‘Shusenjo’: The WWII ‘comfort women’ issue receives a startling documentary film treatment

Should there be a reckoning from the Japanese government and its Imperial Japanese Army for authorizing the holding of women from Korea and elsewhere in sexual slavery from as early as 1932 through the end of World War II? Or should history be revised to permanently deny these events as “fake news?” A young American graduate student, Miki Dezaki, has provided a startling two-hour documentary, Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, now being screened across the Los Angeles area.

The impetus to unpack this critical human rights history sprang from the filmmaker’s own experience of teaching high school in Japan, where he found that after 1997, Japanese textbooks deleted all mention of this embarrassing history. By 2012, the atrocities faced by hundreds of thousands of women had disappeared. It’s as if textbook publishers censored themselves in order to avoid the damming government accusation of publishing a “grave fault,” and having the entire book removed from sale and classroom use. It is not surprising that none of the students had heard or read anything about “comfort women.”

At a recent screening held October 6 at Koreatown’s First Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, panelist Kathy Masaoka, from Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, told the packed audience that it took years and years of suffering in silence for women who suffered so terribly in these “comfort stations” to speak out in public. “When we heard their testimonies,” Masaoka explained, “we saw an opportunity to use our own histories to stand up for other people, to open minds and talk about something long hidden. It did happen and we should acknowledge it so it doesn’t happen again,” she said.

From panelist Susan Buensuceso of the Pilipino Workers Center, the audience learned that women known as “Lolas,” or grandmothers, organized in the early 1990s to protest the treatment of more than a thousand women taken forcibly from their families to Japanese garrisons. To this day, there has been no admission or compensation. Most of the women are no longer alive, but the demand for acknowledgement has not been silenced. The most recent assault to the memory of these crimes came when the President Duterte removed the memorial in Manila for highway construction.

Panelist Phyllis Kim, director of Comfort Women Action for Redress and Education (CARE), explained that protests to the Japanese government for official moral and legal recognition of this institutionalized massive organized rape are still necessary. Japanese denialists aggressively argue to minimize all aspects of this history. For example, they claim that the women went to the comfort stations freely, were not controlled in any way, were free to leave, were prostitutes who made lots of money, were typical camp followers.

But testimonies from courageous women like Hak Sun Kim, among the first to speak out in 1991, tell of coercion and deception, and of years kept against their will for the sexual use of soldiers. The film records testimony from one of those soldiers, who describes how soldiers lined up outside the comfort stations on their day off. It was not uncommon for a woman to be raped repeatedly as many as 15-20 times a day. When the war ended, women were rejected by their own patriarchal societies for shaming and dishonoring their families and countries.

In Glendale, Calif., CARE held lively protests for a city peace memorial, an installation of life-sized figures representing these abused women. Opponents, known in the movement as revisionists or deniers, sued for the monument’s removal. When they lost, they settled for defacing it. Other opponents managed to convince McGraw Hill to exclude historical content from their 10th-grade world history textbook Traditions and Encounters.

Miki Dezaki, producer of documentary ‘Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue,’ at the Oct. 6, 2019, screening at First Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles / Cathy Deppe

Survivors spoke out

In San Francisco, Korean survivor Yong Su Lee said ,“I am the living evidence of history. We must hate the crimes, but not the people of Japan,” she added. The Korean women asked that demonstrators bring butterfly signs, symbols of the strength and beauty of the courageous witnesses. “Bring Butterfly Signs, not Korean Flags” was the organizers’ request to focus demands on recognition and reparation, not on hatred of Japanese. The women protesting in the film can be seen wearing black t-shirts emblazoned with a beautiful yellow butterfly symbol.

Although Japan has apologized many times since 1965, the state has never taken legal responsibility. In fact, defenders insist the “comfort stations” were always legal, because they were not on Japanese land, but in Japanese-occupied places like Korea, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Following the screening of his film, Miki Dezaki spoke about the concerted campaign that is aggressively trying to stop screenings of the film. In the U.S., the right-wing deniers and revisionists are suing Dezaki to stop his tour. They have also sent letters to the more than 400 professors at his graduate school, claiming that his documentary is a “fakeumentary.”

To silence women and deny abuses and atrocities against them is unacceptable and unsupportable. All who value human rights must step up. As the documentary ends, there is a short clip of the war crimes video leaked by Chelsea Manning, followed by urgent Taiko drumming, calling all who hear to take the next steps on the path to justice.

The trailer can be seen here.

To see this film while it’s being shown for free in the Los Angeles area, check out two upcoming opportunities: Weds., October 9, James Bridges Theater, UCLA, at 5:30 p.m.; and Thurs., Oct. 10 at Cal State Northridge, at 4 p.m. Teachers and educators interested in obtaining additional information should contact: CARE, Comfort Women Action for Redress & Education, P.O. Box 9627, Glendale CA 91226, at info@comfortwomeneducation.org, or visit ComfortWomenEducation.org for a free resource guide.

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Cathy Deppe
Cathy Deppe

Cathy Deppe is an activist writing from Los Angeles.