It is called “Statue of Peace”, though it’s original Korean name is So-nyeo-sang or “Statue of Girl”. The name I first heard it called was, “the Comfort Women statue” by a friend who had gone to see it. As I stood in front of this bronze figure on a congested road in Annandale, VA next to a barbershop, she did not evoke peace. Instead, I sensed steely resolve. It was a drizzly misty day when I went, and water had pooled in the corner of her right eye, conveying the impression of unshed tears.
“Wednesday Gathering” protests
Designed by Kim Seo-Kyung and Kim Un-Sung, the Statue of Peace was created originally to commemorate the 1000th “Wednesday Gathering” of women who congregated in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul to protest the sexual enslavement of girls and women by the Japanese military. “Comfort Women” is the euphemism the Japanese government used to refer to girls and women who were forced into what many now recognize as rape camps run for Japanese soldiers. Beginning in 1932, this heinous practice continued until the end of World War II in 1945. The weekly protests, led by survivors and accompanied by supporters, started in 1992. The persistent group demanded that the Japanese government take full responsibility for their role in these atrocities.
Historians have estimated between 50,000 – 200,000 girls and women primarily from Korea and China, as well as the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia were imprisoned. The girls, as young as 13, were forced to have sex with 50-70 soldiers per day. Beyond rape, the women were verbally and emotionally abused, starved and tortured. Only 30 percent of them survived the war. Japanese officials do not contest that these crimes took place but do contest the accuracy of the numbers.
Courageous voices and demands for justice
In August of 1991, Kim Hak-sun a former sexual prisoner was the first to come forward to offer testimony of her experiences. Her courage brought other women forward to share their stories of survival. A coalition of organizations demanded that Japan clearly acknowledge its responsibility, provide an official apology ratified by the legislature and approved by the executive branch, provide financial reparations from government sources, and disclose open all government records related to the situation. Until they did so, the coalition stated that Japan should not sit as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
In 1993, Japan admitted that it administered the use of “comfort stations” for its military and expressed remorse. In 2015, the Japanese Government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe again expressed “sincere apologies and remorse” to the victims and offered approximately $1billion yen in legal reparations. However, this agreement was reached without input from the survivors or their surrogates. Those within the movement claim that the apology did not go far enough and the atrocities committed are being erased from Japanese history textbooks. Movement leaders are determined to continue their protest until the Japanese government takes greater responsibility for this dark chapter.
Comfort Women statue – A growing movement
The first Statue of Peace was erected in Seoul in 2011. It stares down the Japanese embassy. At 1.3 meters, it is hard to fathom the international tension this work of art has engendered. Wherever this girl appears, controversy with the Japanese government follows. And yet, controversy has not swayed her arrival. There are fifty of these statues in South Korea and five in the United States. The statues also appear in Canada, Australia, and Germany.
It is not uncommon to find the girl dressed in a knitted hat and scarf. Sometimes, she is wrapped in a blanket or shawl or her bare feet are wrapped in a warm cover. Visitors place bouquets of flowers at the base, in her lap, and in the chair that sits empty next to her. Expressions of care, protection, sorrow, and empathy, these items provide little solace when contemplating such unimaginable anguish and suffering.
Originally, the design was going to reflect the elderly status of the survivors during the 90s. The sculptor, Kim seo-Kyung instead chose to depict the age at which the women were enslaved. She sought to create a more generic image that expressed a girl who had her dreams taken from her. As of this date, there are 18 registered comfort women still living.
Kim Un-Sung, includes these symbolic elements:
- The face of the girl shows her anger about her treatment.
- The bird on her shoulder is a symbol of peace, freedom, and liberation.
- The girl’s clenched fist shows how the survivors will no longer be silent about Japan’s war crimes.
- Her short hair represents how her relationships with family and friends were severed against her will.
- The girl’s heels are unattached to the ground to show that their lives were unstable.
- The empty chair invites visitors to sit and consider how this could happen to them or someone they know.
- The shadow of the elderly woman on the base of the monument reminds the visitor of the suffering the women lived with their whole lives.
To learn more about supporting the cause of the Comfort Women survivors, please visit www.comfort-women.org.
Betsy Scotto-Lavino is the Director of Education and Research for The Artistic Fuel Foundation. She is also a Ph.D. student, wife, mother of three, and a nature lover. If you can't find me, I'm probably in the woods.