Original copies of three photographs showing South Korean “comfort women,” a euphemism for sexual slaves under the Japanese military during the colonial occupation, are being made public after previously only being available in scanned versions.
On Feb. 18, the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the research team of Professor Chung Chin-sung at Seoul National University announced that an exhibition titled, “Archival Memories: The Stories and Unheard Words of the Japanese Military Comfort Women” would be taking place from Feb. 25 to Mar. 20 at the Seoul Center for Architecture and Urbanism in Seoul’s Jongno district to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Mar. 1 Independence Movement.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon explained, “We are holding this exhibition because while many independence activists have been spotlighted for the 100th anniversary of the Mar. 1 Movement, the contributions of the comfort women who informed the world about imperial Japan’s abuses through their own victimization should also be recognized.”
Two original photographs to be shown at the exhibition include one showing heavily pregnant Park Young-sim – a comfort woman survivor who testified to her victimization before passing away in 2006 – during her time as a prisoner of war, and another showing a group of comfort women in the Burmese city of Myitkyina. First published in South Korea in the 1990s, the photographs have considered among the public as representative images of South Korean comfort women, but the images were
scanned versions of photographs from the US National Archives and Records Administration rather than original copies.
The images to be shown at the exhibition are originals, purchased by Chung’s research team, taken by US military photographers between 1944 and 1945. At the time, the US military developed the photographs for storage in albums; the images uncovered by the research team were individual photographs from the collections of US document collectors. The three photographs were developed at dimensions of 29 x 21 cm and are in well-preserved condition, the research team said.
The team emphasized the historical significance of viewing even previously known photographs in their original rather than scanned form. Kim So-ra, a researcher on Chung’s team, explained, “If you look at the photograph, which is not a scanned version but a print made around the same time the picture was taken in 1944, you’ll see that the US military photographer wrote on the back that this was a photograph of ‘Korean comfort women.’”
“It’s authentic confirmation that US military photographers at the time were aware of Korean comfort women,” Kim said.
In addition to photographs, the exhibition also includes other historical documents and footage that have been unearthed over the years. Among the items are a copy of the New York Times from Mar. 2, 1946, with an article on the homecoming of Japanese and Koreans after the war; a photograph of Bae Bong-gi, the first survivor to testify on
her victimization as a Japanese military comfort woman; a report from Kunming; and an embarkation list from Chuuk (Truk) Atoll. Video footage produced by the SNU research team during trips to China, Okinawa and other sites where comfort women were victimized are also to be shown.
Since 2016, the city of Seoul and the SNU research team have tracked down historical records from the US and other locations as part of a Japanese military comfort women archival material administration project. They released the first-ever video footage of Korean comfort women in 2017, along with historical materials confirming the presence of 26 comfort women on Chuuk Atoll in the South Pacific, which had previously been known about only through witness accounts.