September 14, 2001

Comfort Women Exhibit Returns

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During a week of tragedy, the Korean Students Association and the Coalition for Comfort Women Issues (CCW) once again invite the Cornell community to remember onto the tragedies of the past at a photo exhibition held at the Willard Straight Hall Art Gallery. The exhibition is open until tomorrow.

The exhibit, “Comfort Women: Suffering and Dignity in Asia during World War II,” features the photos of Korean-American photographer Yunghi Kim and a copy of the first English-language book, Comfort Women Speak, that chronicles some women’s experiences in their own words. Along with these, the presentation includes original artwork from surviving women.

This exhibit, which had already visited the campus in March 2001, follows organizers’ plans to invite a comfort station survivor to speak at Cornell Nov. 5 at the Statler Auditorium.

Mark Hwang ’02 is one of many organizers from the CCW who feel that learning about this issue now can help prevent injustice in the future.

“The issue of the Comfort Women is also a story filled with courage and dignity of extraordinary women who, albeit advanced in age, decided to come forth and demand for justice. These women truly deserve stage on our campus for what they’re doing. They’re doing it for our generation, so that we will never fall victim to another such tragedy,” Hwang said.

Although these events occurred decades ago, it is only until now that the CCW is bringing these women’s stories to universities, such as Cornell and Georgetown University, and public arenas across the country, among them the Philadelphia Free Library,

“Basically we want to inform people,” said Erin Chu ’03, of the Korean Student Association’s political committee. “[We want] people to connect with the Comfort Women.”

Chu hopes that through this exhibit, more members of the Cornell community can connect with the atrocities of the past and connect with the now much older victims.

To connect with the Comfort Women’s story is to connect with a tragic history of sexual enslavement and secrecy during World War II.

Historically called the “Comfort Women,” they are a group of approximately 200,000 women of Korean, Chinese and other Asian decent who were forced into sexual slavery at the hand of the Japanese Imperial Military from 1932 until the end of World War II.

They lived in “comfort stations” which lined East Asia. Many of these women were only teenage girls when the military undertook this then-legal practice, bringing women to camps where they were often raped and tortured.

Through this exhibit, the sponsor organizations stated that they do not want to blame Japan for its actions nor were they against any Japanese person now, however they want to honor the women who died at the hands of the Japanese and acknowledge to the world that this ordeal even occurred.

The Japanese government did not officially offer an apology or reparations to the Comfort Women until 1995.

“It is our intent to commemorate the lives of all ‘comfort women’ of World War II and express our respect for the dignity and honor for women who were murdered as sexual slaves and for those who survived sexual slavery during the war,” said by the Coordinating Committee for the CCW in their letter to members of the Cornell community which was available to visitors at the exhibit.

Given the subject matter, visitor response ranged from “shock” to “anger” as they read and listened to the stories of the surviving women.

Monica Jeong ’02, a student of Korean decent, found that she was angered upon learning the horrendous stories of the victims. She agreed that the focus of the exhibit is not to blame but to celebrate.

“It’s sad to see, if you think about that part of history,” Jeong said. “They don’t even attempt to address it. It’s a really big issue.”

Jeong noted the apparent refusal of the Japanese government to acknowledge the issue as the topic is often absent in Japanese textbooks.

She also considered the exhibit a reminder of the pain that the women of her country had to endure.

“Those people [in the photos] looked like my own grandmother. I’m probably going to look like that [when I grow older],” she added.

The exhibit will travel to Harvard University, Princeton University and Yale University later this year.

Archived article by Carlos Perkins