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Choreographer Peggy Choy Explores Diverse Themes in Her Body of Work

People Mover


From a 19th-century rebellion of miners in the Caribbean to the plight of Korean “comfort women” during World War II, choreographer, dancer and director Peggy Choy explores diverse themes in her body of work.


Movement has been a constant in Peggy Choy’s family. Her father’s grandfather came to Hawaii from Korea to work on the sugar plantations. Her mother’s father left Korea for China, then San Francisco, fleeing persecution from Japan for his participation in Korea’s independence movement.

As for Choy, born in Chicago and raised in Hawaii, she stayed put in the U.S. her entire life, but her work is all about movement. The dancer, choreographer and director uses a daring combination of Asian dance, martial arts and urban dance forms to create a visceral, provocative display of storytelling through motion.

Historical events often inform Choy’s choreography, and it’s no different with her latest piece, Thirst, a captivating, dynamic production performed in late June at the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn. Framed as a flashback, the story revolves around an 1889 rebellion on the Caribbean island of Navassa. African contract miners, subject to brutal treatment, revolted against their supervisors, leading to the violent deaths of five managers and charges of murder.

The performance—told in nine separate segments—featured a cast of nine dancers and an actor-narrator. Set to a score by jazz pianist Michele Rosewoman, the show showcased the styles of modern dance, martial arts, the Brazilian martial art known as Capoeira, and b-boy and b-girl styles.

The male and female dancers gracefully bent, twisted and pop-and locked in ways that mesmerized the audience, moving around the shallow pools, aisles and stage in the intimate venue to give full expression to the tone and dynamics of the production.

“It throws people off,” Choy said in an interview at a coffee shop in Manhattan, of the diverse subject matter she’s pursued.

Indeed, she does not shy away from tackling a range of historical themes or subjects. In 2013, she directed The Greatest! Hip Dance Homage to Muhammad Ali, at the boxing gym Gleason’s, in Brooklyn, which featured boxers, b-boys and a jazz score.

“More likely than not, I surprise people,” continued Choy. “My solution then and now is that I strive for respecting the particular culture that I’m trying to explore. If my intentions are respectful and well-meaning, then I think that helps.”

As the founder of Peggy Choy Dance, the third-generation Korean American takes a completely unique approach to dance that incorporates a fusion of styles and gives her dancers room to experiment and explore.

“What I find different about Peggy’s productions is the way she builds things up and how it starts with just an idea or music,” Ze Motion, a New York-based dancer and choreographer who’s worked with Choy for the last four years, wrote in an email. “What I appreciate the most is the fact that Peggy leaves us a little room to express ourselves. We live in a dance world where everything is square, in a box, everyone looking alike. She allows me to be on stage, expressing myself truly in her choreography.”

At 65, Choy still has a lithe and slender frame sculpted from years of dancing and, more recently, tai chi.

During the academic year, she teaches dance and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her dance company is based in New York, where her son and daughter, both in their late 20s, also live.

Political activism and a trailblazing spirit are in Choy’s blood: her mother’s father, who was active in efforts to mobilize Korean independence from Japan, became a minister in the San Francisco Bay area and later monitored Korean laborer conditions in Mexico. Choy’s mother, an activist in Hawaii, protested U.S. involvement in Vietnam and supported Hawaii’s sovereignty from the mainland. Choy’s paternal uncle is Herbert Choy, the first Asian American to serve as a federal judge in the United States.

Choy gravitated to dance from a young age. She began taking ballet lessons at age 7, moving on to other forms such as flamenco and then modern dance at Reed College, where she studied anthropology and archeology.

“I wanted to become a modern dancer,” said Choy, who in addition to her masters in performance and choreography from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, holds a master’s in urban regional planning from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a master’s in Southeast Asian studies from the University of Michigan.

“I actually grew restless because I thought modern dance was not answering to an internal need,” she said.

Thus, in her late 20s, Choy uprooted herself and traveled to Indonesia at a time when the country was just developing as a young, free nation, after its independence from Dutch rule.

