“Comfort Women” Show Makes Nikon Uncomfortable But Not Tokyo Courts

The “comfort women” aka 慰安婦 (ianfu) issue is one that divides Japan. Who were the comfort women? They were Korean, Chinese, and sometimes even Japanese women who worked as prostitutes during the Second World War, primarily offering sexual services to Japanese soldiers (There were also Dutch women in Indonesia). Many of the women were coerced into working as virtual sex slaves, while others may have worked on their own initiative, just as many women today still work in Japan’s sex industry. The issue of who ran the brothels aka “comfort houses” during the war was disputed for years but in 1992, Professor Yoshimi a well-known Japanese historian published Japanese archival documents that established the direct involvement of the Japanese military in running a network of military brothels known as “Comfort Houses.”  The Japanese government also released over a hundred documents in the same year that supported the research. However, there are still questions as to how many women were coerced into working at the brothels and their living conditions.

However, for Japan’s right wingers and historical revisionists, any suggestion that the Japanese military engaged in human trafficking is anathema.  The discussion of the subject and any films, books or exhibitions dealing with the taboo are sure to draw the attentions of these radicals. Therefore, it was not really a huge surprise when Nikon, which had agreed to host a photo exhibition about the comfort women, got cold feet at the last minute.

The photos of former "comfort women" makes Japanese right wingers and historical revisionists distinctly uncomfortable.

Korean photographer Ahn Sehong, 41, who married a Japanese woman in 2007 and lives in Nagoya for 3 years, was scheduled to have an exhibition of the portraits and photos of former comfort women at the prestigious Nikon Salon (Shinjuku) starting in June.  However, in May of this year, the exhibition was unilaterally cancelled by Nikon without explanation. The exhibition, planned from June 26 to July 9 has finally opened, but not without any problems.

“We are just lending the place,” Nikon officials allegedly told Ahn Sehong, “we cannot help you– if there is any problem we will have to end the exhibition immediately.”

When Ahn Sehong and his colleagues were preparing the exhibition, three lawyers hired by Nikon were systematically after Ahn.

“They were asking me to whom I had talked and what I said, ” said Ahn. The exhibition was only held after a court decision by the Tokyo District Court ordered them to do it.

At a press conference held today at the Foreign Correspondents Club (June 28th, 2012) Ahn said that he felt anxious all the time, fearing that his exhibition might end at any moment.

“I bet Nikon is trying to find any possible reason to stop the exhibition,” he told reporters.

The reasons given by the optical equipment maker Nikon to withdraw the exhibition were unclear at first, but its company representative told Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF/Reporters Without Borders) that Nikon’s measure “was taken after numerous calls and e-mails criticizing the exhibition.”

According to Ahn, inside the Nikon Salon gallery, when reporters came to ask questions to him, the Nikon lawyers and the guardians prohibited any exchange within the gallery.

 “I had to go at the first floor, then walk to the closest park outdoors in order to speak to reporters who came to visit my exhibition. In such situation, I feel that my freedom of expression are denied,” he said.

RSF or Reporters Without Borders, an international organization, which defends the freedom of information, condemned “the move to censor the photo exhibition,” it announced in a press release.

Mr. Naomi Toyoda, representing the JVJA (Japan Visual Journalists Association), who supported Ahn Sehong’s photo exhibition at Nikon with great vigor, said at the press conference that, “every photographer has a message. Each photo exhibition has a political message, but the photos and the photographer must be different. As a photographer myself, I defend freedom of expression at any price.”

Mr. Sehong does not approach his subject lightly and has done substantial research.

“My sources almost all passed away by now. Since 1996, I met 12 former comfort women in China, and about 40 in Korea. They did not know each other but they all told me the same facts”

The RSF in a statement about the problem noted, “ (the) thirty-seven photos and portraits of former Korean “comfort women,” who served at the fronts of the Japanese military camps in Asia, “besides their esthetic quality, supported by documentary research conducted by the photographer since 2001, are an important work of education, which must be shown to as many people as possible, without political consideration,”

The topic of the so-called comfort women is indeed embarrassing for Japan, however, in 1993, Yohei Kono, then Chief Cabinet secretary, issued a statement acknowledging that Japan organized during the war a brothel program for its military men, and offered an apology to Korea. But the Japanese government has always refused to pay individual compensation to these women.

