It’s a euphemism we still haven’t shaken. “Comfort women” refers to the women and girls—usually foreign, from countries like Korea, the Philippines, and China—forced by the Japanese military to do sex work mainly during World War II. Armed groups from various countries have done this too, although perhaps without the euphemism, choosing a group of individuals to use for repeated sexualized violence. Then combatants and high-up generals rape them. Again and again.
Euphemisms, and terminology in general, are tricky in the context of war. As I wrote in November 2012, “ethnic cleansing” is a phrase that may, at this point, successfully connote Hitlerian violence, but it’s been up for debate. “Comfort women,” however, sounds cozy where it should be horrifying. It sounds like the archetypal mother who holds her infant on a cold night, quilt tucked in neatly and the radiator on. It sounds like the opposite of the brutal enslavement and sexualized torture of a young woman.
That brutality is what photographer Ahn Sehong’s new exhibit, featured on The New York Times’ “Lens” blog, aims to capture. Sehong’s show, currently on display at the Korea Press Center Gallery in New Jersey, zooms in on the faces and daily lives of a handful of the estimated 200,000 women held as sex slaves during the war. Sehong shows the faces of 80- and 90-year-olds, their faded maps of home, and the poor conditions they live in 70 years later. Only three of the women he photographed are still alive.
At one point, these elderly women were young and living in Korea, then held captive by the Japanese army in China. After the war, the Times explains, they were stranded there. When Sehong first visited them, hoping to document their memories, “most lived in hovels, often in the same dusty rural towns where they had endured the war,” he said.
Each of Sehong’s subjects has a grueling story. One, Bae Sam-yeop was just 13 when a “high-ranking” Japanese officer raped her, she says. Yet for a long time now, politicians have had trouble acknowledging the violence. Just before the end of 2012, the Times reported that Japan’s new government might be “revising” an official apology given nearly two decades earlier to the victims of sexual slavery. And in May last year, Japanese diplomats visited a small monument honoring these women in New Jersey and asked to have it removed.
The photographer is pairing his project with activism, hoping to raise aid for the aging survivors. But even his images have been controversial: Sehong had to battle in court last year in order to display them at a Nikon gallery in Tokyo. The company tried to cancel his show after receiving complaints.
For the survivors still holding on to a poor daily existence in China, Sehong’s efforts may matter more than politics. Of the women he’s documented, Sehong said, “We couldn’t take care of them after the war. But now we have money and power to help them.”
As far back as their suffering during World War II may be, these women are still struggling to scratch out a living now, Sehong said in a local news story. And regardless off what term we use to describe the violence perpetrated long ago against them, they continue to be burdened by their memories.
“Their broken hearts are not in the past,” Sehong said.