Dezaki film confronts comfort women issue

On Monday, Sept. 23, the Chinese and Japanese Department screened Miki Dezaki’s film “Shusenjo: The Main Battle Ground of the Comfort Women Issue.” It explores the question of whether the Japanese empire’s “comfort women” were prostitutes or slaves. Courtesy of Miki Dezaki

 Nobukatsu Fujioka is a bespectacled and neat-looking man. He is also a purveyor of Japan’s history wars. As a graduate student at Sophia University in Tokyo, Miki Dezaki interviewed Nobukatsu Fujioka for his student project-turned-documentary film, “Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue.” On Monday, Sept. 23, Dezaki came to Vassar for a screening of “Shusenjo” and a Q&A session. 

  Fujioka argues that Japanese people have been “brainwashed” by Americans into believing the “Tokyo War Crimes Trials view of history,” one that exaggerates the severity of the Imperial Army’s sexual trafficking. The “comfort women issue” concerns the sexual enslavement of an estimated 200,000 Asian women by the Japanese empire. The question of coercive recruitment of these women—whether they were sex slaves or prostitutes—and the prevalence of “comfort stations,” or Imperial Army brothels, in Asia are hotly contested on rightwing YouTube, in street demonstrations, and in Japan’s National Diet Building. Fujioka, the Vice President of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, has gained both notoriety and popular support for denying Tokyo’s war crimes during World War II (Los Angeles Times, “Defender of Japan’s War Past,” 05.09.1997). 

  In 1962, Fujioka entered Hokkaido University, where he became, according to former teachers and classmates, a member of the Stalinist wing of the radical student movement. He taught at the University of Tokyo. Fujioka is no stray conspiracy theorist or hate-monger—he’s an educated man with a following. Many Japanese legislators are also fervent nationalists, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party, who are set on amending the war-renouncing clause of the constitution and denying charges of coercive recruitment. 

  “Shusenjo” also includes testimony from Korean activists, Japanese historians and academics, Japanese nationalists of American descent and myriad historical documents and testimonies. As a global studies student, he honed his videography skills and concern over the war crimes, and the Japanese Right’s denial thereof, to pose several questions: Were comfort women coercively recruited? How many comfort women were there? How should we examine personal testimonies? Why do denialists believe what they do? 

  Executive Director of the Korean American Forum of California (KAFC) Phyllis Kim also attended the screening. The Comfort Women Justice Coalition and KAFC were responsible for the distribution of a teacher’s resource guide on comfort women in California, as well as the San Francisco comfort women memorial (NBC News, “New teacher’s guide on ‘comfort women’ to be distributed across California schools,” 01.15.2019). Joining Dezaki and Kim was Professor of Chinese and Japanese Pei Pei Qiu, who wrote “Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves.” 

  I say Dezaki poses questions; he does not answer them. “Shusenjo” is two hours and heavily wrought. The scope of the film is a feat. Dezaki not only conducts a historical examination of the comfort women system, but describes its consequences: discrimination against sexual violence victims, the role of American military interests in Korea-Japan relations, legislative efforts to revise the war-renouncing clause of the Japanese constitution. Dezaki says he knew the film would feature many “talking heads,” and the structure of “Shusenjo” mimics the controversy: an “argumentation” between comfort-woman activists, denialists, even a former Imperial Army soldier. I can’t help but compare the smiling, carefree countenance of an ultranationalist leader with the quiet horror of the former soldier. He explained, “The nuance really comes from these historians who knew all the context behind all these documents and arguments the right-wingers bring up. That was the main goal of the film for me: bringing context. If I bring more context, both Japanese and Korean people can have better discussions.” He mentioned that Japanese viewers have told him they’ve never seen such potent arguments from comfort-woman supporters; in fact, many Japanese students don’t even know about the issue or remain apathetic towards it. 

  The film ended with swelling drums, a crescendo. As victims and activists demand legal compensation—and policymakers refuse to recognize coercive recruitment—the comfort women issue is ongoing, and Kim explained that formal apology is due. She continued, “The reason why I’m here is the denialism that’s still going on. If we don’t do anything, if we just stay silent, the history will be revised … Unresolved history gets repeated.” 

  Maryna Hrytsenko ’23 and Spencer Emerson ’23 attended the screening for their International Politics class. Hrytsenko roiled over the denialists’ claims: “Any woman shouldn’t go through this situation. How could denialists ever judge [the comfort women] in that way? It takes so much courage to speak out.” Emerson called the arguments of government denialists “disingenuous,” saying, “It seems incomprehensible that all these beliefs are genuine—denying the Nanking Massacre, denying that any of this exists, is dishonest.” 

  After the screening, Dezaki brought up the Aichi Triennale, an international art festival in Nagoya, Japan. This summer, the festival had an exhibit called “After ‘freedom of expression?’” in which South Korean sculptors Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung presented “Statue of a Girl at Peace.” The subject, a comfort woman with a yellow bird perched on her shoulder, is seated, rosy-cheeked and stoic. After hundreds of complaints, an arson threat and an open condemnation by the mayor of Nagoya, organizers cancelled the exhibition. The “Shusenjo” director discussed the Aichi censorship in relation to his film, which came out this April: “My film helped break the taboo and helped journalists and people talk about the comfort women issue, but when the Aichi thing happened, it showed that people are giving in again to pressure. Whenever they take something down like that, it has a ripple effect or a sort of fuinki [atmosphere, ambience] it creates, you know, of ‘Okay, we shouldn’t talk about this.’” 

  Much of the debate revolves around art, from public sculpture to, of course, film. A Japanese-American resident of Glendale, California filed a lawsuit to remove a comfort women memorial in the city’s Central Park. This July, the Glendale statue was vandalized, a brown substance smeared across the face of the girl (“Glendale’s comfort-women statue vandalized with unknown brown substance,” Glendale News-Press, 07.25.2019). A former South Korean comfort woman’s testimony before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors led to the installation of the San Francisco memorial. The former mayor of Osaka opposed the decision (NBC News, “San Francisco to Unveil Statue Honoring World War II-Era ‘Comfort Women’,” 09.21.2017). There are comfort women statues all over Seoul, confluences of demonstration. 

  “Shusenjo,” like the memorials, is a special and controversial medium. Dezaki is being sued by five of his interviewees. He said, “[Film] has a power in how it can engage people and grab people’s attention … There’s a power in the screen.” The same goes for sculpture. Art is memorial and art is a material means of remembrance and apology, and its censorship goes hand in hand with denialism, ethnic tensions and the diminishment of wartime victims. We need physical reminders to remember, to educate. Artists like Dezaki serve as our educators.

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