By Diana Cheng
AAP Arts & Film Writer
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 for Japanese soldiers. 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.
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 testified to the horrible ordeals she had gone through prompted many others to follow her lead. Such war-time atrocities began to draw international attention. That was a poignant, pioneering social activism way before the today’s #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 now in North Korea. She dreams of unification one day so she can see them again.
Grandma Adela was 14 when she was taken away to a comfort station in the Philippines. Hsiung’s documentary shows us an actual comfort station in the Donna Barray 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 captured the quiet understanding from her son as he learned of her mother’s painful experience during the war, a shameful secret no more. Sadly, Grandma Adela passed away after that.
Grandma Cao in a rural village in 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 had been documented by a local writer and a book published.
Grandma Gil in Korea is the most outspoken among these three survivors. She continues the protests that Kim Hak-sun had started. Hsiung follows her with her camera as Grandma Gil goes to Japan personally to speak to young women of a new generation 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 had fallen upon deaf ears. Not only that, these woman protesters were often met with counter accusations, derogatory insults shouted at them.
A comment by a Japanese politician could well have represented the official view. Osaka mayor Toru 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 these 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 premiered on PBS Oct. 22, 2018. It can be streamed on POV now.