Portrait photos of 16 Indonesian former “comfort women” are currently on display at a Tokyo gallery in an exhibition focused on conveying their painful wartime experiences.
The women were taken against their will to brothels for the Japanese military as comfort women, but kept their silence for a long time until journalist Hilde Janssen and photographer Jan Banning, both from the Netherlands visited them to record their harrowing memories.
Each portrait by Banning is accompanied by an account of the woman captured in the photo — sometimes reluctantly shared — about her experience during World War II.
Janssen and Banning launched a research project in 2007, and in the following three years they interviewed and photographed around 50 women.
The women “suffered” while telling their hidden stories and “suffered again” when they were in front of the camera, Banning says.
Banning brought the women to his temporary studio immediately after Janssen interviewed them so he could “keep up the tension” stoked during their interviews, he says.
According to a description attached to her portrait, a woman named Mastia was taken from her community together with 15 other girls, and forced into service as a concubine. After the war, she underwent a religious ceremony to wash away her “sin.”
“People nevertheless continued to call me a ‘Japanese hand-me-down,’ ” she was quoted as saying.
Another woman, Niyem, was kidnapped while playing when she was around 10 years old, according to a description for her photo. She was brought to a military camp in West Java, where she was raped by soldiers in the presence of others. “I was still so young, within two months my body was completely destroyed,” she told her interviewer.
While some in Japan continue to deny the forced recruitment of women, Banning says he expects visitors to the exhibition to “look those women in the eye” to see and share their suffering.
It is clear that the Japanese government is “responsible for setting up the system” during the war, he adds.
Janssen and Banning were in Japan to attend a symposium at the start of the exhibition, which kicked off at Kid Ailack Art Hall in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward last Saturday. The exhibition, held under the auspices of the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace, runs through Oct. 25.
The “Comfort Women” exhibition has already been held in the Netherlands and Indonesia as well as in the United States, Germany and France.
Banning says his family is strongly connected with the wartime history of Indonesia.
His parents were from the Dutch East Indies, which was occupied by Japan in 1942. Recruited by the Japanese military, his father and grandfather were put into forced labor, while his mother, together with her family, was confined in an internment camp there.
They may have been killed and he would not have been born had the war continued longer, Banning says.
Janssen, meanwhile, lived in India and Indonesia for nearly 20 years since 1991 to work as a correspondent for Dutch media and as an anthropologist.
“The visitors to the exhibition must feel as if they are watched by the 16 women, rather than watching them,” says Mina Watanabe, secretary general of the museum. “We hope the visitors will be aware of the hardships the women have gone through.”