As a South Korean guy, I must say that I cannot look wholly impartial to the subject of documentary film “Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of Comfort Women Issue”, which, as reflected by its rather long subtitle, focuses on that sensitive historical civil rights issue between South Korea and Japan. I will simply describe here what I observed and felt while watching it during this Saturday afternoon, and I hope my plain writing will be good enough to make you interested in watching this small but extraordinary documentary.
In the beginning, the documentary gives us a bit of historical background information. During the World War II, thousands of women from Korea, China, and several other Asian countries were sexually exploited as ‘comfort women’ by the Japanese military, but the Japanese government has not tried much yet in apologizing for this atrocious war crime or admitting its legal responsibility for many years, and this still remains as a hot issue at present for many people in South Korea and Japan.
In 2015, the South Korean government and the Japanese government reached to an agreement on the comfort women issue, but it angered lots of South Korean people because President Park Geun-hye and her South Korean government willfully disregarded what had been demanded by numerous people including a group of surviving comfort women for more than 20 years. In an archival footage clip shown at the beginning of the documentary, a high-ranking South Korean government official tried to talk with one of these old ladies not long after this unfair agreement was announced in public, but she was understandably quite angry and upset, and that official did not have anything to tell her except some empty platitudes.
And the documentary tells us about how its director/writer Miki Dezaki, a Japanese American who also served as a co-producer/editor/cinematographer in the production of his documentary, came to be interested in the comfort women issue. While he was working as an English teacher in Japan a few years ago, he suddenly found himself targeted by local right-wing groups after posting a YouTube clip on the racism in the Japanese society, and then he came to learn about a local journalist who was bullied and harassed by those right-wing groups for writing an article on comfort women – and that is how he became curious about why those right-wing groups are so sensitive about the comfort women issue.
For getting to know more about this issue, Dezaki subsequently approached to a number of people on both sides for interview, and all of them were quite willing to talk about it in front of his camera, though some of them, who are all associated with Japanese right-wing groups in one way or another, are pretty obnoxious to me and many other South Korean audiences for good reasons. According to these people, the ‘comfort women’ were nothing but prostitutes who willingly provided sexual service to Japanese soldiers for money, and they have actually been pretty active in spreading their gross historical viewpoint in not only Japan but also US for years. For example, they and their colleagues tried to stop the establishment of a comfort-woman stature in Glendale, California a few years ago, and they also tried the same thing when another comfort-woman stature was about to be established in San Francisco not long after that.
While calmly presenting the arguments from these people, the documentary sharply and thoroughly points out that their arguments do not have any solid base from the beginning. Their arguments, which mainly revolve around empirical evidence, the validity of oral testimony, the number of victims, the meaning of sexual slavery, and the definition of coercive recruitment, are instantly refuted by several experts on the comfort women issue, and the documentary later makes a very clear point on the toxic mix of racism, sexism, and nationalism shown from their arguments. In case of a pseudo-historian who can be regarded as the main center of several big Japanese right-wing groups (He is a distant cousin of Yoko Ono, by the way), he does not even hide his racist view on China and Korea at all, and his crude comments surely drew lots of sighs and snickers from the audiences around me.
The documentary also observes how the Japanese government has slowly and insidiously pushed its society and people toward the revised history of denial and oblivion. While many prominent politicians in Japan including Prime Minister Shinzō Abe do not hesitate to show their nationalistic side in public, they have also prevented comfort women and other Japanese war crimes during the World War II from being included in school textbooks, and they have even been trying to revise the constitution for the more active militarization of the country.
While it was often alarming and depressing for me to watch some of crucial moments in the documentary, I also found myself quite intrigued as appreciating its compelling presentation of the comfort women issue, and Dezaki did a competent job of handling various archival footage and interview clips on the whole. Steadily maintaining his calm position, he gradually reveals to us his sincere care and passion toward the subject of his documentary, and you may come to agree a lot to what he says around the end of the documentary.
In conclusion, “Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of Comfort Women Issue” works a sobering and informative guide to the comfort women issue, and I sincerely urge you to watch it as soon as possible, especially if you are not that familiar with its subject. So far, the documentary was released only in South Korea and Japan, but it deserves to be seen by more audiences around the world in my humble opinion, and I hope it will eventually lead to more public awareness in the future.
Sidenote: Shusenjo (主戰場) means ‘main battleground’ in Japanese.