It has already been 20 years since I started meeting the survivors of “comfort women”. It only seems like it was yesterday when I – as a man – felt guilty and struggled to think of what I could do for the survivors. Then, as a photographer, I decided that sharing the victims’ grief deep down their hearts through photographs was the best possible way I could help them.
With the start of an exhibition in Seoul in 2003, I have met a lot of people, including the victimized women who are now quite aged, and learned to sympathize them. And after the first “JuJu Exhibition” (2012) in Japan, I have continued to keep in contact with the women. Although the first exhibition at the Nikon Salon was unjustly interrupted, it was later re-opened with the help of citizens and 7,900 audiences.
I had a chance to meet the survivors now residing in the Philippines in January, 2013 and those in China, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and East Timor last year. Then I realized that although they all suffered from the ordeals during the Japanese colonialism, their tragic stories have not yet been shared well.
Liu Feng-hai in China
Carminda Dou & Martina Madeira Hoar in Timor-Leste
Unfortunately, only those in Korea are currently receiving attention. The affected countries that are receiving aid from the Japanese government are being consistently indifferent with the issue of “comfort women”. The support of the social organizations is not enough. In fact, it is nowhere near to fully take care of the women.
Currently, there are over 150 survivors in eight affected countries: about 54 in South Korea, more than 2 in North Korea, 23 in China, 5 in Taiwan, more than 18 in the Philippines, more than 37 in Indonesia, 11 in East Timor, and 1 in the Netherlands. Ever since the first investigation, the number of survivors has rapidly decreased. And I am sure that there are even more survivors in places where I could not contact.
In addition, records of the survivors – except the ones in Korea and Taiwan – in fact are not preserved well. Since 2013, I have been organizing and participating in a project called “JuJu – The Traces That Cannot Be Erased”. Through the project, I have recorded the scars of war as well as the portraits of the survivors. It is important to record and to inform the historical truth while the Japanese government continues to distort and hide the history. It is urgently necessary to remember the survivors and record the correct history as the women are becoming weaker and weaker. I believe that such painful history can be prevented in the future by remembering them. Furthermore, a more practical support, such as medical service, for them needs to be created. I hope that the survivors would be able to relieve from the grudge smoldered in their hearts as soon as possible.
The processes of seeking the truth in a photograph would be difficult but enjoyable. A photographer is creating relations with the object that s/he takes in order to incorporate the inner truth, not the ‘seeing’ truth, into the photograph.
The relations with the surviving Korean Comfort Women, who were mostly in their 80s and 90s, were not formed accidentally. It took me a long time to get to know them. When I first encountered these women, they were very shy and treated me as a stranger. But we became closer to each other as we met many times. It was fortunate for me to have understood the deepest part of their hearts, listening to their stories and witnessing their hardships. I am privileged to make some contributions to them as a photographer.
I had been contacting the surviving Korean Comfort Women, who then were forced to live in China, and visited them since 2001. This made me understand their situations better: I saw the individual women selling things on a bus, or on a train, or on a ship for a living. Such a miserable way of living seemed to mirror their past lives as the displaced. In fact this harsh reality made me visit to China More than 10 times to take pictures of them and to let the world know.
While staying with them, I captured the moments of their daily life into my camera, and this work required extreme tension. I was already thrown into their world and into their expressions of joy and sorrow. But when I looked into the viewfinder of my camera, I realized that it was not easy to cross freely the boundary and the object with freedom. But I tried to contain some truth about them, being tensely aware of the breathtaking boundaries between the object as the victims known as ‘Comfort Women’ and their human side.
The woman that was incorporated into my viewfinder was a human being. The photo revealed her grudging heart expressed in her tearful eyes, the deep furrow of her wrinkles and her stained belongings. This certainly reflected both the present and past life of the particular woman.
More than 70 years have passed since the surviving Comfort Women settled down in the barren land and lived alone. These women had only resentful vitality that overcame the given environment in a harsh reality of a foreign country.
Would they be forced to move to other place again? Or would they be blown away with a cold wind and dispersed and vanished to the back stage of history?