After over 50 years of shame and silence, the “Comfort Women” have begun to speak out. Through a series of quotes, pictures, and text, a photo exhibit in the Art Gallery of Williard Straight Hall brings to light the tragic stories of the over 200,000 women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Government between 1932 and 1945.
In 1991, after 46 years of silence, the first “Comfort Woman” spoke out about the horrors she experienced.
The term “Comfort Women” refers to the victims of a “premeditated systematic plan originated and implemented by the government of Japan to enslave women considered (ethnically) inferior and subject them to repeated mass rapes,” said Michael D. Hausefeld in a statement. Hausfeld is one of over 35 lawyers in his firm representing the former sexual prisoners in a class action lawsuit currently pending against the Japanese government.
The Japanese Military brothels closed at the end of the war, and many of the victims are still alive today.
“Who is supposed to take care of those people who were abused and are now unable to enjoy their life?” asked Sunshine Sun ’02.
The photo exhibit, entitled, “Comfort Women: Suffering and Dignity in Asia During World War II,” includes a brief history of the enslavement of these women. The exhibit has toured the country, having been displayed at Georgetown University, the Philadelphia Free Library and various congressional buildings.
Injae Mark Hwang ’01, the political chair of the Cornell Korean Students Association worked to bring this $2000 exhibit to Cornell. Hwang gathered sponsorship from all over the Ithaca community to fund the project. The English and government departments as well as the College Cafe, a Collegetown restaurant serving Korean and Japanese cuisine, are among the sponsors.
“I’m an international student from Korea. I’ve found myself in a position to raise awareness for other Cornell students who may not know about this issue at all,” Hwang said.
Hwang had heard about the tragedy by word of mouth while growing up in Korea. However, Hwang only decided to get involved when he attended a seminar and listened to a survivor share her experience.
“I had an occasion to meet a surviving Comfort Woman at a conference. I shook her hand. I could feel for this woman and her experience. She’s still living and going around testifying and speaking [to ensure that] this won’t happen again. I just wanted to help,” Hwang said. “For me, this was always a local issue. Now it’s become an international issue, but it’s still local to me.”
Originally from China, Hsi Wang Ph.D. ’75, more popularly known in the Cornell community as Chef Wang, grew up hearing about the plight of the Comfort Women. “We’ve been hearing about this kind of thing [human rights violations of World War II] since we were children. However, a lot of these scenes I [had] never seen in magazines or books. This is the story you never hear about but it affects all of us,” Wang said.
“I didn’t know it was 200,000 women. That’s a lot of women. It could have been your daughter or your sister,” remarked Sun after seeing the exhibit.
Sun referred to the fact that many of these women were violently abducted and forced into the brothels, while their families had no knowledge of why they disappeared.
“It’s so shocking. [The kidnapping] could have happened to you, just walking around, or even right in front of your home,” she added.
The exhibit quotes Kim Kyung-Soon, one of the first survivor woman to courageously step forward and share her experience for the exhibit: “I felt I had to swallow my shame and step forward to reveal the truth.”
“The Japanese never made a formal apology. It’s not about monetary compensation. Its about the truth,” said Youngmi Park ’01. “It seems like the people in this country think of Japan as all good, but I think people should be aware of what happened in the past.”
“This exhibit is for the Comfort Women. It’s not for me or for us, it’s for them and what they suffered. I really wish we could restore their dignity,” Hwang said.
“It’s been over 50 years since this happened, but this is still a big shadow in their hearts. The least they should get from the Japanese government is an apology,” Wang said.
Archived article by Christen Eddy