Film sheds light on revisionist narrative about “comfort women” in Japan

Film sheds light on revisionist narrative about “comfort women” in Japan

Miki Dezaki's directorial debut, “Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue,” addresses the highly contentious debate in Japan and South Korea about comfort women during World War II.

“The difference between revisionists and historians is that revisionists cherry-pick their information and they don't know the context of the documents that they're reading.” said director Miki Dezaki.

by Guilia Piscitelli (UCLA 2021)

UCLA International Institute, November 4, 2019 — At an event hosted by the UCLA Center for Korean Studies, Asia Pacific Center and Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies on October 9, students and community members watched Miki Dezaki’s directorial debut film, “Shushenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue.”

Following the screening, audience members had the opportunity to engage in a question-and-answer session with a panel consisting of director Dezaki, Phyllis Kim of Comfort Women Action for Redress and Education and David Monkawa of the Progressive Asian Network for Action. UCLA was one of many colleges that Dezaki has visited in recent months to screen and discuss his documentary. 

A first-generation Japanese American, Dezaki became interested in the comfort women while obtaining a graduate degree in global studies at Sophia University in Tokyo. Growing up in Florida, he said he had learned very little about the issue from his family. As he furthered his education and interacted with Japanese and Korean people abroad, he became aware of the controversy surrounding the women.

Historical revisionism

"Shushenjo" deals with the efforts of the Japanese political far right to contest the idea that Korean women were forced into sexual servitude for the Japanese armed forces during World War II. Nationalists and individuals on the Japanese political right purport that these women were voluntary prostitutes who were treated well and paid amply. Certain Japanese historians and scholars, however, contend that these women were deceived and forced into military brothels where they were treated as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial armed forces.

In 1993, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized to South Korea for the Japanese Imperial Army's actions. The official apology stated that the army's actions caused survivors to suffer “immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women” and pledged to educate Japan about the issue.

 

The apology was, however, the result of a government-to-government process that did not involve surviving Korean comfort women, who rejected it. In the end, said filmmaker Dezaki, the apology “ended up making things worse, because now Japanese people question why Korea won't accept their apology.”

An important part of the official apology has not endured. The film makes clear that since Shinzō Abe became prime minister, the Japanese government has removed all teaching about the comfort women from Japanese textbooks, pressured American cities (including San Francisco and Glendale) not to build statues honoring comfort women and created a culture of silence around the issue.

Far-right activists in Japan have chosen to attack the credibility of those comfort women who have given public testimony, pointing to the fact that they began to speak out only in the 1990s and that testimonies given at different times are inconsistent in certain (insignificant) details.

 

These arguments, the film makes clear, ignore the severe trauma endured by the comfort women and their subsequent disinclination to speak about their experiences due to social stigma. Revisionists also tend to overlook that the testimonies describe the women’s shared experience of being tricked and then finding themselves under the total control of the military authorities – refuting the idea of free will.

As the film demonstrates, efforts to combat Japanese revisionist accounts are complicated by a lack of comprehensive documentation about comfort women in the countries occupied by Japan, in part because some 70 percent of Imperial war records were destroyed by Japan before World War II ended. It is difficult to estimate the number of women who were involved with certainty.

 

Dezaki’s goals for the film 

Director Miki Dezaki. The director said his primary goal in creating the film was to educate Japanese people on the issue and to demonstrate to both Japanese and Korean viewers the concerted efforts of the Japanese far-right political groups and historical revisionists to rewrite history.

He structured the film intentionally to make it logical to Japanese viewers, using a progression of interviews that alternate between Japanese revisionists, on the one hand, and Japanese historians, curators and scholars who document and teach the known facts based on careful historical analysis, on the other. Also included are interviews of Korean and Korean American activists who work to publicize the history of the women.

Interspersed between the interviews are short informational sections that explore the international agreements to which Japan was a signatory prior to and during WWII, including agreements on the prevention of sexual trafficking. Only one testimony by a surviving comfort woman is included and appears toward the end of the film, after the interviews and factual sections have created a framework for it.

“The difference between revisionists and historians is that revisionists cherry-pick their information and they don’t know the context of the documents that they’re reading,” commented Dezaki. Japanese historians and scholars, he recounted, “go through the archives, cross-reference documents and make sure that everything they write has a substantial amount of evidence and support,” he explained, while the revisionists do not.

Japanese and Asian American reactions to the film

According to the director, Japanese media, historians and youth have responded positively to the film, which has reignited discussions that were once silenced. “The position that I had as a Japanese American was useful in many ways because it was seen as a third-party perspective on this whole issue,” explained Dezaki. “I think Japanese and Korean people were hoping somebody would [take on that role].” '

The director found that as a semi-outsider, he was better able to navigate discussions and obtain genuine opinions from people. Yet many Japanese journalists, after having viewed  the film, told him that they were ashamed they had not made it. 

“Shushenjo” has started a new conversation about the comfort women in Japan and made it possible for Japanese media to begin writing about the issue again. However, revisionist historians and far-right groups in Japan have mounted a major campaign to attack the film and Dezaki’s reputation. This campaign has extended to foreign countries and involved Japanese consulates contacting universities to discourage screening and discussion of the film.

Dezaki is currently facing lawsuits in Japan by five revisionists interviewed for the film. When asked about the lawsuits, Dezaki responded, “Getting sued is the better of the two consequences I was thinking of — I thought I might get really hurt physically.”

After his mother, a Japanese immigrant to the U.S., saw the film, Dezaki said she saw the issue in a different light. Previously, her views had largely reflected the rightest, revisionist views regularly published in Japanese media. Family members in Japan were similarly influenced by the film, he added.

During the discussion, David Monkawa discussed the tendency of Japanese Americans to feel attacked by the idea of the film. Noting that it was natural for Japanese immigrants to defend themselves against negative criticism of Japan, he shared that he had overcome this challenge by re-framing his identification with the country. “As long as I identify with the progressive Japanese, I feel okay about [my Japanese identity]. It’s not about me personally,” he remarked.

Building upon this, Phyllis Kim reminded the audience that, “history progresses from people who have courage.” If Asian Americans are unwilling to look past their racial identities in order to defend justice and have uncomfortable conversations with one another, she explained, then the comfort women history will be successfully buried by historical revisionists.


From left: David Monkawa (Progressive Asian Network for Action), Miki Dezaki (director of "Shushenjo") and 
Phyllis Kim (Comfort Women Action for Redress and Education). Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.

The importance of evidence-based history

In conclusion, Dezaki urged audience members to resist thinking that one cannot know anything with certainty because they were not there. Ultimately, one of the few official documents on the comfort women that does exist, he pointed out, is personal testimony that was recorded by U.S. servicemen immediately after the war and put into an archive. “For whatever reason, that testimony written down back then is somehow more valid and credible than the testimonies being given now,” he continued.

Oral history and oral testimony are also important evidence, he said, arguing that “documented history tends to be the history of the privileged.” The validity of both written and oral testimony must be examined, but in this case, written history may not capture the entire story, said the filmmaker. It is for that reason, he insisted, that one must value the careful, fact-based work of historians and scholars who put oral testimonies and written documentation within context.