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22 Years of Wednesday Demonstrations


On July 30 another Wednesday demonstration took place at noon in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. The protest was staged to urge the Japanese government to resolve the issue of women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. The demonstration started in 1992, and 22 years later there have been 1,137 such gatherings. Here’s Ms. Yun Mi-hyang윤미향, head of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, to explain more about the weekly demonstration.

It began on January 8, 1992, the day then Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa visited Korea. Until then the official Japanese position was that the military and the government were not involved in forcing women into sexual servitude. Japan kept insisting that it was the doing of a private recruiter. The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan decided to stage a protest every Wednesday at noon, the busiest time of day and lunchtime for office workers, so more people could join.

Korea’s Independence Day, August 15, is only a few days away, but Japan’s high-ranking politicians are making preposterous and shameless remarks about Korean women forcibly recruited as sex slaves. Former sex slavery victims cannot wholeheartedly celebrate the day Korea gained independence from Japanese colonial rule because their painful nightmares haven’t gone away, much less been acknowledged and compensated.

(Kim Bok-dong) I’m upset because Abe keeps saying senseless things. It’s not only a fight for us, but the Japanese should realize what they’ve done. I heard they found many documents about this issue in Japan.
(Gil Won-ok) The Japanese government has always been good at lying. They’re accusing us of making this up instead. The Japanese should wake up and apologize. Anyone can make a mistake, but only a real man can repent and apologize when a mistake has been made. Just pretending it didn’t happen won’t solve anything.

The demonstrators have been making the same demands for the past 22 years: For the Japanese government to admit to organized sexual slavery, make an official apology, and pay due compensations. But Japan hasn’t budged an inch. Outrage has driven these old women to drag their aging bodies out to the streets and attend the demonstration every week. Here’s former sex slavery victim Gil Won-ok길원옥.

Every part of my body aches. But they need to repent and apologize for their crime. I need to stay alive until they do.

Not only grownups but young children and teenagers are joining the fight. Their participation has given strength to the old protesters. Here’s another former comfort woman Kim Bok-dong김복동.

Young people, from elementary school students to college students, got to know about the truth and have joined our cause. I’m very grateful that they are out here helping us, in the heat and in the cold. I wish this issue will be resolved soon for their sake.

It took a long time for the Wednesday demonstration to gain public attention. People even mocked the protesters in the earlier days of the weekly gathering. Here’s Ms. Yun Mi-hyang again.

No former comfort woman was able to make it to the first demonstration. At the time only two or three other women besides Kim Hak-sun김학순 had filed reports about their past experiences. So the demonstration was staged only by members of women’s advocate groups. Former comfort women began to participate in the second and third demonstrations. There were many, perhaps 15 or 20 women, with no other participants. Back then it was impossible to imagine that children would join us like they do these days. Even office workers scoffed at us for advertising the shameful past. So women would sometimes hide their faces behind the signs or sunglasses.

These old women were victims, but they had to hide their pain and disgraceful past as if they were criminals. Then on August 14, 1991 the courageous Kim Hak-sun spoke up about her experience as the Japanese military’s sex slave, which emboldened other victims to step out to the world and tell their stories. With the support from women’s advocate groups, the Wednesday demonstration became a deeply meaningful event where even students on school outings came to offer their encouragement. Here’s Ms. Yun Mi-hyang to explain more.

Now the younger generation joins the old ladies to sing of peace and tell the ladies how proud they are for speaking out, bringing big smiles to the ladies’ faces. Now the former comfort women don’t wear sunglasses or hide their faces behind signs. They think of themselves as peace advocates or human rights activists. They’re here as history teachers for future generations. The women find this protest very rewarding. They had a hard time coming to the protest, but didn’t give up and kept participating in spite of everything. This is why this Wednesday demonstration is so meaningful.

The 1,137th demonstration was held during summer break, but many teenagers gathered here from all over the country and held up hand-made signs. Here’s middle school student Kim Ju-young김주영 and her friend.

(Girl 1) We learned about comfort women in our history class. We don’t have time during the school term to attend the demonstration, so we came during our vacation. I hope they will receive their restitution from Japan soon. We students will do our part to make that happen.
(Girl 2) I want to do my best as a demonstrator. I’m sorry I couldn’t come here often. Students will be more interested in the protest from now on and I hope they will receive their compensation.

