I never set out to make a film about sex slaves from World War II. I am an independent filmmaker living in South Korea and playing the traditional Korean drum is my hobby. My fellow musicians and I only meant to share music with the residents of a nursing home we were visiting in 2002 in Gwangju, a city a few hours south of Seoul.
But the nursing home was a place called Sharing House, where several surviving “comfort women” lived. These women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military before and during World War II. That visit changed my life and proved to be the inspiration for the film I am making, “Spirits’ Homecoming.”
This week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed Congress and is expected to visit San Francisco. This is a fitting place for him to do what the comfort women want him to do: apologize.
I learned about comfort women in school. When the Japanese empire expanded through Asia, the military took women from occupied territories — most came from Korea and China — and forced them into sexual slavery in military-organized brothels, to service Japanese soldiers.
But this happened a long time before I was born and I felt no personal connection to it. That all changed when I visited Sharing House and saw a painting called “Burning Virgins.” I was told that the women were being treated with art therapy, to help ease psychological trauma.
One woman, Kang In-chul, painted a scene of young girls being driven in a truck by Japanese soldiers, who shot them and burned their bodies in a flaming pit. Halmoni Kang, or Grandmother Kang, told me she was in that grisly scene as a young girl. She escaped only because Korean liberation fighters attacked the Japanese just before she was to be shot, allowing her to flee.
I knew then that I had to make a film about these women’s stories. I faced much opposition within the Korean film industry for seeking to reopen old wounds, as I was told. It was difficult to raise money and took many years. But attitudes toward the comfort women have changed. A crowdfunding site recently raised $250,000 for my movie, allowing me to get started.
Even though World War II ended 70 years ago, we now face another battle: The continued attempts by Abe and his government to discredit the comfort women and abandon previous Japanese government apologies to them.
Throughout his political career, Abe has tried to rewrite history and pretend that the comfort women were merely ordinary prostitutes and not coerced sex slaves, shipped from occupied country to country in the empire, raped by 10, 20, 30 soldiers a day. One former Japanese solider recalled how he and the other soldiers lined up outside the comfort stations, waiting their turn. “It was like going to the toilet,” he said.
In his first turn as prime minister in 2007, Abe falsely declared that there was no evidence of Japanese military coercion in creating the comfort women system, a claim contradicted by much scholarship and a 1996 report by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Last year, Abe’s government sent a representative to New York to ask the author of the U.N. report to reconsider her findings, which she refused to do. Abe sent another government agent to McGraw-Hill Education publisher to ask them to change comfort women language in a textbook. They refused, too. Abe called the extensive personal testimonies of the comfort women “baseless, slanderous claims.”
There are only 53 Korean comfort women still alive. That’s why I’m making this film — so the stories and truth of these women will live long after they are gone.
Cho Junglae is a South Korean film director.