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A picture story

Even though they escaped with their lives, the futures of the women were uncertain.
Aug 04,2017
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“Comfort women” in Songshan, China, on September 3, 1944. [CHARLES H. HATFIELD, U.S. 164TH SIGNAL PHOTO COMPANY, COURTESY NATIONAL ARCHIVES, PHOTO NO. 111-SC-230147]
What can we know of the lives of young women from an old photograph or fragment of film, women who suffered terribly, were old themselves by 20 or 25 because of what was done to them, and then dropped out of sight forever?

Earlier this summer a research team based at Seoul National University reported the discovery of the first ever film footage of “comfort women” — the sexual slaves of the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II. The 18-second clip, shot by the U.S. 164th Signal Photo Company at Songshan, China on 8 September 1944, captures seven nervous, bare-footed women being interrogated by a Chinese officer.

Although there exists a list of names with corresponding ages, nationalities, and places of origin for the 10 comfort women captured by Chinese Nationalist forces at Songshan, none of those who appear in the film have been identified.

The footage is important in showing what, until now, has largely remained unseen: although Japan’s extensive sex slavery system lasted from 1932 to 1945 and involved an estimated 200,000 duped or forcefully abducted Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and other women from across the Japanese empire, there are but a handful of photographs of the victims.

What is particularly exciting about this find is that it connects with a few contemporaneous U.S. military photographs of some of the same women, as well as information gathered by a United Press journalist at Songshan. It is a unique case of overlapping evidence.

The vast majority of the comfort women left no traces of their mostly brief and miserable lives; due to a historical accident, the seven in the film left several. Looking carefully at one of the photographs from Songshan in relation to the newly-discovered film provides an opportunity to better understand some of the traces.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Photo 111-SC-230147, taken by Private C.H. Hatfield in his documentation of the Battle of Songshan, today radiates a power that is almost tangible. A Google image search generates an astonishing 25,270,000,000 hits. The story contained by the picture draws you back to 1944, to the shock of coming into the sunlight at gunpoint having survived hell, to the stark reality that you have no shoes, no say in what happens to you, and are 3,000 kilometers(1,864 miles) from home.

But it also propels you forward to today, to the burning issue of justice for the comfort women, and more fundamentally to the hope that, against the odds, against everything that happened after Private Hatfield clicked his shutter, the women came out all right.

They are probably Korean — eight of the 10 women captured at Songshan were Korean, two Japanese. The woman with the bandage on her elbow on the left side of the picture, and the one second from the right, both appear in the newly-discovered film footage. They seem fairly strong in the photograph, but are among the most fragile-looking in the film. The central figure holding a piece of paper or handkerchief has a serious burn or bruise on her face that almost certainly disfigured her for life. The smiling Chinese soldier exists in a vastly different emotional space from his captives.

The photograph was taken 14 days after Chinese forces detonated two massive TNT explosions beneath the Japanese mountain stronghold of Songshan. Those who survived the blasts were subsequently hunted down with artillery strikes, flamethrowers, and hand grenades. Of the 1,200 Japanese forces dug in on Songshan Mountain when the battle began three months earlier, only a few dozen were still alive when the photo was taken. The women were probably hiding in the cave immediately behind. They had been told that if captured they would be tortured.

It is noteworthy that only one of the captives looks at the camera. In the film sequence two of the women manifestly try to hide from the camera’s eye. American journalist Walter G. Rundle reported after interviewing four of the Korean comfort women at Songshan that they gave false names so as to protect their families. What does this explanation mean? Were they afraid that exposing the sex slavery system would instigate reprisals by the Japanese against their kin? Or that exposing their own sexual victimhood would be shame upon their families? Whatever the explanation, the evidence from Songshan suggests that the survivors’ instinct was to avoid identification as comfort women. That it was best to hide it. And of course most surviving comfort women did exactly that.

At the beginning of the Battle of Songshan there were 24 comfort women attending to 1,200 soldiers. The ratio of 1:50 attests to the brutality of their exploitation.

Defending Songshan was a suicide mission and no one could leave. In such circumstances the very survival of 10 women is remarkable. 100 kilometers northwest, at Tengchong, 30 Korean women were shot by Japanese troops before the city fell to the Chinese Expeditionary Army. Even though they escaped with their lives, the futures of the women were uncertain.

The only one of the group whose outcome is known is Park Young-shim, the pregnant woman on the far right of the photograph, who died in 2006. In her testimony at the Tokyo Women’s Tribunal in December 2000, Park indicated that after being interned in a POW camp she miscarried her baby, had her womb removed, and suffered a nervous breakdown. She eventually made it back to present-day North Korea in 1946 with the help of a Chinese friend.

It is worth noting that when Park arrived at her hotel room in Tokyo for the Women’s Tribunal, the sight of the complimentary kimono provided by the hotel was so upsetting that she was unable to proceed to the public testimonial. She had been forced to wear a kimono when providing sex to Japanese soldiers.

As of July 2017 only 38 Korean former comfort women remain alive, making it unlikely that we will ever know the stories of the women whose anxious faces appear fleetingly in a fragment of wartime celluloid.

With warm thanks for help from Professor Kang Sung-hyun of Sungkonghoe University and Sarah Kim of the Korea JoongAng Daily. If you want to see the 18-second clip mentioned in the second paragraph, please click the link at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40552812.

*The author is an associate professor in the Department of History, University of Regina, Canada. Dr. Philip Charrier specializes in processes of modernization and development in 20th century East Asia, with particular focus on visual culture.

Philip Charrier