“In Java you have traditional stories coming through India, and these are mythical stories that have everything in it—fighting, love, lust, war,” Choy explained, crediting her three years in Indonesia under the guidance of Sasminta Mardawa with influencing her style. “It answered for me what was missing in American modern dance.”

Cul-Dance-AS14-THIRSTFrom Thirst, performed at the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn N.Y. in late June. (Photo courtesy of JP Yim)

Despite her various cultural influences and interests, Choy possesses a deep connection to her Korean roots that’s reflected in her work. She has explored a variety of Korean themes, from the female Korean divers known  as haenyo in Moon Tides: The Women Divers of Jeju Island, to the plight of Korean “comfort women” who became sex slaves for the Japanese army during World War II in Seung Hwa: Rape/Race/Rage/Revolution, a solo dance performance that debuted in 1995 and included four parts.

Her early work, Choy said, generated mixed reviews from critics. “They said, ‘Oh, it’s too ethnic. Or it’s not physical enough. Or it’s just not mainstream enough,’” she recalled. “But I have never, ever gone along with what other people wanted. I just do what I do because of my background.”

In Thirst, her dancers represented the workers and supervisors that took part in the Navassa uprising, plus a trio referred to as simply “3 Ocean Women.”

“I wanted to give each of them an idea of who they were so they could give more intensity to their performances,” Choy said in staging the production. “I have to transfer my vision to my dancers, and they don’t necessarily share the same background as me.”

“I feel through dance you can transport, elevate, transform,” Choy added. “Dance has the capacity and potential to be very deep, to resonate with the individual person.”

This article was published in the August/September 2014 issue of KoreAm. 
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SKorea’s Stigmatized Ex-Prostitutes Face Eviction

Photo courtesy of Reuters


In South Korea, much light has been shed upon the plight of the Korean “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual slavery by Imperial Japan during World War II. The survivors, who number about 50 today, receive government assistance under a special law, as the Korean government continues to pressure Japan to compensate and apologize to the victims.

Such efforts seem to contrast sharply with the situation of the Korean “camptown women,” the group of elderly women who used to work as prostitutes for American soldiers in the 1960s. Though the prostitution at the time was government-sanctioned, during an era of dictatorship and as Korea was suffering from great post-war poverty, these women became social pariahs in their own country. They were essentially confined to living out their lives in squalid conditions in tiny homes in the camptowns near U.S. Army garrisons.

But now, even that small comfort may be taken away. More than 70 elderly camptown women in the Anjeong-ri neighborhood of Pyeongtaek, near Camp Humphreys, are being threatened with eviction, according to the Associated Press. Because of a planned major expansion of the U.S. Army garrison in Pyeongtaek, to take place by 2016, landlords and developers in the area are anxious to build and make profits from the rising property values. As a result, they are sending out eviction orders to the camptown women living in the neighborhood, and are quadrupling monthly rental rates, according to Woo Soon-duk, director of the Sunlit Sisters’ Center, a local non-governmental organization dedicated to the women, as reported by AP.

“My landlord wants me to leave, but my legs hurt, I can’t walk, and South Korean real estate is too expensive,” Cho Myung-ja, a 75-year-old former prostitute, told the Associated Press. “I feel like I’m suffocating.”

In the post-Korean War period, the South Korean government saw the “service” these women provided as necessary for the thousands of U.S. soldiers stationed in the country, according to activists assisting the women. In 1962, the government designated such camptowns “special tourism districts” where prostitution was legal. The same year about 20,000 women were registered as prostitutes in about 100 camptowns throughout the country, said the AP story. Many stayed in these camptowns well into their senior years because they simply had nowhere to go.

Many of the women are stricken with disease, poverty and social stigma, and they depend upon a monthly government stipend of about $300 to $400, making their pending eviction all the more dire. Impoverished and sick, Cho told the Associated Press that she has rarely left her tiny home in Anjeong-ri because of leg pain. Another camptown woman told AP she can’t sleep after her landlord gave her a month to leave.

