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Main battleground of 'comfort women' issue shifts from Japanese theaters to courts

Director Miki Dezaki (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

TOKYO -- The documentary film "Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of The Comfort Women Issue" delves deep into the debate over so-called "comfort women," and has continued to attract audiences some two months after its breakout debut in Japanese theaters with the slogan: Will history flip or your common sense?

But the comfort women debate has now spilled over from the screen into the courts. Those who appeared in the film making claims including denying that comfort women were sex slaves filed a lawsuit June 19, calling for a stop to showings of the film and demanding damages totaling 13 million yen from the director and the film's distributor, Tofoo.

Having drawn great attention since before the movie opened to the general public, would-be audiences have been turned away from some packed theaters since the film's run began in Tokyo on April 20 followed by theaters nationwide, showing a level of popularity that is rare for a documentary.

Behind the film is Miki Dezaki, a 36-year-old Japanese-American first-time director, who also wrote, shot, edited and narrated the movie. At the core of the film are his interviews with those who deny that there was any coercion involved in bringing "comfort women" to war zones, as well as academics and others who regard coercion as historical fact.

A still from the film, "Shusenjo." (Courtesy of No Man Productions LLC)

The denialists -- those who deny that the Japanese military was involved in recruiting comfort women, or that there was any coerced recruitment -- who appear in the film include a ruling Liberal Democratic Party member of the House of Representatives, Mio Sugita; the deputy chairman of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, Nobukatsu Fujioka; journalist Yoshiko Sakurai; and attorney and TV personality Kent Gilbert. They repeat claims that the Japanese military wouldn't do something like coerce women into sexual slavery, or that comfort women lived lives of abundance, or that comfort women lived freely.

Meanwhile, others, such as historians Yoshiaki Yoshimi and Hirofumi Hayashi; and Women's Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM)'s secretary-general, Mina Watanabe, refute the denialists' arguments based on various resources, including public records, and surveys and research that have been carried out on the topic.

Dezaki began working on the film in the spring of 2016, when he was a graduate student at Sophia University in Tokyo. The documentary centers on interviews with 27 people from Japan, the United States and South Korea, and also uses news footage and cites historical resources to get to the bottom of the issue.

On May 30, about a month after the film opened in theaters, Fujioka and two others held a press conference seeking termination of the film's screening. Among other reasons, they claimed that they had not agreed to appear in a commercial film, and said, "We only agreed to being interviewed because we were told this was for academic research purposes."

Nobukatsu Fujioka, third from left, and others hold a press conference after suing director Miki Dezaki for defamation while demanding that the screening of the film "Shusenjo" be suspended, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on June 19, 2019. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

In a YouTube video posted the same day, and at a press conference that Dezaki, his attorney and representatives from Tofoo held June 3, Dezaki responded that the film had been for a graduation project, but that those who had been interviewed had been informed of the possibility that the film could be distributed and shown commercially.

At the June 3 press conference, weeks before the lawsuit was filed, reporters asked Dezaki why he thought the denialist interviewees who appeared in the film were demanding that the film's run in theaters be stopped. "I'm wondering sometimes whether or not they're ashamed of what they said," he responded.

"As you can see in the film, I don't twist their words, I don't cut them off. And so I don't understand why they wouldn't want the people that follow them to see the film," Dezaki continued. "Everything they've said in the film are things they've said in articles and events, so I don't think that they said anything especially horrible in my film that they haven't said before."

"Shusenjo" painstakingly observes and pursues the interviewees' remarks and expressions. Kent Gilbert, whose is among those suing Dezaki and Tofoo, told the Mainichi Shimbun following a premiere screening of the film in March, "The film presents comments of those that need not be given air time." At the same time, however, he said of how he was represented, "The film has portrayed me in a decent manner. That part's fine."

Comments that are eyebrow-raising are left uncensored in the film. For example, Shunichi Fujiki, who is among those suing Dezaki, at one point said in the documentary that feminism was started by ugly people, the kind of women to whom nobody would give the time of day. He continued to say that these women's hearts and appearance were both disgusting. When asked about this remark at the May 30 press conference, Fujiki said he saw no need to take it back.

Tofoo revealed that when the documentary's trailer was first released, many supporters of the denialists indicated high expectations for the film. Meanwhile, those who have been engaged in trying to get to the bottom of the comfort women issue had expressed doubts, according to the distributor.

Fujioka and his cohorts have criticized the documentary as "grotesque propaganda." However, as we watch Dezaki interview multiple people on both sides of the debate and carry out more research on the facts through the film, changes in the director's thoughts on the issue clearly begin to emerge.

There is, for example, Dezaki's approach to the theory that there had been 200,000 so-called comfort women. As Dezaki continued his interviews with denialists, he began to question the validity of the figure and kept his doubts about the denialists' ideas on "coercion" to himself in trying to get at the truth. He eventually arrived at the conclusion that the number 200,000 was just one of many estimates, based on the number of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers during World War II. He also showed the audience that it was a figure that those pursuing the truth about the comfort women issue were very wary of relying on too heavily.

After a screening held at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan (FCCJ) in April, Dezaki admitted that his own thoughts on the comfort women issue changed in the process of making the film. He confessed that the knowledge he previously had about comfort women was about the same that an average American would have from news reports. According to Dezaki, he tried to confirm with so-called right-wingers what he thought to be the truth, and was contradicted. At first, Dezaki said, he had no information to make any rebuttals. But as he continued interviewing and editing, he said he found himself drawing his own conclusions.

Dezaki has no intention of forcing his own ideas on others. He stated that the conclusion that he ultimately arrived at was clearly expressed in the film, but that others were free to decide whether they agreed with him or not. He said that what he wanted was for as many people as possible to think about the issue through the documentary.

In a striking comment made by an American journalist after the screening, she referred to a part in the documentary about the fact that the then Imperial Japanese Army burned records related to comfort women. She then said that the Japanese government today was not much different from the Japanese government back then. The government can still be found saying that certain public documents do not exist, she pointed out, covering up the existence of everything that it finds inconvenient.

(Japanese original by Jun Ida, Integrated Digital News Center)

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