Japanese Photographer Blows Whistle on Treatment of ‘Comfort Women’

GWANGJU, South Korea — Since 2000, Tsukasa Yajima has taken stark, poignant portraits of former intercourse slaves for Japan’s World Battle II military to assist the world find out about their painful historical past.

Now, the 51-year-old photographer from Japan finds himself on the heart of a present scandal in regards to the therapy of the ladies, greater than three-quarters of a century after the tip of the warfare, throughout which they had been pressured to have intercourse with Japanese troopers.

Within the years after its founding in 1992, the House of Sharing, in Gwangju, South Korea, assumed the aura of a sacred place, the place ​​politicians and college students ​got here to fulfill dozens of former intercourse slaves, identified euphemistically as “consolation ladies,” who had discovered shelter there, together with the 4 at the moment in residence.

However previously two years, Mr. Yajima, who runs its worldwide outreach program, together with six South Korean staff on the shelter have accused managers of housing ​the ladies, all now of their 90s, in a substandard nursing facility​ whereas gathering tens of millions of {dollars} in donations to complement South Korea’s largest ​and strongest ​Buddhist order, Jogye.

Though the ​donations had been collected for the ladies’s welfare, ​little has been used for ​them, ​ Mr. Yajima and the opposite whistle-blowers mentioned. As a substitute, ​they mentioned, the managers saved the cash for Jogye to ​broaden the ​shelter right into a future ​luxurious ​nursing house for many who can afford to pay — as soon as the ladies dwelling there now have all died.

“It’s essential to protect the Home of Sharing as a spot of historic and academic worth​, as wartime sexual violence towards ladies​ continues to occur ​in right this moment’s world, in locations like Ukraine,” Mr. Yajima mentioned. “Their plan to show it into a standard nursing house is a challenge of eradicating historical past.”

The whistle-blowing led to prison indictments​. Two former managers ​​are on trial on fraud, embezzlement and different prison prices​. The shelter’s board members, together with one of many nation’s most distinguished Buddhist monks, had been fired for negligence. Offended donors have sued ​the Home of Sharing, demanding their a refund. Donations plummeted to $35,300 within the first six months of this 12 months, down from $1.9 million in 2019.

Whereas they’ve gained reward for his or her actions, Mr. Yajima and the opposite whistle-blowers have additionally needed to pay a worth for what they uncovered.

The shelter’s new and former managers and folks near them have filed dozens of defamation​ and different lawsuits towards the whistle-blowers, accusing them of spreading false rumors. ​

As a Japanese nationwide, Mr. Yajima has been a spotlight of a lot of the backlash. The sexual slavery of so-called consolation ladies is essentially the most emotional of the numerous historic disputes which have strained ties between South Korea and Japan, the 2 most essential allies of america in East Asia.

“Why ​the hell ​is a Japanese worker employed on this place for consolation ladies?” ​learn a banner held on the wall of a Home of Sharing constructing the place Mr. Yajima labored. Folks near the managers threw ethnic slurs at him, in response to the findings of a human rights heart. ​

4 of the seven whistle-blowers stop final month, complaining about harassment.

However not Mr. Yajima, who has insisted on staying on​.

His ​marketing campaign has raised ​essential questions for South Korea, mentioned Lim Mi-ri, a professor at Korea College​ in Seoul​. Ms. Lim mentioned the ladies had been taken to​ conferences and​ protest rallies the place they had been ​handled as an inviolable image of ​Korea’s struggling below Japanese colonial rule​ and warriors for historic justice​. However few requested how the ladies really lived behind the scenes.

“Yajima is among the uncommon activists I do know who targeted on consolation ladies as particular person people whereas the​ remainder of the​ marketing campaign tended to objectify them as victims and use them for a political agenda or fund-raising,” Ms. Lim mentioned. ​

Mr. Yajima mentioned he ​turned fascinated by feminism and Japan’s colonial period when he studied historical past at Waseda College in Tokyo. He started visiting the Home of Sharing in 2000, initially working ​there as a translator and photographer from 2003 to 2006.

“In my pictures, I attempt to present the ladies’s collective picture as victims, but in addition the ladies as people with personalities,” ​Mr. Yajima mentioned. “In case you get to stay and eat with them as I’ve, growing a grandm​different and grandchild​-like​ relationship, you get to see issues that occasional guests can’t. Folks see them as heroic warriors. However when they’re amongst themselves, they’ll additionally argue like kindergartners over ​issues like who was given another sweet when donated items had been divided.”