Activists and lawyers, who helped the women sue the South Korean government in June for compensation, say that the South Korean government and U.S. military officials used to regularly inspect the camptown operations. They say that the police kept the women from leaving at the time and would even lock them up if they were diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, said the AP story. And now these women want their government to take some responsibility for their welfare.

A Korean government spokesperson declined AP’s request for comment, pending a court decision on the case. The news agency also reported that U.S. military officials said in a statement that they were aware of the camptown women’s case, but had “zero tolerance” for prostitution.

Pope Francis waves to Catholic worshippers as he arrives to lead a mass at Gwanghwamun square in central Seoul

Pope Francis Wraps Visit to SKorea With Message of Reconciliation


While it was the images of Pope Francis riding around in a Kia Soul that went viral last week when he first arrived in South Korea, it was his calls for forgiveness and reconciliation that resonated on Monday before he left the country.

“Let us pray, then, for the emergence of new opportunities and dialogue, encounter and the resolution of differences, for continued generosity in providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, and for an ever greater recognition that all Koreans are brothers and sisters, members of one family, one people,” he said during a Mass in Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul.

Pope Francis 2

“Peter asks the Lord: ‘If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ To which the Lord replies: ‘Not seven times, I tell you, but 70 times seven,'” he continued. “Unless we are prepared to do this, how can we honestly pray for peace and reconciliation?”

The New York Times reported that after the pope’s appeal, the South Korean government issued a statement asking North Korea to accept a proposal from last week to restart high-level dialogue. In perhaps a more conciliatory tone, Seoul said that if North Korea were to “behave responsibly,” it would be ready to “discuss any subject,” which includes the possible easing of economic sanctions imposed after the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, in 2010. The South blamed the North for shooting a torpedo that sunk the warship, a charge the North has denied.

The high-level talks could also include restarting reunions for Korean relatives who were separated during the Korean War. When the governments met in February, the plan was to schedule one around the Chuseok holiday on Sept. 8, but those plans have so far fallen through, following the way of the talks.

The South Korean Catholic Church had invited a North Korean delegation to the pope’s Mass, but the North rejected the offer.

The pope also met with seven of the 55 surviving “comfort women” on Monday. The women, who were invited to sit in the front row during the Mass, presented a painting by a former sex slave who died in 2004 to Pope Francis. Titled “A Flower That Did Not Blossom,” the painting shows a Korean girl in a traditional hanbok among pink flowers.

Pope Francis 1Pope Francis meets seven comfort women, now in their 80s and 90s, at the Monday Mass.


Pope Francis kisses a child upon arriving for Mass at Gwanghwamun square in Seoul. Reuters / Korea Pool / Yonhap

Prior to Monday, Pope Francis partook in a number of events that began last Thursday. He led a Mass to beatify Paul Yun Ji-chung and 123 other Korean Catholics who were killed by Korean rulers through the 18th and 19th centuries, when Catholicism was spreading rapidly and seen as a threat to the Confucianism-based society.

The pope also met dozens of sick and disabled people in a rehabilitation center in Eumseong, along with the grieving family members of those killed in the April Sewol ferry disaster, according to Yonhap News. He baptized a father of a victim at the Vatican Embassy in Seoul, when the man approached him with an impromptu request.

South Korean Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung presented two gifts to the pope after Monday’s Mass: a crown made with a part of a barbed wire fence in the inter-Korean border, and a statue of St. Mary, the symbol of the Cathedral of Pyongyang Diocese. As he left South Korea later that day, Pope Francis imparted one more blessing as his plane left for Rome:

“I invoke divine blessing upon you all as I renew my prayer for peace and well-being on the Korean peninsula,” he said, according to an air traffic controller.

Photos via Reuters/Korea Pool/Yonhap and European Pressphoto Agency


‘Comfort Women’ Statue Stands Its Ground in Court Ruling


After more than a year of controversy, the “comfort women” statue in the city of Glendale, Calif., that sparked a lawsuit calling for its removal is staying put. Ruling that the plaintiff’s claims lacked merit, a federal judge recently dismissed the lawsuit, according to local news reports.

