South Korean photographer, Ahn Sehong’s exhibiton of “comfort women” survivors closed in Tokyo yesterday after a two week run mired in controversy that highlights the national sensitivites of conservative elements that remain in contemporary Japan. Ahn had succesfully applied to exhibit his photographic series “Layer by Layer: Korean women left behind in China who were comfort women of the Japanese military” at camera manufacturer Nikon Corporation’s Nikon Salon gallery space in Shinjuku, last December. His exhibition featured 37 black-and-white photos of elderly Korean women living in China whom Ahn has been photographing over the past decade. However, on May 22 Nikon Corporation cancelled the exhibition citing the show’s political intentions—to lobby the Japanese government for a formal apology—only to reluctantly honor a Tokyo District Court injunction won by Ahn on June 22, which ruled the company’s reasons for cancellation to be insufficient and ordered the show to go ahead.
When the exhibition, also titled “Layer by Layer,” opened on June 26 as scheduled, it attracted the attention of both an interested public and protesting antagonists. Security at the venue was unusually high, including metal detectors and body searches. During the opening, a group of protesters gathered outside the gallery shouting and displaying slogans such as “We don’t tolerate a photo show that defames the Japanese” and “The forcible carting-off of ‘comfort women’ is the biggest fabrication in history.” Tensions increased the following day, when a group of Japanese right-wing activists attended the exhibition, claiming to want to discuss the photographs, before Nikon staff intervened to prevent any confrontation. Unable to close the show, Nikon chose not to publicize it among events on the gallery’s website, as well as prohibiting the sale of Ahn’s photographic prints and banning official press visits.
At the core of the controversy is a series of photographs of elderly Korean women who were left behind by the military, many of whom are now living in near destitute conditions in China, burdened by a heavy, unresolved past. The “comfort women” euphemism—a translation of the Japanese term for women forced or tricked into being sex slaves by the imperial Japanese military during World War II, the majority were Korean, but also included women from China, Southeast Asia and in some cases from Europe—masks the painful realities the women endured. Ahn went to meet some of the survivors in China over a decade ago, and has continued to photograph them while listening to their stories. His committment is realized through the Juju Project, comprising exhibitions, lectures and ongoing research of existing historical documentation and testimonies, for which Ahn serves as organizational director. In Japanese, juju describes the state of being layered or piled up, and this represents the Project’s method of informing an ever broader public, as an indirect method of lobbying the Japanese government for greater recognition of this history. In 1992, based on the evidence of military documents made public by Japanese researchers, a spokesperson said the government recognized the military’s role in forced prostitution. However, five years later, prime minister Shinzo Abe denied the existence of “comfort women,” apparently ignorant of the government’s official stance—which forced him to retract the statement and apologize.
Ahn is not alone in using his art to spread awareness of this still unresolved issue. Korean-American Chang-Jin Lee recently brought her exhibition “Comfort Women Wanted,” which includes video works based on interviews with a former Japanese soldier and comfort women survivors, to 1a Space in Hong Kong—which, incidentally, had its own “comfort stations” under Japanese wartime occupation. Speaking to ArtAsiaPacific during her exhibition in February, Lee said she hoped to one day bring her work to Tokyo. Commenting by email last week however, she stressed the need for a human rather than political approach: “The former Asian and European ‘comfort women’ spoke out because they had had enough of Japan’s denial. These women became a symbol of courage and inspiration. If only Japan would simply acknowledge the history and try to prevent future exploitation of women and girls, the world would respect Japan as a defender of human rights. If all people could approach this issue from a humanistic, rather than nationalistic point of view, the problem could be resolved.”
Expecting around 1,000 visitors, when the exhibition closed as scheduled on July 9, Ahn estimates it had attracted around five times that number, which he readily admits was probably due to the attempts by Nikon to close it in the first place.