Taking the Issue of “Comfort Women” beyond Borders: Feminist Artists’ Solidarity

Tomorrow Girls Troop’s Performance “Against Forgetting” at Glendale Central Park

Kim Myeong-sun 2020-06-16

Tomorrow Girls Troop is a feminist art/movement group initiated by my Japanese friend and me in 2015 in Los Angeles. We started our movement at that time as we shared a critical awareness about the misogyny that South Korean and Japanese cultures have in common.

 

*Tomorrow Girls Troop’s YouTube Video “Girls in the Far East” (2015): https://bit.ly/2Ha86Dk

 

▲ Tomorrow Girls Troop’s YouTube video “Girls in the Far East” (2015) adapts and transforms a Korean drink advertisement and a Japanese shampoo advertisement. Thinking of the two different ads that share a surprisingly similar style, this video suggests reconsidering the way in which the ads represent, categorize, and limit East Asian women.


Operating primarily in Japan for the last four years, Tomorrow Girls Troop has grown in collaboration with other feminist movement groups in Japan. Although mainly dealing with social issues in Japan, Tomorrow Girls Troop is a transnational group consisting of members from different national backgrounds and main centers of activity.

 

*See more works by Tomorrow Girls Troop: https://tomorrowgirlstroop.com/art

 

In this article, I introduce performance works from last year and this year, “Against Forgetting” and “Becoming a Statue of a Japanese Comfort Woman”, that the group was involved in and through which they express transnational solidarity among women and call for the Japanese government to acknowledge the issue of Japanese imperial military’s “comfort women”.

 

Performance in front of a ‘Statue of Peace’ in the U.S.

 

“We are here together to remember ‘comfort women’ from the past who have been forced into silence and to address military violence that contemporary women experience.” –From Tomorrow Girls Troop’s declaration

 

For thirty minutes one sunny Sunday afternoon in February 2018, Tomorrow Girls Troop performed “Against Forgetting” and Japanese artist Yoshiko Shimada performed her “Becoming a Statue of a Japanese Comfort Woman” in front of the Statue of Peace at Glendale Central Park in suburban Los Angeles.

 

▲ Tomorrow Girls Troop’s “Against Forgetting” (2018), Glendale Central Park.   ©Yi Ma


The performance started after an opening speech that introduced the Statue of Peace at Glendale Central Park and established the participating artists. Her hair cut short, Yoshiko Shimada sat on the empty chair of the Statue of Peace wearing Japanese traditional clothing and with her body fully covered by copper ashes. As Ms. Shimada became a “Japanese comfort women memorial” by sitting holding her hands and feet, three members of the Tomorrow Girls Troop and five audience members participated in the performance of “Against Forgetting” on the grass in front of the statue.

 

Dispersed over the lawn, the participants helped each other stand up one by one in a kind of relay. Once all the participants were up, they gathered in a circle holding hands around an arrangement of sunflowers and signs that said “Against forgetting”, “We are with them”, and “What we want is a sincere apology” in English and Japanese.

 

After a masked member of the Tomorrow Girls Troop recited a declaration expressing solidarity with the Japanese imperial military’s “comfort women” of the past, all the other people chanted the phrase “Against forgetting” in unison. Once the chant was over, the participants picked up either the signs or sunflowers and stood in a line. They then placed the sunflowers on the lap of the “comfort women” memorial and hugged Shimada. A nearby table displayed pamphlets with websites through which people could learn about “comfort women,” and facts and information about international wartime sexual violence.

 

This event, which took place outside of the Korean Peninsula and dealt with the “comfort women” issue, was significant for two reasons. First, it forced attention to the “comfort women” issue in the United States where the Japanese right wing employs a strategy that distorts history; and second, it sought to overcome nationalism and build solidarity as women/oppressed people by resisting war and sexual exploitation.

 

Conflicts around the Statue of Peace at Glendale Central Park

 

The Statue of Peace was established at Glendale Central Park under the guidance of the Korean American Forum of California (KAFC). It is the first memorial not only in the West but also outside of Korea that symbolizes the atrocity that “comfort women” experienced under the Japanese imperial military rule. Glendale is a small satellite city on the northern side of Los Angeles where approximately 200,000 people live, including many Asians such as Korean and Japanese.

 

After the July 2013 erection of the statue, heated conflicts over it occurred due to Japanese government lobbying in the U.S. and other countries over historical issues. A few Japanese American residents of Glendale argued that the memorial caused anti-Japanese sentiment and asked for its demolition. [For more detailed information, see The “Comfort Woman” Issue Goes Overseas: Questioning the Right-wing “History Wars” by Tomomi Yamaguchi, Nogawa Motokazu, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, and Emi Koyama, Iwanami Shoten, 2016 (Japanese version), translated by Myoung-soo Im, Eomoonhaksa, 2017 (Korean version).] These people complained that the statue was humiliating to Japanese people who live in this region and harmful to the relationship between Japan and the U.S.

 

Moreover, in February of the following year the Japanese extreme conservative association the Global Alliance for Historical Truth (GAHT) sued for the demolition of the Statue of Peace. As a U.S. court dismissed the final Japanese appeal, the Statue of Peace was able to keep its seat at the end of the three-year conflict.

 

▲ Tomorrow Girls Troop, “Against Forgetting” (2018), Glendale Central Park.   ©Yi Ma


The Japanese government’s strenuous opposition did not stop at the Statue of Peace, but extended to any acts of bringing the issue of “comfort women” to public attention or commemorating those victims in the United States. In October 2017, a few months before the performance, the city of Osaka discontinued its sisterhood with the city of San Francisco – a relationship that had lasted for about sixty years – because in September of that year, San Francisco had established the Column of Strength, its own “comfort women” memorial, in St. Mary’s Square Park.