The lawsuit, Gingery vs. City of Glendale, sought to remove the memorial honoring the “comfort women,” who were coerced into provide sexual slavery for Japan’s military during the Second World War. The primary plaintiff, Glendale resident Michiko Shiota Gingery, stated in the court filing that she could no longer enjoy the city’s Central Park where the statue is located because she experiences “feelings of exclusion, discomfort and anger.”

Plaintiffs, also including the nationalistic Japanese group Global Alliance for Historical Truth, also said the message on the statue’s plaque was too accusatory toward Japan and could negatively affect U.S.-Japan relations. “Glendale has taken a position at odds with the expressed position of the Japanese government,” said the complaint.

But in his ruling issued last week, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson said the city of Glendale did not break any laws by installing the statue at Central Park, according to the Los Angeles Times. He also invalidated Gingery’s assertion that she was being emotionally injured by the monument.

“The fact that local residents feel disinclined to visit a local park is simply not the type of injury that can be considered to be in the ‘line of causation’ for alleged violations of the foreign affairs power and Supremacy Clause,” said Anderson, according to court documents.

Glendale City Attorney Mike Garcia expressed satisfaction with the court’s ruling. “We are pleased that the court recognized our City Council’s right to make public pronouncements on matters important to our community,” said Garcia, according to the L.A. Times. The law firm of Sidley Austin also assisted the city in fighting the lawsuit pro bono.


The statue in question–a bronze figure of a young girl seated next to an empty chair–is based on former Korean “comfort woman” Kim Bok-dong. Its installation was thanks in part to the efforts of the Korean American Forum of California (KAFC), the nonprofit that worked alongside the city of Glendale.

“Art speaks a thousand words,” Phyllis Kim, the executive director of KAFC, told the Times, the executive director of KAFC. “People come and they learn about this history and it’s a very strong testament to our petition to support human rights and women’s rights.”

Although the group is celebrating the court’s ruling, Kim said members plan to continue their work in honoring comfort women at the local, state and federal levels.

“The decision did not change anything,” Kim said. “The root cause of the issue has not been resolved, and the victims are still waiting for an official apology and reparations from the government of Japan.”

Photos via L.A. Times and Southern California Public Radio.


2 Former ‘Comfort Women’ Meet With White House Officials

Lee Ok-Seon (front left) and Kang Il-chul (front right) pose with Paulette Aniskoff (back left), the director of the Office of Public Engagement and another White House official during a closed-door meeting on July 30.


A recent series of meetings between two Korean “comfort women” survivors and White House aides is being hailed as a potential turning point in the longstanding struggle for redress for the victims of sexual slavery.

Lee Ok-Seon, 87, and Kang Il-chul, 85, who have been touring the U.S. the last few weeks, met with Paulette Aniskoff, the White House director of the Office of Public Engagement, on July 30, South Korean media reported. Though it was a closed-door meeting, Aniskoff took to Twitter this week, posting a picture with Lee and Kang, along with the caption: “Met with two brave Korean ‘comfort women,’ Ok-seon Lee and Il-chul Kang, last week; their stories are heartbreaking.”

The next day, the women also met with State Department officials from the Japan and Korea desks, according to the Korea JoongAng Daily. A potential follow-up meeting—one advocates hope will lead to Washington pressuring Japan on the matter—is in the works, the newspaper said.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the pair’s meeting with State Department officials and also issued a statement urging the Japanese government to “continue to address this issue in a manner that promotes healing.”

Lee and Kang flew in from Seoul as part of a three-week campaign in the U.S., visiting “comfort women” memorials and meeting with media and politicians to try and raise awareness about their ongoing fight. For decades, they, along with their supporters, have been asking Japan to apologize for victimizing as many as 200,000 girls and women, most of them from Korea, who were forced into sexually servicing soldiers during World War II.

U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, a Japanese American congressman from California and an ardent advocate for the “comfort women,” was instrumental in arranging the meetings in Washington, according to the JoongAng Daily.

They come at a key time in the “comfort women” debate, an issue gaining momentum lately especially in the U.S., with a number of memorials, from California to New Jersey and Virginia, being erected to call attention to the sex slave victims.