The 22-year demonstration has won support from all over the globe. The first monument remembering the comfort women was erected in New Jersey, in the United States in 2010 and the unveiling ceremony for the seventh one was just held on August 6. Global interest in the issue is growing not only in the U.S. but in Europe as well. Recently the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights denounced Japan’s attitude toward the comfort women issue and urged the Japanese government to come up with permanent solutions. Ms. Yun Mi-hyang explains more.

It has been seven years since the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a resolution on this issue. The European Union, Canada, and other countries around the globe have adopted resolutions and the UN has issued resolutions and recommendations every year. This means that the international community is taking great interest in the problem of forced sexual slavery and calling for Japan to do the right thing. The Japanese government needs to change in order to solve this problem.

Other countries agree that the comfort women issue is a grave violation of human rights. It’s understandable since some 200-thousand women from 12 countries, including Korea, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia, were forcibly recruited to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. This atrocity has been verified in several historical documents and there are still surviving victims who are willing to give accounts of their traumatic experiences. But the perpetrating country is doing nothing about it. Meanwhile, time is quickly running out for the Wednesday demonstrators. The number of surviving victims who regularly attend the demonstration has dwindled from 22 to two, and the number of those registered with the government has dropped from 237 to 54.

Besides my bad eyesight, I’m fine. I didn’t know it would take this long. If I had known, I would have just buried it in my heart. They told me to register with the government and I only did it because I wanted to let the world know about what Japan had done to me. But I am so frustrated that it is taking so long to resolve this issue.

We always have tomorrow, but for these old comfort women today may be their last day. They’re anxious that they may not live to see another day. But they’re still able to hold on to hope, because there are many supporters backing them up.

A stage play entitled “Yeong-ja, the Lying Woman” was presented from July 2 to 20. It’s about 14-year-old Yeong-ja who was deceived by a man and taken as a comfort woman. This play is special because it was written by Japanese playwright Asaya Fujita, who had even served as the head of the Japanese directors association. Why did a Japanese playwright write a play about comfort women? Here’s Mr. Asaya Fujita to tell us about his reasons.

It’s because Japanese politicians are lying. I wanted to show that although there are some lying politicians, there are also some who are trying to unearth the truth. As you can see, there was a photo of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the stage. I am against Abe’s position and there are many people who are like me. Many Japanese people hold demonstrations in front of the Japanese parliament building. I would have taken part in it if I was in Tokyo, but I couldn’t because I’m working in Korea.

The production debuted back in 1995. Since then, it has been shown in Tokyo and Kagoshima. Mr. Fujita has even received threats from right-wing groups while the play was running in Japan. Here he is again to talk about his experience.

There were threats when the play was first run. They must have thought we would take the play down when we received the threats. But we kept going under the protection of police. It was so dangerous that even the police couldn’t tell what would happen if the play continued.

Nineteen years have passed since the debut performance, but no change has been made to the script. That’s because the Japanese government hasn’t changed its stance. The play is scheduled to tour major Korean cities this year and a Japan tour is planned for next year. Mr. Fujita keeps showing the production despite the danger and all the threats because he believes in righting the wrong.

The main message is revealing the real history. But the message differs when it is shown in Korea, in Japan, and in a third country. Many Japanese people don’t know about this play and my message to them is to find out about the true history. But my message to Korean people is that a Japanese person is capable of making such a play about the comfort women issue. I want Koreans to know that not all Japanese are like Abe and many Japanese people want to be friends with Korean people.

An exhibition titled “Ullim: The Tales of the Victims of the Japanese Military’s Sexual Slavery” started on June 19 at the Hanyang University Museum. This exhibition featured former slavery victims’ drawings and personal artifacts as well as articles about Japan’s organized sex slavery. Here’s the museum’s curator Kim Eun-young김은영 to tell us more.

Ullim means reverberation, the spreading of sound. It was given this name because we wanted the women’s cries to spread far away. We have the works of two artistically talented women, who have painted their pain, anger, and frustration on the canvases. They have first painted in black and red, but after they underwent a healing process their favorite colors became pastels. Their paintings showed what kind of tragic lives they have lived.

But even if the world has changed and people’s interests have grown in the plight of former comfort women, nobody knows when this fight will end unless Japan’s attitude changes.

At noon on August 13th, just two days before Korea’s Independence Day, another Wednesday demonstration will take place in front of the Japanese embassy. It’s the 1,139th protest. In celebrating August 15th, special protests are planned simultaneously in the U.S. and the Philippines. The Wednesday demonstration will continue until Japan issues its sincere apology.

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