Japan's forgotten WW2 sex slaves

Artist Chang-Jin Lee highlights how the Japanese army trafficked over 200,000 young girls in the second world war

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Ad-like billboard of a Taiwanese “comfort woman” survivor
At The Incheon Women Artists’ Biennale, Korea, 2009 © Chang-Jin Lee

Chang-Jin Lee’s "COMFORT WOMEN WANTED” series explores the largest case of human trafficking in the 20th century. Her bold red and black propaganda posters proclaim the systematic exploitation of over 200,000 young girls forced into sex slavery by the Japanese army during WWII—a human rights violation that remains unrecognized by the Japanese government today. 

Since 2008, the NY-based artist has based her multimedia exhibition on interviews with Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Filipino, and Dutch “comfort women” survivors, as well as a former Japanese soldier. Lee traveled to all these countries because she wanted people to understand the “comfort women” issue—“not as a Korean or an Asian-only issue, but as an important international human rights issue.”

Lee's series doesn’t just address atrocities past, but ones that loom worrisomely at-large today. Today, human trafficking is the fastest growing industry in the world, and the second largest global business after arms-dealing. The “comfort women” issue remains relevant as ever.

Comfort Women
Video still of a former Japanese soldier in English © Chang-Jin Lee

Dazed Digital: What inspired your “COMFORT WOMEN” series?

Chang-Jin Lee: The Asian community in the US tried to pass Resolution 121 through Congress in 2007, asking Japan to take responsibility for its “comfort women". Three survivors testified, two Korean and one Dutch. One of them stated, "We used to get raped by 50 soldiers a day." It was her shocking revelation that provoked me to start my project. Ultimately, I was inspired by the women’s stories and their courage to speak out.

DD: How did you choose which women to represent?

CL: I wanted to have at least one person representing each country I had visited. By the time I arrived, many "comfort" survivors had already passed away. Of the several women I interviewed, the specific ones I chose for the video had the most vivid memories and were the most outspoken. These women were very strong and resilient, yet at the same time, loving and caring grandmas.

Public Art in Taipei
Ad-like Light box of a Taiwanese “comfort woman” survivor at Eslite Bookstore near the National Taiwan University © Chang-Jin Lee

DD: Do you have a personal relationship with this part of history?

CL: I don’t have any family connections, but it definitely became very personal after meeting the survivors. I not only interviewed them, but spent time with them, sometimes for a week or more. I really wanted to get to know these women who had inspired me. I am still in contact with them, and became quite close friends with a number of them.

DD:  How have reactions differed in the East and West?

CL: In the East, this issue remains taboo and controversial. At the same time, it‘s almost unknown in the West. As I traveled through Asia, I was surprised to see so much shame surrounding this issue. People didn’t want to talk about it. They either looked down on comfort women as “broken flowers,” or a shameful past that should be totally forgotten. Westerners don’t know much about what happened in Asia during WWII - as if the war only happened in Europe. From many Asians, the Japanese were oppressors who committed horrendous war crimes, but got away with it.

DD: Why do you use a propaganda-like style to portray these women?

CL: The series's title “COMFORT WOMEN WANTED” is a reference to ads that actually appeared in Asian newspapers during the war. They also read: "Comfort Women Wanted Immediately on a Large Scale" or “Military Comfort Women Wanted.” Because there weren’t enough prostitutes recruited through the ad campaigns, Asian and European women in Asia were kidnapped or deceived, then forced into sex slavery. So it was important to use this historical reference, as these ads are how it all began. On billboards and street posters, I used contemporary advertising techniques to capture people’s attention and curiosity. A QR code on the display leads to a website for people who want to learn more historical details.

“Because there weren’t enough prostitutes, Asian and European women in Asia were kidnapped, then forced into sex slavery”

DD: You also recently recreated an actual “comfort station” in Taipei.

CL: Yeah, for the pre-augural exhibit of the Comfort Women Museum. During the war, banners at the entrances of military "comfort" stations welcomed and attracted soldiers: “Homeland Military Designated Comfort Station,” “Japanese Girls Dedicating Their Hearts and Bodies in Service,” etc. Inside my installation, videos of former comfort stations are projected on a kimono belt on a tatami bed and on the wall are Japanese name plaques: the girls were forced to wear the kimonos and use Japanese names. It explores the idea of erased ethnic identity.

DD: What do you hope to accomplish with this series?

CL: I hope to continue to create awareness and dialogue. The more people know about this history, the more likely Japan will confront their former war crimes against humanity. On its own, the South Korean government can't apply enough pressure on Japan. They need support, from China and the West. I don’t know if the Japanese government will apologize before all these women pass away. But it’s important for us to keep their history alive. 

DD: What’s your next art project?

CL: I’ve several at the moment. Ask me next year!

Chang-Jin Lee's "COMFORT WOMEN WANTED" is currently on itinerant view through South Korea, Hong Kong, Germany, and New York, Boston, and Washington, DC. Her "Comfort Station" is on view at The Comfort Women Museum in Taipei until February 16th 2014.

Public Art in Chelsea, New York City, 2013
Ad-like kiosk poster of a Dutch "comfort woman" survivor in English, with QR Code in collaboration with The New York City Department of Transportation's Urban Art Program © Chang-Jin Lee
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