Friday, 15 January 2010

Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace Tokyo




I went last weekend to WAM, the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace, in Nishiwaseda. It chronicles the experience of the so-called “comfort women”, victims of organised sexual violence at the hands of the Japanese army during World War Two. The Museum was opened on the 60th anniversary of Japan’s defeat, and has been an activist site hosting exhibitions, seminars, talks and resources since then. Given the subject matter, I was expecting a harrowing experience and, of course, the suffering and brutality the museum recounts is very upsetting. But, because of the Museum’s determination to pay tribute to the courage and solidarity of the women who have testified to their experiences, visiting is also an inspiring and moving experience.

Given the government and educational system’s silence and complicity with revisionist attempts to deny the brutality of Japanese imperialism in Asia, citizens’ and private museums in Japan play a particularly important role in keeping alive the memories and stories that need told. All of these museums and testimonies are valuable, and the volunteers and activists who staff them are people, often facing physical and professional risks for their integrity, who we should admire. Sometimes, though, the social marginalisation of these projects has a political impact, and their chronicling of atrocities and imperialist outrages can leave out the voices of the victims of this violence. It’s as if sometimes, in countering the mainstream’s determination to forget atrocity, the left manages only to reverse the terms and remember the atrocity only. What’s inspirational about the Women’s Active Museum is how it tells its history in a way which doesn’t leave the women at the centre of it as objects. Rather, its project aims to restore the “comfort women” to the status of subjects in their own story. Their survival and their struggle for justice are at the centre of this project.

Walking in to the Museum’s foyer, the visitor faces a wall of the names and photographs of women who have come forward to share their stories of the Japanese army’s violence. It’s a powerful testimony to their courage and determination, and asserts their own reality and the reality of their struggle (a struggle, of course, far from finished). The first impression you get of the space is that it is a place where solidarity, struggle and survival are going to be celebrated. The comfort women’s campaign has had to challenge all sorts of forces - not only their obvious enemies in the Japanese government and right wing, but also nationalist groupings who would subsume their own cause into a simplified rhetoric of Korean struggle, whether ‘North’ or ‘South.’ One of the bravest acts this museum chronicles is how the Zainichi (Korean residents in Japan) ‘comfort women’ have determined the course of their own struggle. Organising together, regardless of whether they hold passports from ‘North Korea’ or ‘South Korea,’ they label the border a “fiction” of the Cold War, and one which won’t divide their cause.

The current exhibition “Testimony and Silence” records the testimony of former soldiers describing their experiences and facing their own roles in the ‘comfort women’ system. Given the increasingly aggressive attempts in Japan to erase this historical record, their evidence is of particular importance.



Meanwhile - amidst continuing insults and historical falsification - the struggle continues. Survivors held their 900th protest outside the Japanese embassy in Korea on Wednesday. This photo is from the Hankyoreh’s coverage of that demonstration.




And these are from the comfort women’s demonstration I attended outside the Embassy back in 2008.



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