 

As a country of aggression, the Japanese government’s passive attitude in terms of repenting their historical wrongdoings fares even worse when it comes to the matter of the distortion of history. When some Japanese friends and I visited Seoul together ten years ago, I was surprised when they told me ‘they had found out facts they had previously been unaware of’ after visiting the Seoul Museum of History and the War Memorial of Korea.

 

My Japanese friends were shocked by the realities that the museums exposed them to. They said they had never had any opportunities to receive a factual education on the history of Japanese imperialism. I realized the huge gap between my friends’ and my own Korean history education.

 

Women Artists’ Solidarity, Beyond Nationalism

 

It is well-known that Glendale, where a Statue of Peace is located, is the largest Armenian community abroad, as forty percent of all residents there are Armenian. Between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, Armenians experienced a mass slaughter by the Ottoman Empire.

 

In his book Memory War: How the Perpetrator Became the Victim (Humanist, 2019) Jie-Hyun Lim, Professor of History at Sogang University, analyzed how the memory of Armenian genocide functioned to create strong support from the Armenian community for the establishment of the Statue of Peace. In effect, the Statue of Peace goes beyond a specific ethnicity’s memory to become a symbol that elicits universal memories of wartime atrocities.

 

Tomorrow Girls Troop’s and Yoshiko Shimada’s performance in front of the Statue of Peace engendered special meaning in that Japanese women became a subject with a voice, overcoming the perpetrator/victim binary to express solidarity without borders.

 

▲ Yoshiko Shimada, “Becoming a Statue of a Japanese Comfort Woman” (2012) in front of the Japanese Embassy in England. ⓒhttp://rafu.com/2018/02/japanese-artist-to-commemorate-comfort-women


Yoshiko Shimada grew up in a Japanese city where a U.S. army base was located in the 1960s, and experienced the post-war state of tension between the United States and Japan. One of the themes that she deals with in her works is cultural memory and women’s position as both colonizer and victim during World War II.

 

In 2012, her first performance of “Becoming a Statue of a Japanese Comfort Woman,” presented in front of the Japanese Embassy in London, spoke out for Japanese “comfort women” who had been forgotten not only by the Japanese government but also by society at large. Although Japanese “comfort women” were forced to serve the Japanese imperial army during WWII and then the U.S. army after the war, no socio-cultural atmosphere ever emerged for these women to speak out in their own voice. Ms. Shimada’s work plunges a deep thrust not only into war crimes of the past but also into a systemized sexism that the Japanese government never acknowledged.

 

The transnational feminist art/movement group Tomorrow Girls Troop is mainly active in Japan. It consists of artists, activists, scholars, organizers, etc. whose main works are based in Japan, Korea, and the United States. To avoid backlash and consolidate the group’s identity, its members work anonymously wearing a special rabbit mask. Usually depicted as a weak, meek animal in Japanese traditional fables, the rabbit becomes redefined as a symbol of strength and courage. For anonymity, each member uses the name of a deceased feminist from their own country. My name is borrowed from the early twentieth century writer Myeong-sun Kim.

 

▲ Tomorrow Girls Troop, “Against Forgetting” (2018), Glendale Central Park.   ©Qianwen Jiang


The performance “Against Forgetting” is derived from the phrase “Against forgetting about Japanese imperial military’s ‘comfort women,’ responsibility for the future” from the website ‘Fight for Justice’, which was created by conscientious scholars (http://fightforjustice.info). As a subject for commemoration, this performance invites solidarity by asking for onsite audience participation with comparatively easy choreography.

 

The performance stimulated the interest of Glendale participants who had been unaware of the issue of Japanese imperial military’s “comfort women”. The audience participants and others present were able to learn details of this issue thanks to materials distributed after the performance. The cooperative work was an attempt to stop the problems of history from being confined by national borders, and instead connect contemporary wars and sexual exploitation happening all over the world to the Japanese imperial military’s “comfort women” issue.

 

“Against Forgetting” Will Be Performed in Seoul and Japan

 

This summer, Tomorrow Girls Troop’s Korean members including me plan to perform “Against Forgetting” in Seoul and Tokyo. Compared to seeking to raise awareness in the U.S. as a third place where the issue of Japanese imperial military’s “comfort women” was not directly relevant, the context of the performance becomes different when performed in Seoul and Tokyo. Since this concern has often been used as a tool for the two countries’ political interests or has confronted the limits of nationalistic representation, it seems crucial to take an approach that goes beyond national boundaries.

 

The performance in Japan is an especially important project that requires considerable courage considering right-wing propaganda that aggravates anti-Korean thinking and the public’s indifference regarding historical concerns. “Against Forgetting” is scheduled to be performed at one of the universities in Japan in between July and August. Ms. Shimada’s “Becoming a Statue of a Japanese Comfort Woman” will be performed simultaneously, and we hope for the participation of local university students.

 

In addition, for the Seoul performance event, we will invite Ms. Shimada to the Statue of Peace at Gwanghwamun and encourage the cooperation of Korean women university students. This cooperative work that brings together a Japanese “comfort woman” memorial [in the form of Ms. Shimada] and Korean women students symbolically lets us imagine a future of peace through solidarity among women, and a sisterhood beyond the perpetrator/victim binary formed by the history of violence written by men.

 

By Kim Myeong-sun

Published March 4, 2019

Translated by Jieun Lee

 

*Original article: http://ildaro.com/8412

기사입력 : 2020-06-16

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