“Eternal Redemption” is the name of the informal polemical work installed last week in a private botanical garden in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It depicts a man strongly resembling Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, kneeling in front of a “Korean comforter”, it seems, underage. The message couldn’t be more explicit. However, it nevertheless requires a return to the tragedy of the “comfort women” in order to better understand this diplomatic conflict between Japan and South Korea. Poulpy takes stock.
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A dispute inherited from the occupation of Imperial Japan

Expression “Comfort women” (Ian-fu) is a euphemism used to describe females, often minors, forced to work within the system of mass sexual slavery.[1] organized in the territories conquered by the army and the navy of the Japanese Empire, during the first half of the XXe century. A systemic and organized violation of Human Rights that Japan has continuously minimized.

Still, trauma is still deeply rooted in South Korean society. Witness the many statues erected in memory of the victims[2] Japanese military brothels and the perpetual “Wednesday demonstrations”. Used to dealing with this conflicting relationship, Tokyo generally reacts to these South Korean citizens’ initiatives without making them a priority.. What this time caused so much stir and made the Japanese government react with great firmness is the man depicted kneeling who is, according to the vast majority of Japanese media, Shinzō Abe. In Japan, the symbolism is all the stronger.

The information was denied by Kim Chang-Ryul, the director of the said garden, who believes that the man does not represent the Japanese Prime Minister and that there is no intention to serve political objectives. However, he admits that she ” may well concern Abe ”because the man [agenouillé] can point to any man who needs to apologize to comfort women “. Cabinet Secretary-General Yoshihide Suga expressed the anger of the Japanese government by qualifying this work of attack ” unforgivable in the light of the international protocol and went on to believe that if the facts were proven this will have ” a decisive impact On their bilateral relations. The reaction might seem disproportionate from the West, but the more conservative Japanese are particularly likely on these issues.

While the scourge of sexual slavery still remains open in the minds of South Korean society, restitution for victims has been a heavy burden for Japan for decades.

The thorny issue of official recognition and compensation

Ratified on December 28, 2015, the Japan-South Korea Agreement on “Comfort Women” sets out “Definitive and irreversibly resolved” the issue of sexual slavery and predicted that the Land of the Rising Sun would contribute one billion yen, the equivalent of approximately 7,500,000 euros, compensation for a special fund to help the few survivors. This agreement was historic despite the absence of clauses relating to legal proceedings. However, it was very badly received by both Japanese nationalists and the South Korean civilian population as a whole but also and above all by the victims who did not fail to publicly demonstrate their opposition.

The coming to power of Moon Jae-in on May 10, 2017 in South Korea, definitively called into question the said agreement since his government will cancel it and dissolve the fund that same year. In addition to the unpopularity from which the agreement suffers, the main reasons for the South Korean positions are justified with regard to the three elements. The first is that the current President of the Republic of Korea has ruled the agreement ” insufficient from the point of view of compensation and its nature sinceit refers to aid and not compensation formal attesting to Japanese responsibilities in the atrocities with which it is accused. One way for Japan to avoid losing face with a public apology?

Second, the Korean authorities have pointed out that the agreement “Do not solve the problem of comfort women”. Finally, despite the apologies made by Shinzō Abe, co-signatory of the Agreement of December 28, 2015 with Park Geun-hye (then President of South Korea), his sincerity is often questioned for having denied, during his first mandate, that the “comfort women” were forced as well as for its affiliation with far-right nationalist organizations such as the openly revisionist lobby Nippon Kaigi.

In addition, he comes from a family of senior Japanese officials who participated, from near and far, in Japanese colonialism. Family he will never deny, on the contrary. As an example, he will publicly present his grandfather, Nobosuke Satō[3], like its political model. The idea of ​​the administration of Moon Jae-in is todraw up a new, more ambitious agreement under better conditions “Appropriate”. Japan, meanwhile, has consistently urged Seoul to abide by the 2015 “Comfort Women” Agreement.

Finally, remember that this is not the first time that a simple statue of a young Korean has made the Japanese authorities shudder. In 2019, a censored freedom of expression exhibition held at the Aichi Arts Center in Nagoya was censored by the authorities. The reason for such censorship in the middle of Japanese territory? The presence of a statue symbolizing a Korean “comfort woman”. Those responsible for the exhibition had received more than 770 indignant, even threatening, letters and calls from angry Japanese people. The hated statue was ultimately bought by a Spanish art collector, Taxto Benet, for a museum in Barcelona.

The 2015 post-agreement “comfort women” statues exhibitions, the breaking of it and the recent protests have revived a historic dispute and poisoned the already fragile Japanese-South Korean ties. Initially scheduled for August 11, the inauguration of the work “Eternal Redemption” was canceled after the debate on its maintenance invaded social networks. Will the future of this symbolic work decide that of future diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea? Case to be continued.



[1] Estimates vary from 160,000 to 410,000 victims in total and from 142,000 to 200,000 for the Korean peninsula alone.

[2] “Peace Statue” representing a Korean teenage girl sitting on a chair opposite the Japanese Embassy in Seoul inaugurated during the 1000e demonstration on Wednesday December 14, 2011. Statue of “comfort women” installed near the Japanese consulate in Busan in December 2016. Some others have been erected abroad, especially in the United States of America.

[3] Suspected of a Class A war crime during atrocities of the Shōwa regime, he will not be tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East created for this purpose, will subsequently become Prime Minister of Japan and receive the Peace Medal United Nations.

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