Ahn Sehong told journalists in Tokyo that, his project started in 1996, when he first met a Korean old lady living in China, who used to be a comfort woman at the Japanese military front when she was younger. Most of the comfort women were taken away from their houses at very young age. “I wanted to help these old ladies to express their experience. If you look at the photographs, they speak for themselves. Their story needed to be told and remembered. And the Japanese people should also know about these facts.”

Ahn Sehong, photographer

 The RSF stated that, “it would be unacceptable that Nikon, a private company held in high regard by the world of photography, should become an accomplice to censorship.” RSF also urged the Japanese authorities to “determine if intimidation was perpetrated by individuals opposed to the work of the photographer,” and launch an investigation.

Dozens of Japanese ultra-nationalist group members, uyoku, have demonstrated in Yurakucho, in front of the Foreign press club building to remind their message, which is that these Korean comfort women never existed. The tirades run along the line of: “The comfort women were professional prostitutes not victims, and the photographer is mediocre too!”

At the Nikon Salon, in Shinjuku, a full security management is deployed: heavy metal detectors and guardians are stationing in every corner of the exhibition hall.

According to a FCCJ staff member, some leaders of the right wing groups tried to enter the Yurakucho Denki Building, where the Foreign Correspondents Club is based. They were denied entry.

Ahn Sehong’s family also had to move from their home in Nagoya, for fear of the multiple threats they have received. “I got pressured by Japanese Right Wing groups over time. After Nikon announced the withdrawal of the exhibition, my private contact details were released on the Internet. I received many phone calls and e-mails teaching me that the Korean comfort women never existed,” he said, “some messages said ‘you should die.’”

Ahn Sehong: "I like Nikon. I use Leica since 2002, but it is not because of the issue I had with Nikon that I do not like their cameras. This picture, on my left, was in fact taken by a Nikon camera."

A BRIEF EXPLANATION OF THE EUPHEMISM OF “COMFORT WOMEN”

The term “comfort women” is a euphemism describing the Asian women, mostly Koreans, who were enrolled to serve as sex workers for the Japanese military troupes during the WWII. The estimates of the number of women involved in this forced sex industry is a huge controversy even in the present days among Japanese, Korean and Chinese scholars. Some Japanese estimate the numbers to “as low as 20,000,” whereas some Chinese scholars estimate the numbers “as high as 410,000,” depending on the definition of the victims. The exact number is still being researched and debated.

A good discussion of the issue can be found at The Washington Coalition for Comfort Women.

"Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation in Japan. The New Victims: Japanese Teenagers"

子ども性被害防止で相談HP

Note: I’ve been working with the Polaris Project Japan, a non-profit organization that combats human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children, since 2005 and recently agreed to be their temporary public relations director.  In the last year, a lot of the calls coming to Polaris Project Japan were concerning Japanese teenage women who appeared to have been forced into the sex industry–not foreign women.  It does seem that the Japanese government has been enforcing the anti-human trafficking laws to the point where there are significantly fewer non-Japanese women being made sex-slaves. However, it seems they have been replaced by young Japanese teenage girls, many of them runaways or abused children. 

Polaris Project Japan had the brilliant idea of reaching out directly to these girls by making a mobile-phone web-site aimed at them, that was user friendly, and could offer some good advice.  Young schoolgirls don’t read newspapers, don’t watch as much television as they did, and most of their communications is over cell-phones and social networking sites. Unfortunately, such sites have also becoming prime hunting grounds for pimps, low-life yakuza, and pedophiles who seek out fresh meat to use themselves or sell to others. 

 

A mobile phone web-site aimed at helping Japanese teenage victims
A mobile phone web-site aimed at helping Japanese teenage victims

NHK, Japan’s answer to the BBC gave the website some good coverage this morning. 