S. Korean 'comfort women' speak in defense of memorial

Lee Ok-seon, left, and Kang Il-chul, right, speak with the press in downtown Los Angeles. (Photo via Kyodo News.)

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, also recently weighed in on the issue, expressing her “profound regret” that Japan has failed to resolve the issue, she said in a statement, Pillay noted that these women continue to confront denials and other offensive remarks from Japanese officials.

She was referring to Tokyo’s move to debunk the 1993 “Kono statement” made by the then-Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yohei Kono, who openly acknowledged the Imperial Army’s involvement of the coercion of girls into sex slavery during the Second World War. The current Shinzo Abe administration announced earlier this year that the statement was being re-examined, a move that further soured relations between Tokyo and Seoul.

The countries in conflict also happen to represent two key U.S. allies, so the issue is a sensitive one for the White House to negotiate.

S. Korean 'comfort women' speak in defense of memorial

‘Comfort Women’ Survivors Defend Glendale Memorial During L.A. Visit


It’s a scene both painful and inspiring at the same time—two halmeonis, including one with a head of sparse, white hair and holding a cane, speaking out for justice for 60-year-old crimes.

“Comfort women” survivors Lee Ok-seon, 87, and Kang Il-chul, 85, flew from Seoul to Los Angeles this week to lend their support to the city of Glendale, as it faces a lawsuit to remove a controversial statue meant to honor the victims of sexual slavery.

The women met and spoke with the press on Tuesday, in front of the U.S. District courthouse in downtown L.A. According to the Global Post, they are represented by the Korean American Forum of California (KAFC), an advocacy group seeking justice for the “comfort women.” The organization said it has submitted declarations of support for the city of Glendale from Lee and Kang to the court, and also requested permission for the women to address the court in the case.

“Thank you for erecting the peace monument, and thank you for trying to protect the peace monument,” Kang said in remarks translated from Korean, according to KPCC.

Lee, who said she was abducted around the age of 15 off a street in Ulsan, Korea, in 1942 and was held for three years, spoke in more passionate terms. “Is it really what you want, to wait until all of us die?” said Lee in Korean. “I don’t think that is the right thing to do.”

Kang and Lee are currently on a two-week trip across Southern California and the East Coast. They will attend events, visit various comfort women memorials and meet with politicians to discuss the “comfort women” issue.

la-glendale-comfortwomen-statue-sparks-lawsuit-001The “comfort woman” statue erected in the city park of Glendale, CA, surrounded by bouquets of flowers.
(Photo by Tim Berger with Glendale News via the L.A. Times)

The statue that sparked the lawsuit was based on Kim Bok-dong, a former “comfort woman,” who also spoke at the unveiling of the statue in July 2013. Kim echoed the survivors’ decades-long demand for Japan’s prime minister to offer a formal apology on his country’s behalf to the tens of thousands of women who were forcibly taken during World War II to “service” soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army.

“An apology, that is my request,” said Kim at the time. “As a prime minister [of Japan] you must apologize for past mistakes, even if they were forged by a former emperor.”

The Glendale statue was met with controversy and opposition from individuals who felt that the message on the plaque next to the statue was too accusatory toward Japan and could negatively affect relations between U.S. and Japan. A Glendale resident, a Los Angeles resident and a nonprofit group called the Global Alliance for Historical Truth, which opposes the recognition of the “comfort women,” filed the lawsuit back in February that sought to remove the statue in the public park, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Glendale plaintiff, Michiko Shiota Gingery, stated in the court filing that she could no longer enjoy Central Park, on Glendale city property, where the statue is located because she experiences “feelings of exclusion, discomfort and anger.”

The lawsuit also accuses the city of violating its city code, stating the statute was installed without a city council vote on the language of the message written on the plaque, said the L.A. Times article.

