It’s been decades since the world learned that Japan forced hundreds of thousands of women to become sexual slaves in state-run brothels before and during World War II. But the issue of “comfort women” still remains a divisive one between Japan and South Korea—and now, reports Choe Sang-Hun for The New York Times, those tensions have once again flared at the site of a statue commemorating the women near the Japanese Consulate in Busan, South Korea.
At issue is a simple statue of a young woman wearing traditional Korean dress and sitting in a chair. It appeared without official permission near the consulate last week, writes Sang-Hun—and was quickly removed by police. But it’s now been reinstated after a South Korean official gave permission.
The statue shows that despite the historic agreement reached by Japan and South Korea to create a fund for the surviving women last year, the issue remains deeply fraught. It took decades for Japan to even admit that it had forced women into sexual slavery—and still controversies rage about how many women were victimized and how to publicly acknowledge their subjugation.
The majority of the so-called “comfort women” came from China and Korea, though other women in Japanese-occupied territories were also forced into slavery. The practice began in China as early as 1931, when Japan formed its first “comfort stations” for Japanese soldiers. The early comfort women were prostitutes who volunteered to service Japanese soldiers. However, the women who followed were anything but. As Japan occupied the Korean peninsula, it began to recruit women who were not told they would serve Japanese soldiers. The women were coerced and sometimes even sold into slavery, repeatedly raped and often subjected to sexually transmitted infections and genital wounds from their brutal treatment.
The recruitment and work of comfort women was considered top secret by the Japanese military, and that stigma continued after the war. It took until 1987 for the full extent of the issue to come to light, but Japan denied its involvement. Though hundreds of thousands of women are thought to have been forced to serve in military brothels, only a few hundred came forward, due in part to social stigma.
That stigma is still in place, as the controversy over the statue proves. It’s not the first time the statue has ignited public tensions over comfort women: In 2011, it was erected near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul by a group of survivors and their supporters. The Peace Monument, as it was called, resulted in protest from the Japanese government and ultimately helped reopen talks about comfort women and prompt the first state apology for the country’s crimes. The statue remained and others popped up all over the world.
Only time will tell if this new statue will survive in its current spot, but regardless, its message to Japan is clear. The bronze girl—fist clenched and the seat next to her empty in tribute to those who did not survive their slavery—suggests that despite Japan’s official apology, more should be done to acknowledge the victims. She looks on the consulate with a face that appears resolute. For the Japanese government, she’s a provocation. But for the hundreds of thousands of women who never received compensation for or even acknowledgment of their suffering, she’s an immovable symbol of rebellion.