Monthly Archives: September 2014

Comfort Women on the cover of Japanese magazine ‘DAYS JAPAN’



On September 20, the Japanese photo magazine DAYS JAPAN will run a portrait of ‘Comfort Woman’ Wainem on its October cover, and 6 more inside pages about this subject. Wainem is an Indonesian woman who during WW2 was dragged from her home and forced to serve as (unpaid) prostitute for the Japanese military for two-and-a-half years. She and the others in the DAYS JAPAN publication were portrayed by Dutch photographer Jan Banning and interviewed by Dutch journalist Hilde Janssen for their books (and exhibitionComfort Women and Schaamte en onschuld.

The publication will almost certainly lead to controversy in Japan. The subject of Comfort Women continues to be an embarrassment to Japan and an obstacle in its regional foreign relations, as Japanese officials deny that up to 200,000 ‘Comfort Women’ were pressed into wartime sexual slavery in military brothels in the countries that Japan occupied during WW2.

On July 24, 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee, composed of independent experts, (not for the first time) called on Japan to apologize to these women. But the next day, Tokyo rejected this UN call to accept the blame. A strong section of the political right, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, continues to claim that the brothels were staffed by professional prostitutes. These right-wingers assert that there was no evidence to corroborate the comfort women’s testimony on sexual slavery.

Proof that ‘Comfort Women’ were being forced to serve as sex slaves has been piling up for many years. In 1993, Japan started an investigation after which the then chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, acknowledged that the Japanese military had been “directly or indirectly involved in the establishment and management of ‘comfort stations’” and that young women from China, Korea and Southeast Asia “in many cases were recruited against their will.”

The present government, however, wants to review this Kono statement. The recently appointed ultra-nationalist Minister Sanae Takaichi of Internal Affairs & Communication stated that she wants ‘to dispel false information reported worldwide that will continue to undermine the honor of the country and its people into the future.’

In this atmosphere of revisionism, Japan’s second biggest national (liberal) newspaper Asahi Shimbun came under attack, these last few weeks, because of a publication on comfort women dating back to 1982. In this article, a Japanese war witness, Seji Yoshida, confessed that he had ‘hunted up some 200 young Korean women on Seju island.’ In the 1990s, this confession turned out to be false. But only recently, in September 2014, the Asahi Shimbun came under heavy pressure from ‘revisionists’ to apologize for this 1982 article. Their negligence, the revisionists claim, has seriously affected Japanese dignity and honor. At the same time, they suggest that the forced prostitution story is untrue and that the Kono Statement should now be reviewed. Both the Asahi Shimbun and the UN deny this claim: there are many other testimonies and pieces of evidence of the existence of this form of state-organized forced prostitution.

In the light of these developments, The DAYS JAPAN magazine publication is a remarkable and brave act.

For the english version of DAYS JAPAN’s text, see all the way at the end of this post.


DAYS JAPAN 2014-10 Inside_2-Low

DAYS JAPAN 2014-10 Inside_3-Low


Photo Book Troostmeisjes/Comfort Women,
Schaamte en onschuld

Documentary film:
Omdat wij mooi waren / Because we were beautiful

(Online) articles: and more in Japan News (reaction of Asahi Shimbun) (with several links)

Breaking the silence
@Hilde Janssen

‘Comfort women’ they are called. These veiled words can’t take away the pain and shame of the systematic sexual violence by the Japanese occupiers during the Second World War. The taboo is persistent, even seven decades onward. Many remain silent. Some women had the strength to conquer their shame and look the world in the eye.

In every large-scale conflict women are victims of sexual violence. For the Japanese government the mass rape of Nanking in 1937 was an impetus to introduce the so-called comfort women system. Regulated sex in military brothels was advocated as an effective means ‘to boost the spirits of the troops, keep law and order and prevent rape and venereal disease,’ according to a 1938 directive of the Japanese Department of War. In the following 8 years the Japanese armed forces instigated the establishment of thousands of military brothels in the occupied territories, in which an estimated 50.000-200.000 comfort women were forced to serve the three million Japanese troops, among them some 20.000 women in Indonesia.
For the Japanese occupying forces the comfort women system was a sheer pragmatic policy, but the women tell a very different story. For them it was a nightmare. They were kidnapped, threatened, snatched from the streets by force or lured by false promises, dragged from their homes or summoned through village chiefs and then systematically raped in military brothels, but also in barracks, factory warehouses, railroad wagons, and tent camps. Many of them were underage, some only 11, 12, 13 years old.
The stories of the women here portrayed by Jan Banning and interviewed by me, all underline the use of force. They also indicate that the military brothels were hardly effective in maintaining law and order or military discipline, let alone prevent rape. On the contrary. Since nowhere near all Japanese troops had access to regular military brothels, military brass and soldiers felt justified in arranging for the own ‘comfort women’. Some commanders set up an informal brothel. Others, by force or threat, claimed local women as their concubines and allowed their troops, too, to have live-ins. In addition, barracks and tent camps typically had women who worked as forced labourers and with whom the troops could have their ways without repercussions. Sometimes soldiers would hit up rural hamlets in a military truck to pick up girls to serve as sexual slaves for one or more days.