However, the statue’s defenders say that the memorial is not just about a dispute between two countries–it’s about shedding light on the crimes that violated basic human rights and getting justice. Catherine Sweetser, KAFC’s attorney, said, “In this lawsuit, Gingery vs. City of Glendale, the plaintiffs seek to silence the voices of these women and of the people like the Korean American Forum of California that are advocating for them and for remembrance of their history and the tragedies that happened during World War II.”

The Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden at the Fairfax County Government Center in Virginia.
(Photo by Gretchen Powell)

KoreAm recently shared a story in our July issue on the Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden, another memorial dedicated to raising awareness about “comfort women,” which was unveiled in late May in Fairfax, Va. Kang Il-chul also attended the unveiling ceremony for the garden, noting at the time she was grateful for the memorial, but also felt “a little grief” over the longstanding fight to get Japan to properly address this injustice. There are only about 54 surviving Korean “comfort women,” according to KAFC.

On Tuesday, Kang seemed encouraged by the ongoing efforts of supporters in this country. “Many different countries have come together to work on this issue in solidarity for many years,” she said. “But recently, the people in the United States have been making strong voices to speak out about this issue, and we are utterly grateful for the American people for doing this.”

Featured photo via Kyodo News


Comfort Women For U.S. Military Sue South Korean Government


South Korean “comfort women” are often known as those who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military during World War II. The long-standing controversy centering on South Korean government’s demand for Japan’s sincere apology is still ongoing and widely publicized.

Recently, however, another group of South Korean “comfort women” sued their own government for coercing them to serve as sex slaves in state-controlled brothels for the U.S. military after the Korean War, which ended in 1953.

Korean daily Kyunghyang Shinmun reports that the alleged victims filed the lawsuit on June 25, and are seeking close to $10,000 in compensation, along with an apology, for forced prostitution. This is the first legal action by “comfort women” against the South Korean government.

The U.S. sent over 300,000 troops to South Korea for the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. The so-called “comfort stations” allegedly operated on the frontline throughout and after the war.  While working in brothels, the women allegedly went through medical check-ups for sexually transmitted diseases.

It is reported that over 60 percent of all South Korean prostitutes worked near U.S. military camps in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Comfort women" memorial unveiled in Washington suburb

Peace Garden Seeks to Raise Awareness

story by RUTH KIM

Advocates in northern Virginia unveil a “comfort women” memorial that carries a message not just relevant to history, but very much engaged with the present.


In the backyard of the Fairfax County Government Center in Virginia, a brick pathway trails into a quaint, circular garden, where an unassuming boulder stands at its center. Flanked by butterfly-shaped benches of a brilliant turquoise hue, the two by-two-foot boulder displays a brass plaque, and the garden, surrounded by green grass and an open expanse, offers a moment of peace and serenity for any passerby.

However, the inscription on the plaque engages in a much more agitated conversation. In part, it reads: “In honor of the women and girls whose basic rights and dignities were taken from them as victims of human trafficking during WWII…. May these ‘comfort women’ find eternal peace and justice for the crimes committed against them. May the memories of these women and girls serve as a reminder of the importance of protecting the rights of women and an affirmation of basic human rights.”

Situated near the 9/11 Memorial Grove, the Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden pays tribute to the girls and women, referred to euphemistically as “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War. An estimated 80,000 to 200,000 women who were enslaved—a figure that is still being debated today—were predominantly from Korea, but included others from China, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Netherlands, East Timor and other territories, where Japanese so-called comfort stations were set up to “service” soldiers at that time.

Installed by the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues (WCCW), the memorial peace garden was unveiled in Fairfax, Va., on May 30 in a ceremony that featured Korean song and dance, a release of butterflies, as well as speeches by U.S. Congressman Mike Honda, Fairfax County officials and “comfort woman” survivor Kang Il-chul.

“I am grateful and excited to see you all, but somehow feel a little grief,” said Kang, 85, through a translator, expressing mixed feelings at the ceremony, which drew both smiles and tears from her.

Kang’s comments seemed to capture the overall tone of the discourse on the issue: a feeling of hope for the future, mixed with the bitter pain of the still unresolved past.

