Statues were installed on five buses with the support of the Seoul mayor—although use of public space to highlight a wartime atrocity is controversial
Buses serving several routes in central Seoul have acquired a new and highly controversial passenger: a barefoot “comfort woman”, wearing a traditional hanbok dress with her hands resting on her knees.
Appearing on the front seat of buses in the South Korean capital earlier this week, the statues were installed by the Dong-A Transit company as a potent reminder of an unresolved wartime atrocity whose roots lie in Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula.
The term “comfort women” is a euphemism for as many as 200,000 girls and young women, mostly from the Korean peninsula, who were coerced into working in Japanese frontline brothels before and during the second world war.
“It is designed to remind South Koreans of suffering the women went through,” said Rim Jin-wook, the head of Dong-A Transit, the bus company behind the statue passengers.
Seoul’s mayor has supported the scheme, which will run to the end of September, by riding on one of the buses and saying it was an “opportunity to pay tribute to the victims”.
However, the use of public spaces to highlight such a controversial issue has sparked criticism in Japan, which claims that the statues contravene the spirit of a 2015 agreement that was supposed to settle the comfort women controversy “finally and irreversibly”.
The agreement included an apology for the women’s ordeal, but Japan refused to accept legal responsibility, maintaining its official position that all compensation claims were settled by a bilateral peace treaty in 1965. In addition, Tokyo committed to setting up a $9mn fund to care for the dwindling number of surviving sex slaves.
In return, the countries agreed to refrain from criticising each other over wartime sexual slavery at international forums.
But the biggest obstacle to fully implementing the agreement is a Japanese demand that the South Korean government order the removal of comfort women statues across the country.
One particularly contentious sculpture has been outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul since 2011. Former sex slaves and campaigners caused a major diplomatic spat in 2011 when they installed a bronze life-sized statue, similar to the plastic iterations that have now appeared on buses, and placed it in direct view of diplomats and embassy workers.
Since then, activists have put up dozens more such statues, in South Korea and abroad. In late 2016, a statue appeared outside the Japanese consulate in the port city of Busan. Erected by a civil group and paid for by donations, it caused the local government major embarrassment after they immediately removed it, but bowed to public pressure two days later and allowed for it to be reinstalled. Such is the strength of public support for the statues that South Korea’s government now says it is powerless to prevent campaigners from erecting them.
There are growing intimations that the 2015 comfort women agreement is about to unravel, especially since Moon Jae-in replaced the disgraced Park Geun-hye as South Korean president in May. Moon, a liberal former human rights lawyer, has launched a review of the 2015 deal.
As Moon told Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in a recent phone call: “The Korean public sentiment shows the people do not accept the deal.”
The most controversial “comfort woman” statue outside South Korea is one that sits in Glendale, California, erected in 2013. In April this year, the US supreme court denied a review of a controversial case seeking its removal, ending a tense three-year debate by local residents Michiko Shiota Gingery and Koichi Mera, who were hoping to “defend the honour of Japan” by having it taken down.
In South Korea, with only an estimated 37 “comfort women” survivors left, local communities are now stepping up their campaigns to give more visibility to the women in cities across the country, to complement their standing within the country’s political firmament.
In addition to installing statues on five of the city’s buses, there are plans to make every 14 August a national day of remembrance and to open a museum dedicated to the comfort women in 2020.
The bus statues will stay in place until the end of September before going on permanent display in public spaces around the country.
According to the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, nine new statues were due to be placed in locations in Seoul and other cities by the time South Korea celebrated the anniversary of its liberation from Japanese colonial rule this week, bringing the total number in South Korea to about 80.
“It’s so heartbreaking to see this girl statue, partly because she looks about my age,” Jennifer Lee, a 19-year-old passenger, told AFP. “It horrifies me just to imagine what these women went through.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Lead Image: A ‘comfort woman’ statue on a bus in central Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Aflo/REX/Shutterstock
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