The report caught Lee’s attention; since then, the artist has traveled to seven Asian countries to interview more than 20 survivors of the brothels.
“I wanted to know them personally ... I was worried at first: Were they angry and bitter because of the trauma they went through? But it is amazing to me to find out what loving and caring grandmas they are. One thing I find inspiring is their courage to speak out. These are, after all, very difficult personal experiences,” the artist told the Taipei Times.
COMFORT WOMEN WANTED
The exhibition title is taken from the actual text of ads placed in newspapers during the war, with which the Imperial Japanese Army attempted to recruit volunteers.
In an effort to generate public discussion, Lee converts original newspaper ads into a series of posters and other displays currently on view at several MRT stations in Taipei and outside the Eslite Bookstore near National Taiwan University.
Meanwhile, the indoor exhibition at Bopiliao features a reconstructed “comfort station,” where women were raped by 10 to 100 soldiers a day, according to Lee’s gallery statement.
Rebuilt based on historical records, the room is simply furnished with a tatami bed, a washbowl and plaques with the Japanese name given to the comfort woman kept there.
Video footage of comfort stations in China and Indonesia, including Dai Salon (大一沙龍) in Shanghai — Japan’s first comfort station, established in 1932 — is projected onto different objects in the room.
Outside, welcome banners for soldiers are hung from ceiling to floor.
In the adjoining room, there are two different videos playing on loop, featuring interview excerpts and black-and-white images of the interviewees. One film is dedicated to six comfort women survivors from different countries. The survivors, speaking in their native languages, recount tales of abduction, extreme violence and death.
Korean survivor Lee Oak-seon, in particular, remembers vividly how she was kidnapped on the street and sent to China at the age of 16. Many Korean girls, some as young as 11, faced similar fates; those who dared to disobey were tortured and killed at comfort stations.
Projected on an opposite wall, the second video work presents a short interview with a former soldier of the Imperial Japanese Army named Yasuji Kaneko. In an admirably frank manner, Kaneko speaks of the 10 to 15-minute encounters with the women held captive at the military camp.
With this exhibition, Lee chooses to tell a story that goes beyond that of perpetrators and victims. Artistically understated and devoid of angry denunciation, Lee’s work invites viewers to come close and experience the emotions of the survivors who, after decades of living in silence and shame, are able to come to terms with the past and speak out about not only their suffering but longings and hopes.
Kaneko ends his interview, “We should never have a war like that again ... I am already 88 years old. I’m just watching for death. I hope that people will not do what we did.”
The issue of comfort women is virtually unknown in the West and remains “taboo and controversial in Asia,” as Lee points out. The survivors are now in their 80s and 90s, and their testimonies will soon be gone forever.