The contents of the consultations that Polaris Project Japan and their partner organization Yukon have gotten are quite unpleasant. 

 

● From Host Club Patron To Forced Prostitution 

   A male Host asked a young victim come visit his club without worrying about money. After his begging continued, she went to the club a few times. Then, a different man from the club asked her for a few hundred thousand yen (a few thousand dollars) for the food and drinks she had consumed. She received threatening phone calls and was even ambushed at her own home. The men kept pressuring the girl to pay the bill, coercing her to go and work in the sex industry. Around that time, she was put in touch with Polaris, and after consulting with the police, she is safe once again.  

Note: I covered incidents like this one as far back as 2000, when I was still a police reporter assigned to the 4th district. It’s a classic technique that yakuza or general low-lives use to force young women into the sex trade.  Host clubs seems to be the equivalent of trafficking recruitment centers in many parts of Japan. 

 

● A 14-year-old farmed out as a prostitute by her classmates

 Her friends told her that she had a bad attitude, and forced her to apologize by paying money earned from prostitution. A few months later, through some website, she was introduced to a customer, and forced into prostitution. It had already been taken up as a case as a juvenile victim when she contacted this organization. She says, “I’m out of the situation, but I have nowhere to go. I always feel depressed.I let myself get picked up for casual sex, abuse my body, and start crying for no reason.” Polaris Project Japan provides  her regular counseling and the support she needs. 

  Anyway, these are some of the cases that have come up in the last year, there probably are a lot more.  Below is the press release for the web-site. The press conference was held April 1st (Japan time)  at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan. 

 

 

 


Polaris Project Japan Launches a New Mobile Website:

To help victims of child/teen prostitution

and child pornography and prevent further exploitation

 

The Polaris Project Japan (PPJ) is the Japanese branch of Polaris Project in Washington DC.  PPJ has been operating a hot-line for human trafficking victims for several years In the last year, PPJ has been receiving more and more calls not just from the traditional human trafficking victims–foreign women ensnared in the sex industry–but Japanese teenage girls who have been lured or forced into the sex industry and can’t get out, and sometimes even been asked by their own parents to work in the industry to make money for their family members. 

 

Contrary to the popular picture of Japanese teenage prostitutes as clueless teenagers who just want to earn money to buy a designer bag–many of the girls now in the industry are there because of financial necessity and a lack of support for abused girls and boys who run away from home. 

Many of these victims are recruited over the internet and or/are sold over social networking sites by their pimps–like commodities. 

The National Police Agency reported in 2008 internet Profile sites and Social networking sites are the hotbeds of child sex crimes, surpassing the net dating sites (which were originally the hub of sex trafficking).

 

It is hard to measure the extent of the problem because no Japanese government agency has attempted a comprehensive survey, and the laws protecting children are administrated by many different government agencies and ministries that do not share information or work together.

 

To provide an effective and systematical intervention to prevent sexual exploitation of adolescents and help victims, Polaris Project is launching a website:

¨       To provide an environment to seek counseling in a safe and anonymous way.

¨       To give information to questions like “What happens if….”, rather than sending simple “Stop” or “Danger” signs.

¨       To eliminate the embarrassment and fear of seeking counseling face to face by allowing contacts via website and phone.

¨       To inform the victims of additional channels of help available.

 

Polaris Project will also be working with The Children’s Human Rights Committee of the Japan Lawyer’s Association, Prefectural Women’s Centers, and Children’s Shelters to make sure that the children calling receive the best care and advice possible. It will also advertise on sites popular with Japanese youth to make sure the message reaches those who are most vulnerable.


About Polaris Project
Polaris Project is a non-profit organization that combats human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children. It was established in 2002 in Washington D.C., USA. In 2004, the Japan office was launched in Tokyo. Our activities and projects include victim outreach, multi-lingual hotline, victim support, and workshops for public and government agencies in positions of direct contact with victims.

 

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