Statue of comfort girl in hanbok scheduled to reappear in Tokyo despite previous backlash

Despite protest and outrage, a previously removed statue commemorating World War II’s comfort women will be back up in April at a gallery in Tokyo.

An exhibition titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’,” which seeks to address Japan’s history of censorship, will restage the same comfort woman statue originally featured at the 2019 Aichi Tirennale festival.

The statue features a young girl sitting in her hanbok, the traditional Korean dress, looking ahead with a calm and quiet gaze, not smiling. She is barefoot, with her hands neatly folded onto her lap, and it is clear that she has the look of someone who has shouldered a great deal in silence.

Statues depicting these comfort women have been a heated point of controversy between Japan and South Korea.

In 2015, then Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida announced that approximately $8.3 million would be donated to a fund for survivors. In return, South Korea was asked to accept Japan’s acknowledgement of the crimes and refrain from further blame.

When South Korea erected a comfort women statue outside the Japanese consulate in Busan in 2017, Japan recalled two of its ambassadors to South Korea in protest after declaring the act was an infringement upon their 2015 agreement.

The controversy continued in 2019 when a Japanese exhibition displayed a sculpture by Korean artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, titled “Statue of a Girl of Peace,” memorializing comfort women. The Aichi Triennale, one of the largest international art festivals in Japan and held every three years, was forced to shut down after receiving a threat that the exhibition would be set on fire if the statue “remained on view.”

After the festival’s suspension, 72 of the more than 90 artists who participated in the exhibition posted a letter to Facebook to call the closure an act of censorship. The letter in turn inspired the theme of this upcoming exhibition showing in Tokyo from April 2 through 5.

Dozens of comfort women statues have been placed throughout the world, including in the U.S., Canada and Australia. All commemorate the hundreds of thousands of women – majority Korean – who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese government during World War II.

Forced to have sex with as many as 70 men per day, many comfort women were subject to daily acts of violence, including beatings and threats of being killed for disobedience. When Japan was defeated in World War II, many comfort women were shot and killed by retreating Japanese soldiers.

Only 12 comfort women survivors are still living today — an even fewer number continue to speak out. Lee Yong-soo, 93, submitted a petition last week to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice to continue advocating for further reparations.

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