As the war ended, most women tried to keep their wartime experience a secret for their family and immediate surroundings, just like the perpetrators and government leaders kept quiet. This conspiracy of silence benefits the guilty. Only a few of the Japanese brass and soldiers were convicted after the war by the Netherlands Temporary Court-Martial in the former Dutch East Indies (i.e. Indonesia), because under Dutch law forced prostitution was prosecuted as a war crime. Although the Dutch court cases mostly concerned Dutch victims, some also involved local victims of forced prostitutions, e.g. in the Emplawas case (see Dominggas & Antonetha). The bulk of perpetrators in Indonesia and elsewhere got off. And in none of the negotiations about reparations in the 1950s and 1960s were comfort women discussed.

Only in the early 1990s, after a testimony of a former Korean comfort woman, and documented evidence found by a Japanese historian, an international advocacy movement emerged. This resulted in the so-called Kono statement by Japan, acknowledging that ‘the then military was, directly and indirectly involved in the establishment and management of comfort stations,’ and that ‘in many cases, women were recruited against their own will’. However, till today, the Japanese government has ignored international resolutions to apologize and to accept historical responsibility for the forced wartime prostitution.
Given the lack of historical research on Indonesian comfort women by both the Netherlands and Indonesia, Jan Banning and I started to record women’s personal wartime experiences in portraits and writing. Finding the women wasn’t easy. Many women had already died when we started our project* in 2007, while elderly survivors hardly felt the need to stir up painful memories again. It took us more then two years, travelling across Indonesia, where in total we interviewed some fifty women. As much as they would like to erase the traces of their wartime history, they drag it along all their lives: The stigmatisation, humiliation and pain, their childless existence, the failed marriages. Seeking acknowledgement, they found the courage to share the suppressed past and break the vicious circle of silence.

* The Comfort Women project resulted in a photo exhibition and the publication of two books, i.e. the photo book ‘Comfort Women/Troostmeisjes’ by Jan Banning and a Dutch language textbook ‘Schaamte en Onschuld’ (Shame & Innocence) by Hilde Janssen. The filmmaker Frank van Osch ‘made a documentary film of Banning and Janssen’s project called ’Because we were beautiful’.

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Controversy about Yunghi Kim’s Africa photos at Visa pour l’Image

A controversy has arisen between photographer Yunghi Kim and ‘Visa pour l”Image’ director Jean Francois Leroy about the removal of Kim’s Rwanda photos from her exhibition of Africa work in Perpignan (Yesterday, Sept. 13). Kim was charged by several French media (6Mois, Libération, France 3) of revisionism concerning the role the Hutus in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

After this criticism, Leroy took those photos out. The way Leroy handled this matter is not exactly laudable for its elegance. As he admits in his reply to Kim: “I wish to extend my apologies to her for the way I dealt with the situation.”

Colleagues of Kim have come to her support with cries about censorship and some french-bashing. But not only in the three French media covering her work but also in the NY Times’ Lens blog, the captions accompanying Kim’s Rwanda photos show an amazing naivety, hardly making a case for responsible or ‘objective’ journalism.

Briefly, a look at the background of the crisis: in hundred days between april and july 1994 in Rwanda, Hutus slaughtered between half a million and one million Tutsi’s (and politically moderate Hutu’s); they also raped an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women; 70% of these women turned out to have become HIV-positive. Some heart-breaking testimonials of the experiences of these women are presented in the book “The Men Who Killed Me” (by Anne-Marie de Brouwer and Sandra Hon Chu, with photos by Samer Muscati). From this and many other sources, it is clear that a massive part of the Hutu population was involved in the killings and rapes. When the Tutsi liberation army RPF invaded Rwanda and defeated the Hutu army and militias, huge numbers of Hutu’s – many of them involved in the killings – fled to Goma in neighboring Congo, to escape wrath and retaliation of the survivors.

Yunghi Kim went to Goma to photograph these Hutu refugees. But she treated the evolving crisis as if it has started as a ‘deus ex machina’, a phenomenon without a history. And I tend to consider it even more naïve to see the captions that now – 20 years (and a lot of reports, books etc.) later – accompany her photos in the NY Times Lens and in the Visa pour l’Image exhibition. To give just one example: she talks of “residents who had fled the fighting” or “fled the civil war.” That is absurd: a great many of them fled to avoid the consequences of killing Tutsi’s.

In her captions, she also talks muscularly about ‘the deadliest crisis in modern history’; we are left in the dark about when ‘modern history’ begins but surely, the refugee crisis at the end (and in the aftermath) of WW2 in Central and Eastern Europe was deadlier. And now that I come to talk about WW2: it would shed light on Kim’s captions, if we consider an exhibition of photos of Germans having fled East Prussia or Sudetenland in 1944-46 with captions that would not mention their fate being related to the Second World War and, certainly in the case of the Sudeten Germans, without touching upon their massive support for the nazis just a few years earlier?

Kim defends herself by saying: “As photojournalist, I responded instinctually documenting life on the run, people frightened, burdened with possessions thirsty, hungry and fatigued.” But is journalism about reacting instinctually? I tend to think that journalism is about informing others – and the first demand on someone in that business is, that the informer herself is well informed.
She also says: “I explained that my role was not to take sides but to document the horrors I was witnessing.” This, again, seems to me another example of naivety: it reduces the role of the photojournalist to that of mustering emotions instead of striving to inform its audience. For more on that, see my earlier “Icon or cliché? Photojournalism and World Press Photo 2013

Other sources:
Yunghi Kim on Facebook
Jean Francois Leroy on Facebook
Magazine 6Mois’s article on Kim’s work
Libération’s article on Kim’s work
France 3, article on Kim’s work
NY Times Lens’ blog with Kim’s work
Visa pour l”Image on Kim’s work

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