"Her shadow is that of a weary old woman."
On my home office desk is a souvenir from a recent trip to Seoul. It is a statue of a girl sitting on a wooden chair, a bird perched on her left shoulder. She looks straight ahead, her expression blank. It is as if she is waiting.
On the ground under her chair is a shadow—except that the shadow is that of a weary old woman.
To the girl’s right, just a little behind her, is another chair, this time an empty one.
This statue has come to be the symbol of comfort women’s struggle to obtain justice for their ordeal at the hands of the Japanese military during World War II.
The statue was initially unveiled in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in 2011, commemorating the regular Wednesday rallies that have taken place for years in the pursuit of justice for the wartime sex slaves, euphemistically called “comfort women.”
The pressure led to a landmark agreement in 2015, where Japan apologized for the sexual enslavement of the women, and offered government money (a fund had previously been set up but by the private sector) to set up a foundation to be run by the Korean government. Both sides also agreed to stop criticizing the other over the issue —the deal, it was declared, was a final and irreversible resolution.
While it was by no means perfect—there were not enough consultations with the survivors, it is said—the deal was seen as, at least, a decisive start.
As of January 2018, the agreement had been “at least partly implemented. About half the 1 billion yen from Tokyo has been spent, including payments to 34 of the 47 surviving sex slaves. Only 31 women are still alive today,” the Celeste Arrington of The Washington Post reported.
The present Moon administration enjoys wide support from his people in separating disputes over history from coordination with Japan on North Korea and other issues, according to The Post. Meanwhile in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently said South Korea was its most important neighbor with whom it shares strategic interests.
Relics from dark days
A life-size version of the statue is also at the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum, which was opened to the public in May 2012.
The museum is a long narrow uphill road. Leading to the door are paintings on the wall depicting halmoni—grandmothers —in traditional wear, smiling and standing amid pastel-colored trees. There is a board containing letters written, on bright, butterfly-shaped stationery, by Korean girls to their less fortunate elders.
Upon entrance to the museum, visitors are given earphones with narration tracks they could match with display numbers. One begins by entering a narrow passageway, which leads to a dark basement. One could peek into a room which approximates the brothels in which the women were kept. On one side were photos of some of the young women; on the opposite side were their photos decades later.
Upstairs were more relics that showed how slavery was institutionalized: Personal belongings, building plans, even diary entries by a young Japanese soldier. And there of course were the stories of the women themselves, told late in their lives after decades of hiding it even from their families.
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While it was later revealed that some 200,000 women across Asia became military sex slaves, the story began in Korea. It was in 1998 that the secret was first revealed. Yun Chung-Ok, a professor of English at the Ewha Women’s University, began studying the plight of wartime sexual slaves in the region. Her work led to the creation of The Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Slavery for Japan.
Three years later, or in 1991, a Korean woman named Kim Hak Sun came forward, saying that she was held as a sex slave during the war. That year, two Korean women filed the first lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court.
In a matter of a few years, the “comfort women” issue had swept spread across the region, including the Philippines.
Here at home, Maria Rosa Luna Henson came forward in 1992. She narrated in her book that she was drying laundry when she first heard about the call for victims to join the cause—and she almost froze. Nanay Rosa, as she became known, and many others also sought justice for the ordeal they endured decades before. They held press conferences, filed cases in Japanese courts, demanded reparation and apology and even marched on the streets.
Fast forward to 2004, when some 90 women—called Malaya Lolas—filed a petition before the Supreme Court claiming that government leaders at that time committed grave abuse of discretion by not espousing their claims for official apology and other forms of reparation from Japan. At the time, women’s numbers were dwindling, their health becoming poor.
In 2010, the high court ruled that the women’s petition had no merit because “from a domestic law perspective, the Executive Department has the exclusive prerogative to determine whether to espouse petitioners’ claims against Japan.” The court also said that the Philippines is “not under any international obligation to espouse the petitioners’ claims.”
A motion for reconsideration was denied in 2014.
I met four of those women nearly three years ago, at a restaurant in Malate, Manila. Adelina Culala, Isabelita Vinuya, Emilia Mangilit and Candelaria Soliman, who were in their 80s, had travelled from their hometown of Mapanique, Tarlac for a press conference. The Japan-South Korea agreement had just been announced at that time, and the four elderly Filipinas wondered when—or if —it was even possible to dream of a similar feat during what remains of their lifetime.
On that day, the Lolas’ lawyer, pre-Duterte-era Harry Roque, slammed the Supreme Court for taking 10 full years to decide on the issue when the women were already at the twilight of their lives.
In 2016, just 32 of the 90 original petitioners remained alive. I have no idea what the numbers look like today.
Taking down a statue
In December last year, we here in Manila had something similar to the seated Korean girl. A seven-foot statue of a woman in traditional Filipiniana wear was erected on the bayside along Roxas Boulevard. Her dress was embellished with a vine called “cadena de amor,” representing her resilience. But she is in blindfold, because she still seeks justice. And she mourns.
The statue didn’t stand there too long; it was taken down in April this year.
The city administration removed the statue, supposedly for a flood control project of the Department of Public Works and Highways. But President Rodrigo Duterte said the statue was removed to avoid offending Japan, “because it is not our policy to insult other nations.” He added though that he would not have objected to the statue had it been put up in a private space.
It is now back at the Antipolo City workshop of the artist, Jonas Roces. Roces insisted the statue was not even put up as a symbol of protest. “It was just a reminder of our history so that the future generations would never forget,” the sculptor said. In fact, the statue was commissioned by the Chinese-Filipino group Tulay Foundation, with support from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.
A graphic on the CNN web site explains the symbolism of the original girl-on-a-chair statue in Seoul. The girl’s face shows her determination. The clenched fists show that the struggle continues. The shadow under the chair is that of an old woman because the hardships they experienced have lasted a lifetime. The empty chair is an invitation to anyone who wishes to empathize with and support their plight.
One day we will no longer hear anything about the bitter past and the long struggle of “comfort women” in Korea, here at home, and in all other places where there slaves. Sadly, it will be because all of them will have passed on, from old age, disease, frustration, heartbreak—or all of the above.