In 2006, Mr. Yajima moved to Germany​, the place he continued to work for the ladies’s trigger. He helped arrange lectures and photograph exhibitions and invited one of many ladies to share her story. By the point he returned to the Home of Sharing in 2019, what he noticed deeply troubled him.

When a​ lady fell from a damaged mattress, the managers refused to take her to the hospital or purchase a brand new mattress, he mentioned. When the ​ladies’s ​dwelling quarters had been renovated, their belongings had been stacked exterior, uncovered to a monsoon rain. In a supervisor’s desk drawers, the whistle-blowers discovered money donations from overseas that weren’t ​correctly ​registered within the books.

An investigation by a joint panel of presidency officers and civilian consultants confirmed a lot of the whistle-blowers’ ​accusations and extra.

In its 366-page report, ​considered by The New York Instances, the panel mentioned th​e Home of Sharing had “mobilized” its consolation ladies for fund-raising occasions whereas it denied them private outings. ​S​taffers emotionally abused the​m, threatening to “abandon them out on the road​.” The panel mentioned​ that the Home of Sharing collected $6.8 million in money donations between 2015 and 2019. ​Nevertheless it solely used $154,000 for the operation of the ​dwelling quarters the place the ladies “lived in a below-average nursing house facility​.”

“Gathering donations with a promise to make use of them for the consolation ladies, their welfare and their actions however not utilizing the cash for them is an act of defrauding the folks,” it mentioned.

​The Home of Sharing has made “errors” and ​“violated” the legal guidelines governing donations, mentioned the Venerable Seonghwa, a Buddhist monk Jogye appointed in Could to move ​its board of administrators.

However Seonghwa mentioned that the ladies had been getting sufficient monetary assist — $2,600​ ​a month​, in addition to a $10,810 annual medical stipend — from the federal government. That they had little use for the money donated from residents, he mentioned. ​

And the plan to rework the ​shelter right into a luxurious nursing house ​has been mentioned as an possibility in a rustic fighting a quickly ageing inhabitants. However the plan has by no means been formalized, he mentioned. Seonghwa burdened that the way forward for the shelter might be determined via consultations with the federal government.

“We’re correcting issues we now have discovered and dealing onerous to take the most effective care of the consolation ladies till the final ​of them dies,” he mentioned​.

​Throughout current visits, the Home of Sharing’s 3.4-acre compound regarded peaceable. ​The bronze bust statues of former intercourse slaves greeted guests on the gate. ​ Its museum​ featured a recreation of a so-called consolation station, a Japanese military-run brothel, the place the ladies had been pressured to have intercourse with ​dozens of ​Japanese troopers​ day by day.

“I’ll always remember the warfare crimes of Japan,” reads the epitaph for Lee Yong-nyo, one of many eight former residents of the ability buried in a memorial backyard. ​

On the heart of the compound ​was a ​two-story ​constructing the place 4 of South Korea’s 11 surviving consolation ladies​ had been spending their closing days. The variety of caregivers has been doubled to 10, permitting for round the clock service for the ladies, ​ aged 92 to 98​ — an enchancment applied by the managers within the wake of the whistle-blowing. ​

However the ladies’s capacity to demand higher therapy has atrophied, mentioned Heo Jeong-a, a​ former​ caregiver who joined Mr. Yajima within the whistle-blowing​.

Frail and struggling numerous levels of dementia, the​ ladies appeared principally oblivious to the turmoil engulfing their ​shelter. Throughout a current go to, a Instances reporter was allowed into the ladies’s dwelling quarters and talked to a couple ladies who appeared extra cognizant than the others.

“I’ve meals, garments and a spot to stay ​right here,” sa​id ​​Lee Okay-sun, 95, taken to China to work in navy brothels when she was 15 and who lived there till she was provided shelter within the Home of Sharing in 2001. “It retains me heat in winter and funky in summer time.”

Such a solution didn’t shock Mr. Yajima.

“That they had such a tough life in China and elsewhere that they are saying they’re OK with what they get,” he mentioned. “However they deserved the most effective care we might present, and we now have failed.”

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