Why Seoul’s “Statue of Peace” Must Stay: Remembering Japan’s Comfort Women

Statue of Peace in Seoul, South Korea
Cover Photo: Melissa Wall, 2013

3rd-year student in the Euro-Asia campus of LE HAVRE, currently at SOAS University London

Seoul, South Korea, houses the Statue of Peace, a statue that embodies the two greatest characteristics of recent human history: resilience and denial. The statue commemorates the horrific crimes committed against sex slaves by Japan in the twentieth century and serves as a constant reminder as it faces the  Japanese Embassy. Colonial powers from Japan to the United Kingdom have functioned in solidarity when asked to paint their past overseas—in total amnesia. Textbooks in the United Kingdom conveniently erase years of colonisation. Winston Churchill, who is hailed a war hero in Europe, faces no scandal for his part in the Bengal famine that killed over three million people.   So, why does this matter today? Is this a fight between nations or a fight of the people? Reparations are never solely about money. Reparations are essential for oppressed communities to heal, to be compensated, and to have recognition for the horrible injustices that were committed.  It is precisely giving back what years of oppression extracted from these places, which wasn’t limited to economics—it boils down to repairing a broken identity. 

Decolonising a state and its dependency is easier than decolonising the mind. In my own land (India), our present is a constant ode to colonisation, and writing this piece instinctively in English—the language of the British—is a reminder of that past. 

This state of oppression is not new but it is also not a thing of the past. It transcends the very notion of human marked boundaries and our notion of time. The effects of colonialism and the loss suffered by a community or a nation does not suddenly end with ‘independence’.   The colonised may themselves become colonists, that is to say that the fact that my very own country of India, after enduring two hundred years of colonisation, can so very easily annex the Kashmir Valley articulates that oppressive methods are not geographically bound or even historically exclusionary.

These crimes simply aren’t an extension of the twentieth century but are a present day phenomenon. The United States, China, Russia, and India, to name a few, need to start paying reparations because history matters and what we make of it, shapes where we want to be.  No nation is free of this tag and often we colonise each other, our own, with our thoughts, actions, and principles. 

In India, most citizens live in a dual state of acceptance on how fundamental rights are protected and exercised in their world and they accept different conditions for how they are exercised in the Kashmir Valley or with the Naxalites in the heartland.

The structural complacency coupled with easy-to swallow history lessons or even information about present day colonialism has made us water down and ‘euphemise’  the very nature of colonialism and the suffering, exploitation, looting, loss, and trauma that it brings.

There is no greater sin a nation can commit than forgetting its own history.

Germany’s amnesia about the Herero and Namaqua genocide reiterates the disturbing result of erasing history. The more one closely examines history, the more disturbed one gets.  Do we care more about the suffering of certain people? Who decides what is suffering?  Why should we repent and pay for incidents that happened a century ago? Why should one pay for the oppression caused by one’s government? What makes reparations difficult?  

There is no greater sin a nation can commit than forgetting its own history.  One cannot repent, if one simply does not know. So, why do reservations matter in the twenty-first century and why should we pick up the tab left by our ancestors? The answer is pretty simple: it’s because we still profit from the history that is produced. When the Japanese complain about the statue memorialising victims of sexual slavery, it matters, and it should continue to stand and remind us that history is never easy to swallow.  The Statue that sits outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul is a reminder of how our stories are controlled by forces larger than us but what we make of it determines the course of history.  The statue is not only a reminder of the past but in so many ways it’s a reminder of what exists today. To have it removed would mean to live in denial, to simply forget. The onus is on us to not forget. ▣

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