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Sheffield conference report – Comfort Women: Listening To Their Voices

Comfort Women poster

Short of bringing some of the surviving halmonis to the UK in person, it is difficult to imagine how the organisers of this weekend’s gathering in Sheffield could have assembled a better line-up of people to discuss the Comfort Women issue.

Director Byun Young-joo (centre) with Professor Lee Hyang-jin (right)
Director Byun Young-joo (centre) with Professor Lee Hyang-jin (right) at the Showroom Cinema, Sheffield, 20 June 2015

We had Byun Young-joo, director of the trilogy of documentaries focusing on the Korean comfort women – The Murmuring (낮은 목소리, 1995); Habitual Sadness (낮은 목소리 2, 1997) and My Own Breathing (낮은목소리3 – 숨결, 1999); Kim Dong-won, director of a documentary focusing on comfort women more broadly – 63 Years On (끝나지 않은 전쟁, 2008); and Yang Ching-ja, who produced and shot the footage of My Heart is Not Broken Yet (나의 마음은 지지 않았다, 2007), the story of the only known Korean comfort women living in Japan and her 10 year battle in the Japanese courts to get the Japanese Government to accept responsibility for the past. Completing the line-up were Lee Hyang-jin, noted Korean cinema expert and Professor in the College of Intercultural Communication at Rikkyo University in Tokyo; Kawai Yuko, an associate professor in the same college; and Kim Minkyu, a senior research fellow at the Northeast Asian History Foundation.

Kim Hak-soon
Kim Hak-soon (Image credit: )

The testimony of the Comfort Women started when Kim Hak-soon (김학순) came forward in 1991 to tell her story. Before then, the comfort women had kept silent. In part this silence was by choice – the past was too painful to talk about, and was “shameful”. In addition though it seems that the Korean dictatorship sought to suppress talk about the issue on the grounds that issues with Japan had been resolved when relations were normalised back in 1965. As Korea moved towards democracy the latter constraint was no longer present. In addition, it was suggested in Yang Ching-ja’s documentary that it was in 1990 that the issue was discussed in the Japanese Parliament and the position taken that this was not a government issue as the comfort stations had been operated by the private sector (albeit on behalf of the military). Incensed by this statement, Kim Hak-soon stepped forward to give her testimony, and was soon followed by many others.1

Director Kim Dong-won (centre) with Dr Kim Minkyu (right)
Director Kim Dong-won (centre) with Dr Kim Minkyu (right) at the Showroom Cinema, Sheffield, 20 June 2015

Kim Dong-won’s documentary sought to demonstrate that, while the private sector might have been given the dirty work of recruitment and management of the comfort stations, the actual policy was a deliberate government initiative, and thus the government could not avoid responsibility. In their military campaigns earlier in the 20th century, the Japanese military discovered that allowing their soldiers free rein with the local womanhood could result in debilitating diseases: much better to provide the soldiers with women whose health could be checked upon in brothels under Japanese control; and to provide the soldiers with other protection as well. The troops in the Pacific War were given disinfectant ointment to clean themselves and the standard military-issue condom had the distasteful brand name Assault #1.

Most of the comfort women were forcibly recruited from Japan’s colonies – Taiwan and of course Korea, but any women in occupied countries were at risk. Kim Dong-won’s documentary even featured a Dutch comfort woman, forcibly recruited along with several others when the Japanese interned foreigners on occupying Java.

Harvesting the pumpkins in Habitual Sadness
Harvesting the pumpkins in Habitual Sadness – a scene filmed at the nagging insistence of the halmonis, according to Director Byun

Byun Young-joo’s work with the comfort women is probably the best known of the three film-makers featured in the Sheffield event. The first film of her trilogy, The Murmuring, came out in 19952, and was the product of a prolonged trust-building initiative. Initially, the halmonis3 were extremely suspicious of the film-maker, but after Byun had lived with them for several months they consented. The impact of the documentary was beyond expectation: it promoted a much greater public awareness of the Comfort Women issue, and led to a surge of donations from members of the public, enabling the House of Sharing, near Gwangju in Gyeonggi-do, to be built to house some of the halmonis. The reception also had a healing impact on the women themselves, according to Byun: “they realised that people liked them”. They also noticed that audiences particularly liked the scenes when the women spoke with more down-to-earth language, and realised that maybe they had been too cautious in the fist documentary. So they approached Byun to make a second and subsequently a third movie, in which they played a greater role in the film-making process itself. In the second documentary, we see the halmonis at work on their small farm purchased out of public donations, and we see the last few months of one of them as she dies of cancer.

