By Christopher Smith
An important human rights violation has been “forgotten,” Chang-Jin Lee, a Korean-born visual artist now in New York City, said as she spoke at Dalton State College Wednesday evening.
That issue is forgetting about massive sex trafficking that occurred on the Axis-side of World War II during the 1940s, primarily in Japan, she said.
“This is an important human rights issue,” she told students. “And it’s been ignored.”
Estimates vary, but between 20,000 to 400,000 women were kidnapped and sold as prostitutes, called “comfort women,” to mainly Japanese soldiers, according to several international reports from organizations such as the Asian Women’s Fund and academic hubs including the Shanghai Normal University. The wide spread between estimates is a result of several Asian governments trying to bury history, the reports state.
It’s an atrocity that isn’t often talked about, Lee said, adding that she has been raising awareness about the issue by creating faux advertisements marketing comfort women.
The images she used for her advertisements — seen in metropolises such as New York City, Taiwan and Hong Kong — take photos of actual comfort women and serve to make sure people “don’t forget” about the government-ignored sex trade, disbanded shortly after the war ended, she said.
Lee said women taken to military camps were raped by as many as 100 men a day to the point that “their bodies were breaking down,” with roughly 75 percent of women dying from the experience, citing research provided by several international universities and from the United Nations. Many who fought their captors were beaten or executed, Lee added.
That kind of startling reality might create anger towards the Japanese, Lee said, but cautioned against hate.
“We don’t learn about the Holocaust just to hate Germans and we don’t learn about black slavery just to hate white Americans,” she said. “We learn to remember, so we don’t make the same mistakes again.”
Lee said it’s easy to think sex trafficking is bygone and isn’t occurring nowadays. Her lecture in Dalton occurred the same week a major federal sting revealed a similar sex trade in parts of the Southeast, including Georgia. Federal officials arrested several Mexican nationals who had been trafficking hundreds of women into parts of the state to sell for sex.
The similarity between the brutality in both sex trades had Dalton State student Lauren Newton “sick to my stomach.”
“Girls vanish and people go about their lives not knowing, or not caring,” she said. “It’s a disturbing history, violence against women, that people seem completely unaware about sometimes. Men are still doing this to women.
“There’s still tons of violence against women that goes on in the background, while we fight about politics and religion. I think the lesson from the comfort women is to not let that happen. To raise awareness. To not ignore the problem.”
Student Daniel Porter also “became sickened” and emotional during a showing of a film Wednesday evening detailing interviews Lee had with comfort women in their 80s and 90s who survived and were willing to share their experiences in great detail.
“It makes sex gross to hear about this sort of thing,” he said. “This was thousands of men thinking it was OK to rape women for fun.”
Several Japanese soldiers interviewed after the war said they didn’t realize the brutality the women were experiencing or that many of the women had been kidnapped from their families. Many of them claimed they paid for sex to escape the realities of war and didn’t know they were contributing to a massive sex trade.
“You can only claim ignorance for so long,” Porter said. “There comes a point where you should do something.”
That is the point, Lee said.
“This isn’t about nation against nation,” she said. “This is not based on a form of nationalism, but a humanistic point of view... that says, don’t make the same mistakes. Don’t let this happen.”