Go See This: ‘The Apology,’ a Moving Documentary on Japanese “Comfort Women”

The Canadian-directed doc following the story of three former "comfort women" screens December 3 and 4 in Vancouver.

November 25, 2016

By Stacey McLachlan / Photo: The Apology

During World War II, 200,000 girls were taken from their families in China, South Korea and the Phillipines and forced into military sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. Called “comfort women,” only a third survived the war—but the horrors of their experience took an unimaginable mental and physical toll. Some were as young as 11, enslaved in local brothels and raped multiple times a day by soldiers; many were injected with toxic STI medication or had pregnancies forcibly terminated.

For decades, most of these survivors have kept silent about the experience, while the Japanese government ignored this shameful chapter of their history. But now, in their golden years, more and more women are speaking up and demanding their stories be recognized. In a moving new documentary, The Apology, Toronto-based director Tiffany Hsiung follows the story of three of these former comfort women—now grandmothers—as they fight for an apology from the government, struggle with internalized shame, open up to their families for the first time and try to find peace.

In advance of the documentary’s screening December 3 and 4 at Vancity Theatre, we caught up with Hsiung.

How did a Canadian wind up sharing the story of these women from across the world?

I got invited by a study tour called Alpha Education in 2009, which was designed to teach about the atrocities in WW2 to North American educators: I was there to document the tour. But I wound up learning so many things I never knew about [like about comfort women]. The testimonies of these grandmothers blew me away. Not only is it beyond shocking that they went through this, but they still have to travel and testify and speak in front of so many strangers. Their message was, “Please, just believe me.” From that trip, I wanted to get to know them and share their story. It took five or six years, taking time getting to know them. The things we explore are stories you barely get to see and hear about. So often we don’t get to sit with the aftermath of history and see what the impacts really are: it’s a character driven story, focused on the human spirit and personal journeys.

It seems like a particularly timely story, given how often we’re talking about consent and victim blaming and assault today. 

One might think it’s a historical documentary, but it’s all still very much happening today. What still makes it so hard to speak out? These are the same sort of questions we’re asking today. I find that people really see something universal in what these women are going through.

Given where the world is going to with the recent election… the story also shares the symbolism of speaking out and together. It’s the idea of what silence does to us, and how we as a society are perpetuating that silence and shame by not welcoming a safe space for survivors to share their stories. And it’s about the importance of banding together and understanding the strength of camaraderie and solidarity, especially for women. When you watch the film, you understand that power; when you know someone else has gone through it, your voice gets louder. For these grandmothers, stories only came out when someone else came out and knew they weren’t alone. It’s something that happens even today: look at the Jian Gomeshi trial. But as a society we have to watch how we support these women, and not say, “Why didn’t you come out sooner?”

These grandmothers aren’t just survivors, they’re heroes. It’s a topic that’s very timely, and very timeless.

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Are there any connections here to Vancouver?

Because of the large Asian community here, there are actually groups that have pushed the Canadian gov to recognize this issue [of comfort women], which they’ve successfully done. History can kind of get lost for a younger generation; Canadian-born Chinese are totally oblivious to our roots and don’t have a foundation of understanding and cultural nuance. I’ve noticed in my own life, the more you understand where you come from and your own cultural traditions and nuances, the more you’re able to navigate yourself in this world.

What’s the reaction been like so far?

We actually just won the audience award in Cork, Ireland. It’s a testament to understand these stories are universal. It’s not just an Asian story or a history story, it’s a human story. We’ve also just been nominated to compete for the UNESCO Ghandi Award, which highlights peace and non-violence. For people to watch this film and see that and recognize that and recognize the importance of stories, and seeing it as not being specifically from a Chinese/Korean place… that means the film is doing its job making the story as accessible and human as possible. Which is more powerful than focusing on the politics. Who’s right, who’s wrong, that never gets anywhere.

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What will an official apology from the Japanese government do for these women?

There actually was an apology in 2015 that got retracted, because it doesn’t actually bring in the grandmothers at all. What they really wanted is to put their experience in textbooks and educate the next generation. They want a museum that honours what happened to them. What the government said was, “We’ll apologize and offer compensation, but you have to stop bringing this up with the U.N.” Saying “I’m sorry” and pretending it never happened isn’t actually an apology, is it? What’s important to these women is that they can pass on knowing that they won’t be forgotten and buried and away. It’ll exist in a textbook and a museum, and having these peace statues so we never forget this happened, so it never happens again.

Human trafficking is still amongst us, sex slavery is still among us. It might be cloaked, but it’s still going on for countries still in war—and even in our own backyard. History repeats itself because we haven’t rectified it.

For more information on how to support former comfort women, visit the The Apology Facebook page. Find tickets to the December 3 and 4 screenings here.

Watch the trailer:

 

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