Special to WorldTribune.com
The Koreans are using art to upset the Japanese.
That’s in the form of statues of innocent young girls ― reminders of the suffering of Korean and other Asian women in the service of Japanese soldiers in World War II. They’ve got these statues in New Jersey, California and Michigan, much to the annoyance of the Japanese, but the one that bothers them most is on the sidewalk across a rather narrow street from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
On the one hand, Japanese protests do make sense. Isn’t it rude to implant statuary outside any embassy as a rebuke to the diplomats inside and the nation they represent? How would Koreans feel if Japanese placed works of art touching upon sensitive chords in Korean culture or history in front of the Korean embassy in Tokyo?
The image of violated Korean womanhood goes deeper, however, than mere propaganda. If the statue in Seoul is removed from the sight of Japanese diplomats, it will probably go somewhere else that’s sure to displease them. The fact that this particular statue is tastefully molded, not some crude or distorted representation, makes it all the more difficult to complain about it. Like it or not, there’s no way the Japanese can expunge the statue in Seoul from existence any more than they can obliterate the historical record of the war.
This statue, moreover, has significance beyond that of a rebuke over Japanese misdeeds. It’s the visible manifestation of a slew of nagging questions about the “landmark” deal reached between Korea and Japan for resolving for once and all the whole controversy about the exploitation of Korean women as “sex slaves” of Japanese soldiers. Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, in announcing the agreement, could do no more than “acknowledge” Japan’s “concern about the statue” while promising consultations “with related organizations about possible ways of addressing this issue.”
In those careful turns of phrase, Yun admitted huge problems in convincing the activists responsible for the statue that it’s time to haul it off. How could he promise its removal when the statue is the creation of the same activists who stage demonstrations of former comfort women every Wednesday outside the Japanese Embassy? Never mind that it’s on a public sidewalk, guarded by one or two policemen.
Considering the outcries against the “settlement” reached on the comfort woman issue, Japanese may have to reconcile themselves to the statue for quite a while longer. The issue of compensation for surviving comfort women remains unsettled regardless of the deal. Inevitably, advocates for the 46 one-time comfort women who are left ― from as many as 200,000 whom they say were forced into serving Japanese soldiers ― are not impressed. Not surprisingly, they want far more than the 1 billion yen ($8.3 million), agreed on “as a one-time contribution” for the few survivors.
The verbiage of the agreement, though, shows the anxiety of both the Korean and Japanese governments to place a bandage over this long-running open sore. The fund, besides providing compensation, would go into “projects for recovering the honor and dignity and healing the psychological wounds of all former comfort women” ― “under cooperation” between Japan and Korea.
Still, the agreement does not hold Japan legally responsible for abusing these women. Japanese officials for years claimed that compensation was provided in funds given to Korea when they opened diplomatic relations 50 years ago, describing the issue as exaggerated if not fabricated. It was up to Yohei Kono, as Japan’s chief cabinet secretary during a brief period of socialist rule, to issue the first apology in 1993. Later, Japanese leaders, carrying the banner of the deeply conservative Liberal-Democratic Party, backed away from what they saw as an abject admission of guilt. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had earlier repudiated Japan’s role.
The relief of Abe and President Park Geun-Hye over conclusion of the agreement was palpable. No sooner had it been announced than they were on the phone expressing hopes for a vast improvement in often bitter relations.
Controversy over the statue, however, is not likely to fade. If anything, the idea is catching. Influential Korean-Americans are responsible for implanting comfort woman statues in communities in the U.S. that are dominated by Korean office buildings, shops and restaurants. Local politicians, swayed by the need for votes and donations, are not going to yield to Japanese demands to get rid of them.
Korean-Japanese relations may get better as a result of the agreement on comfort women. The Japanese, though, should learn to accept the comfort woman statues ― if not on their immediate doorsteps, then elsewhere, as unpleasant reminders of an imperial past. That’s a small price to pay for the crimes committed by Japanese soldiers against women from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere ― a legacy of war from which there is no escape and no denial.
Donald Kirk has been covering Northeast Asia and Japan-Korea relations for decades. He’s at email@example.com.