For these Taiwan-born comfort women who were treated as sex slaves by the Japanese soldiers in the Second World War, every time they were brought together has marked a significant turn in their lives.
They gathered at the port and boarded the battleship. Recruited as mess servants, their real job turned out to be comfort women. They were gathered and packed into the military vehicles with the troupe to be brought to an unknown station. Again, every week, they were gathered at the military clinic for the weekly health examination to prevent sexually transmitted disease which might weaken the military strength.
Half a century after the war, they stood up and gathered together every three months for a psycho-physical healing workshop to mend the wound deeply engraved in their hearts.
The series work features the idea of “gathering” as its form to highlight the connection between the Taiwan-born comfort women and the Japanese troupe. Meanwhile, it also touches upon the insuppressible half-century suffering and how they seek collective treatment, psychologically and physically, to release the pressure from the society and to reconstruct the intactness of their spirits.
About the process:
Women's International war Crimes Tribunal 2000 was held between 7 Dec 2000 and 12, Dec 2000 at Kudan Kaikan Hall, near Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. In the welcome party, the former sex slaves – victims of the Japanese army – from Taiwan, South Korea, North Korea, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, East Timor, the Netherlands, and many other countries released the pain for a moment and communicated through music and dance beyond the language barrier. Among them, the indigenous Taiwanese grandmas such as Lin Shen-Chung, Tsai Fang-Mei (Iwar Tanah), and Chung Jung-Mei impressed us with their inborn talent in song and dance. “Naruwando yiyanaya hey,” the song they sang heated up the night and brought the party to the most joyful climax.
That night, I found something interesting in the party. Most of the seventy-year-old or eighty-year-old grandmas were not well-educated – some of them even did not know how to read –, but in spite of their different nationality, they could either speak to each other fluently in Japanese or sing the songs which they were all familiar with. The occupation or colonization experiences made them feel for the wrong-doers in a complicated and contradictory way, while the shared past now became the collective experiences for them to ask for the late justice from the Japanese government.
It was the first time for me to closely examine the subject of comfort women. I was quite astonished when seeing so many victims from so many countries gathering here. Indeed, I had seen the related reports in Taiwan, but none of them belonged to the area of coverage assigned to me when I worked in the media. That year, I spent my own money for the trip to Japan with other 61 Taiwanese representatives to collect relevant information and to make direct contact with the persons involved. In the trip, I also began my project to photograph the Taiwan-born comfort women.
After I returned to Taiwan, I first chose six grandmas to be photographed. Three of them lived in Hualien. They used to be the cleaning women in the Japanese military camp near the indigenous tribes they lived in, but later they were forced to serve as comfort women. The other three were Hakka women living in Hsinpu, Hsinchu. They were recruited as mess servants and nursing assistants, but the misled girls were in fact being taken to Hainan Island, China to serve the Japanese soldiers as sex slaves. These were two typical cases of Taiwan-born comfort women in terms of locations – In Taiwan or overseas. No matter which case it was, no matter how long, or for what reason that they had been suffered as comfort women, the pain never ceased with the end of the war. The pressure from the society and their families still followed them whenever they went, bringing self-disgust and humiliation to their bodies.
As a journalist, my job in the newspaper became an obstacle in the photographic project where mutual trust was highly demanded. Meanwhile, the working process was quite different from working for the newspaper, so I had to use my days-off to visit these grandmas, spending one or even two whole days there. It actually gave them some pressure as well. Later I was informed by the social workers from Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation about the grandmas’ concern and made some gradual adjustments throughout the project. I had worked alone for almost three years and gradually became acquainted with grandmas and their families. My project went better and better as well. In 2003, Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation asked me to help document grandmas’ participation in the psycho-physical healing workshop. Its participators included some former comfort women who did not want their identities to be revealed, so the workshop was private. I considered it to be a very good chance to further approach their inner world, so I decided to join in the workshop in spite of its many restrictions.
Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation is the first Non-Governmental Organization devoted to the issue of comfort women and they have spent several years bringing the topic to the public’s attention. Life care and psycho-physical healing workshop are also part of their job. I have attended several funerals of the grandmas who had lived all alone. When their lives reached an end, they had no one but the social workers from the rescue foundation to help organize the funerals as if these social workers were their real families. Judged by their profession, it was impressive to see the younger generation of Taiwanese women who, with their professional skills and effort, truthfully carried out the responsibility of “social workers” and thought of everything from the perspective of the grandmas. However, I also gradually became aware of the conflict between media workers and social welfare organizations. For example, we had once disagreed on the photos of grandmas smoking or acting in the healing workshop to be released. As a media worker (or a photographic artist), these photos perfectly visualized the inner world of the grandmas for that many of them started to smoke at the comfort women centers as a means to release the pressure, and the habit continued after the end of the war when they had to make a living under the pressure from social morality. Smoking thus became their comfort for their half-century suffering. Such a perspective was not shared by social workers, who believed that these photos might create negative effect from those who did not realize the suffering of the victimized women, particularly when the society had a tradition to stereotype smoking women.
In the psycho-physical healing workshop, I was not just an observer/reporter but also involved in the activities with teachers and other social workers. My personal participation allowed me to further explore their inner world buried deep inside, and the experience encouraged me to focus on the healing process of the grandmas. Teachers helped them to reconstruct the subjectivity of their bodies and consciousness through acting, art-making, and music, trying to wash away their self-disgust. The healing process was like the dramatic scenes in a play, which had greatly inspired me in my search of an ideal visual expression style. It also provided a solution to the missing part in the chronological narrative which could not be bridged by visual images.
Many documentary directors and filmmakers see their works as an approach to support social movements or social reforms. However, why I chose comfort women as the subject of my photographs could be traced back to my family experience. There was a portrait of a Japanese soldier placed beside the family altar in the living room of my childhood house in Tainan. It was the photo of my deceased uncle – the first photo I had known in my life. He was recruited by the Japanese army and died in the battle in South Pacific during WWII. Because he was not married and did not have any child, the local tradition required my dad to inherit his memorial tablet and the photo of the deceased had to stay with me whenever I went. After I began my career as a photographer, I had been inspired by the stories of Taiwan-born Japanese soldiers, the “anti-communist heroes” in the Korean War, and, of course, comfort women, so I started to document these Taiwanese people who spent some years of their lives in the war. Precisely speaking, I did not start the project to support social movements.
Now, for me, the most important thing is how these images allow the victims who have witnessed the darkest chapter of human history to stand up and to take off the masks so that they can publicly denounce the structural violence – while those who still suffer the pressure can also hide behind the masks as they wait for the arriving justice.