Two real life Comfort Women embrace embrace the statue of their younger selves opposite the Japanese Embassy in Seoul
Two real life Comfort Women embrace embrace the statue of their younger selves opposite the Japanese Embassy in Seoul (Source: BBC)

As the issues became better known, the administration of Kim Dae-jung started to pay welfare to the women, but this of course did not resolve the issue in relation to Japan. The women have been demonstrating outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul every Wednesday since 8 January 1992. The aims of the rally include getting the Japanese government to issue an official apology, give compensation and accurately reflect the issue in their history textbooks. As highlighted in Kim Dong-won’s documentary, the aims of the halmonis are consistent with Resolution 121 passed in the US House of Representatives on 30 July 2007. This resolution includes a suggestion that it

would help to resolve recurring questions about the sincerity and status of prior statements if the Prime Minister of Japan were to make such an apology as a public statement in his official capacity;

This seems to be a reference to a press conference held at Camp David earlier that year between the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President George W Bush, in which Abe apologised in a private capacity and the President, bizarrely, “accepted” that apology. A clip of the press conference was included in Kim Dong-won’s documentary, 63 Years On, and the Sheffield audience laughed with incredulity.4

Yang Ching-ja (centre) with Kawai Yuko (right)
Yang Ching-ja, who shot the footage for My Heart Is Not Broken Yet (centre), with Kawai Yuko (right) at the Showroom Cinema, Sheffield, 20 June 2015

If all the above seems to imply that the Japanese as a whole deny the Comfort Women issue, that is not the case. The final documentary shown in Sheffield was My Heart Is Not Broken Yet (narrated by Moon So-ri), which follows the story of former Comfort Women Song Sin-do as she battles for restitution in the Japanese courts. Song could only conduct her campaign with the daily aid, encouragement and financial assistance from a Japanese support group devoted to the Comfort Women issue – and in fact it was the support group who sought out Song in the first place following an anonymous tip-off. Ultimately Song’s campaign was unsuccessful. In three separate judgements at different levels of the Japanese legal hierarchy, the courts seemed to accept some culpability on behalf of the government, but dismissed the case because it was brought too long after the event.

Song Sin-do
Song Sin-do (Image source: Indiespace)

While the outcome of the legal battle itself is of course disappointing, the documentary itself is a fascinating portrait of a remarkable and indomitable halmoni – and as the title suggests, despite the setbacks, Song Sin-do remains undaunted, and fights on with her message that there should be no more wars.5 The film was edited together by director Ahn Haeryong from home video footage shot by activist Yang Ching-ja, herself a zainichi Korean.

The Sheffield event, made possible by Sheffield Hallam University, Showroom Cinema, Tokyo’s Rikkyo University and the Northeast Asian History Foundation was a fascinating opportunity to discuss an important issue which still bedevils international relations seventy years on.


  1. A fuller account of the events leading up to Kim Hak-soon’s testimony can be found on the Japanese Asian Women’s Fund website. []
  2. In a Q&A session after one of the Sheffield screenings, Director Byun revealed that she decided on the English titles before the Korean ones. []
  3. Halmoni, grandmother, is how everyone present in the room and in the documentaries referred to the elderly ladies. []
  4. The subtitles in the footage of the press conference as shown in Kim’s documentary clearly imply that Abe is apologising in a private capacity; the official press release in George W Bush’s White House archives suggests the apology was something more official – albeit made in a private meeting between the two leaders. As reported in the New York Times, “Abe offered an apology but used pointedly vague language to sidestep the issue of Japan’s responsibility toward the sex slaves”  []
  5. At the time of writing, Song is still with us, aged 91 (Korean age 93) – she managed to survive the 2011 Japanese tsunami though her house was destroyed. []

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