He explains that when he was looking for funding for the musical, not a single institution in South Korea was willing to contribute.

The director believes that South Korean president Park Geun-hye must speak out on the issue: “She should say something, she is our first female president. I think it should be a top goal for her to achieve in her era. It will be that much more powerful coming from a female president,” he says.

Sandra W. Lee, the actress who plays Goeun Kim, the main character in the musical, told Haaretz, “This production has a special meaning for me. Even though I don’t know any comfort women personally, I’m of Korean background, and it’s part of my people’s history.”

Taly Krupkin

She pauses for a few seconds before continuing: “I was in the [U.S.] military for eight years, and I’m a survivor of rape in the military. So this parallel is very powerful and meaningful to me. I want people to know the story, give more voice to the women survivors,” Lee says.

“Set in 1941, 'Comfort Women' takes us to Seoul, Korea, where we meet Goeun, a young woman whose brother is attempting to revolt against the Imperial Japanese Army," according to the website of the play.

"Goeun meets a man who promises her a good paying job at a factory in Tokyo. Feeling like she has no other options to support her family, she chooses to leave her home and take the job. Unfortunately, Goeun soon realizes that this is not the dream opportunity that she has been promised. She is held hostage, transported to Indonesia, and is forced to become a Japanese Imperial Army sexual slave. We follow Goeun through this life-altering experience as she befriends fellow slaves (comfort women) and they plan their impossible escape."  

Says Lee, “It’s surprising to me how many people ask me: ‘So what is comfort women?’ There are so many atrocities in the world, I guess, that something like that is shuffled in the mix, and forgotten."

After telling her personal story, Lee says that sexual abuse was part of World War II. “Unfortunately it is inevitable. I believe that sexual violence is not about sex, it is about control, and that is what a world war [is about]: controlling other humans. However, the way the comfort women were lured and taken ... Human trafficking can be changed,” she says.

Wartime 'rape culture'

Lee’s story was publicized a number of years ago in the United States, when she has spoken publicly about her rape while serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq, and criticized the military response to sexual abuse of servicewomen. “They could do a better job. It’s hard to change that rape culture throughout the military. It’s really the individuals that need to change, to know what is right, instead of focusing only on the interests of the army," she says now.

Director Dimo decided not to include explicit rape scenes in the musical, fearing the audience would find them too hard to deal with. After the women characters are imprisoned in the army camp, there is a dance piece that represents the systematic rape by the Japanese soldiers.

As for the decision not to include rape scenes, Lee says: “I think it’s a smart decision, for me in particular. I think I would have a hard time with that. Already when I prepare for the next scene, if it’s a difficult scene, in my head I replay what I experienced: the tension in my body, the physicality of it. On stage that would be too much. And I think it might me too much for the audience as well.

"This way, when it’s implied, through interpretive dance, the audience knows what is going on, but is not so in-your-face and so shocking that it makes them uncomfortable. When you incorporate art in to it, it becomes more powerful. You can see the sadness, you can see the anger. When you show something like the soldiers pushing [the women], taking them, all you can see is the brutality, and not all the other emotions the women might be going through at this moment,” she adds.

Although it is impossible to know if any of the survivors will come to see the show, a number of organizations representing them have announced that they are interested in staging a production in South Korea. A few months ago the cast and production crew met with one of the survivors who was demonstrating in front of the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.

“She is 90 now, but she has so much strength,” says Lee. “We didn’t really get a chance to speak for a long time, but I was very honored to have the opportunity to sing a song from the musical to her. I held her hand and it was very powerful. She said thank you; I felt her grip my hand and it was all the words I needed. She has so much strength. But I could also feel her pain and her long struggle. She was such a young girl back then. So many decades of pushing on in life, of the struggle.”

At the end of the interview, Lee said: “Hatred needs to be pushed aside. We need to be working hand in hand with the Japanese to get an apology, a sincere apology, and recognition of what happened. For the remaining comfort women that are alive, and there are not so many of them left – if they could hear that apology from the Japanese government, know that the government acknowledged what happened, I think they would have a little more peace of mind before they pass on to the next life.

"I wish that for them," Lee adds. "I don’t know if it will happen, but I really hope so. They are up there in age, hopefully they will live to see it.”