In Min Jin Lee’s acclaimed novel Pachinko, there’s this episode in an early chapter. Sunja is harassed by three Japanese high school boys while heading home after shopping at the market. Hansu appears just in time to rescue her. After that, he kindly warns her:
“Listen, you have to be careful not to travel alone or ever be out at night. If you go to the market by yourself, you must stay on the main paths. Always in public view. They are looking for girls now.”
She didn’t understand.
“The colonial government. To take to China for the soldiers. Don’t follow anyone. It will likely be some Korean person, a woman or a man, who’ll tell you there’s a good job in China or Japan. It may be someone you know. Be careful, …” (p. 32, Pachinko)
Korean-American author Lee is subtle here and does not dwell further on the issue. But this episode offers a realistic backdrop to her story set during the Japanese occupation of a large part of Asia. Sadly, the two sisters who work in Sunja’s mother’s boarding house are lured to work in China, with no news after that.
What was Lee referring to?
United Nations researchers report that between 1931 and 1945, the Japanese military forced an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 women and girls into institutionalized sexual slavery. They are called comfort women, a term used by the Imperial Japanese Army, euphemism for sexual slaves. Girls and young women were kidnapped, tricked, or taken away from their homes in Korea, China, Philippines, and Indonesia to comfort stations, another euphemism, for military brothels. To say they were victims of sexual assault was a description put mildly, because many of these women were literally raped on a daily basis.
Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung’s documentary The Apology follows three surviving comfort women. To honor them with dignity, Hsiung calls them ‘Grandmas’: Grandma Gil in Korea, Grandma Adela in the Philippines, and Grandma Cao in China.
Since 2009, the Toronto-based writer/director began documenting survivors of this silent atrocity, silent due to the long-held shame and fear of rejections of sexual violence victims. The six years of making The Apology had turned Hsiung into an advocate for WWII comfort women, seeking justice and sharing their stories in communities and universities in North America.
What had been a silent issue was first exposed by Korean survivor Kim Hak-sun, who spoke out in 1991, nearly five decades after World War II. Her brave act of putting away the shame and openly testifying to the horrible ordeals she had suffered prompted many other survivors to follow her lead. Such war-time atrocities began to draw international attention. The voices of these comfort women soon became a poignant outcry, a pioneer of social activism way before the present-day #MeToo Movement.
Grandma Gil of Korea was only 13 when she was forcibly taken away by Japanese soldiers from her home in Pyongyang to be a comfort woman in Harbin, China. She was seriously damaged physically, had gone through four operations during which she was made sterile. Today in her late 80’s, she is still separated from her family as Pyongyang now is in North Korea. She dreams of unification one day so she can see her family again.
Grandma Adela in the Philippines was 14 when she was taken away. Hsiung’s documentary shows us an actual comfort station in the Dona Baray Garrison, now desolate. Adela had not told her late husband about her past fearing rejection, but now felt she needed to let her son know. Hsiung’s camera captured the quiet understanding from her son as he learned of his mother’s painful experience during the war, a shameful secret no more. Sadly, Grandma Adela passed away after that before the production was completed.
Grandma Cao in a village in rural China had never told her adopted daughter. Again, Hsiung’s filming opened up the channel of release for her. There were three comfort women in her village. They were actually already documented by a local writer and a book had been published.
Grandma Gil in Korea is the most outspoken among these three survivors. She continues the protests that Kim Hak-sun had started. She bravely goes to Japan personally to speak to young women of a new generation, students who have not heard of such atrocities. She sits in street protests, over a thousand of such gatherings had taken place so far, yet all but fallen on deaf ears. Not only that, these woman protesters were often met with counter accusations and derogatory insults shouted at them.
A recent comment by a Japanese politician could well have represented the official view. Mayor Hashimoto had said that ‘sex slavery was necessary.’ His political party stated there was no need to apologize.
So, the protesters pressed on. Eventually 1.5 million signatures were gathered from across Asia and as far as Canada. Grandma Gil and several supporters personally delivered the boxes of petitions pressuring Japan to own up to their war crime and offer an apology. The documentary follows Grandma Gil all the way to the office of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, where the group delivered the boxes of signatures and met with the UN Human Rights Commission.
As of today, no apology has been given by the Japanese government.
The Apology is produced by the National Film Board of Canada. It will premiere on PBS’s POV Monday, October 22, 2018. Check your local station showtime, filmmaker info, trailer and other resources including reading list and lesson plan here:
POV streaming: http://www.pbs.org/pov/theapology/