It is unresolved because the government of Japan has yet to issue a formal apology to the “comfort women” and to provide reparations to survivors, even though allegations of these war crimes first came to light in the early
1990s. The closest it came to one was a statement of “sincere apologies and remorse” delivered by the country’s chief cabinet secretary in 1993, and a private fund established to assist survivors.

But, adding fuel to the flame is the fact that over the years there have also been a number of controversial statements given by various leaders about how the “comfort women” were prostitutes, not slaves. Current Prime Minster Shinzo Abe said this past February that he wanted to revisit the evidence that led to the 1993 expression of regret. He has since back-stepped on his own statement, as tensions between South Korea and Japan have intensified.

The WCCW, a nongovernmental organization, first formed in 1992 to advocate for Japan to issue a formal
apology and provide formal reparations to the women, according to Grace Han Wolf, the group’s co-chair. But she
added that, over time, the group’s focus has shifted somewhat to emphasize “more on outreach, education and awareness building,” and that’s how the memorial idea emerged. “It’s really about making sure these women were not forgotten, making sure the crime was not forgotten, and making sure Fairfax County stands vigilant against human trafficking,” said Wolf.

Wolf, the first Korean American woman elected to office in the Commonwealth of Virginia and serving her third term on the Herndon Town Council, joined the coalition in 2012 to help facilitate the memorial’s planning. “[The WCCW] had put together this idea of a memorial after some of the other memorials had been erected in other parts of the U.S., and they weren’t really sure how to go from the idea to reality,” Wolf said. That’s where she stepped in as a liaison between the group and the local government.


The memorial serves as a reminder that this is not just a historic issue, but a contemporary one. “It’s one of those things where you think, ‘Oh, that happened so long ago,’ but, no, it’s happening right now. And that’s really where this group is really more focused on, to really educate people about what happened, and about what continues to happen,” Wolf said. “Human trafficking is still a big issue, and Fairfax just announced a big initiative in January of this year to combat teen sex trafficking, which unfortunately is still a [problem] here in Fairfax County.”

The peace garden is not the first memorial dedicated to “comfort women” to be constructed in the U.S. In 2013, a statue was erected in Glendale, Calif., portraying a girl in a hanbok sitting on a chair with an empty chair next to her; it is based on local resident and “comfort woman” survivor, Bokdong Kim. That memorial unleashed a storm of controversy. Since its installation, three delegations of Japanese politicians have complained, and Glendale’s sister city in Japan even canceled a student exchange program as a result. A group called the Global Alliance for Historical Truth filed a lawsuit in federal court to have the statue removed. Even counter petitions on the White House’s “We the People” website—one to take down and the other to keep the statue—each garnered over 100,000 signatures. Some opponents of the memorial have said that the statue promotes hate toward the people and nation of Japan, while others have said that this kind of international conflict should not be played out on American soil.

Although the Japanese Embassy and a nationalistic Japanese group have protested the Virginia memorial, Wolf said it has not sparked as much controversy as the Glendale memorial. “I think the [statue] in Glendale was probably more of a lightning rod for controversy,” she said. “The garden [here] is really positioned as awareness building not just for the history of comfort women, but more importantly the issue of human trafficking.”

She said the organization also reached out to many local community groups in the county in a conscious effort to be inclusive.

“We don’t really perceive ours as anti-Japanese nor particularly pro-Korean. We were really careful to position it that way because we didn’t want it to become just about that,” Wolf said. “The ‘comfort women’ is one of many sad stories about human trafficking, which disproportionately affects Asian American women and children. So we really took a pan-Asian approach…. We reached out to all [ethnic] groups equally. We didn’t make a special effort or not a special effort—we included everybody.”

One supporter of the Virginia memorial has been Congressman Honda, a Japanese American who spent part of World War II in an internment camp. He has also championed a congressional bill this year that called for Japan to issue an “unequivocal” apology to the “comfort women,” many of whom have already passed away. In a statement, Honda said, “For the women still alive, and for the countless who have passed, official recognition and acknowledgment is the only way to bring proper closure to this terrible chapter of World War II history.”

This article was published in the July 2014 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the July issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).