Kyo Choi on THE APOLOGY – Why It’s Not “Just” Another Asian Trauma Story

A few years ago I was walking with a friend on Hampstead Heath. We were discussing the subject of my upcoming play, “The Apology”; what the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II called their ianfu, directly translated as “comfort women”. They were actually sex slaves. Many were from Korea when it was under colonial rule by Japan. My friend asked me, “Could your mother have been one of those women?”

I was shocked and replied defensively, “Of course not!” It couldn’t bear to think that my mother could have been “one of those women”. They were raped repeatedly, daily, in indescribably traumatic conditions. Horror was not my only feeling. The other feeling might have been incomplete if I hadn’t written two plays last year about ‘rape culture’ in British schools. I know this is often how women feel when they have been sexually assaulted. My mother was never a sex slave. But I felt it, anyway: shame.

This is why South Korean Kim Hak-soon hid her past until 1991 – forty-six years after the end of the war – when she opened up about her wartime sex slavery. Shame. The same feeling that a character in my play, Min, had for his wife, a former “comfort woman”. Shame. Sexual violence is the perfect crime. Victims often want to hide it. The perpetrators are therefore not prosecuted. The cycle continues. Until someone decides to break it.

The Apology is a fictional historical story. It is, however, based on testimonies from survivors who came forward in their hundreds after Kim Hak-soon’s press conference. These women weren’t just from South Korea; China, Taiwan, Philippines, white Dutch descendants in Indonesia among others. Their accounts – consistent in how they were coerced, tricked or outright abducted, forced to work in horrific conditions at Japanese military “comfort stations” throughout Asia and as far away as Papua New Guinea – have become a political lightning rod.

Guest Blog: Kyo Choi on THE APOLOGY – Why It's Not Japan therefore apologized to South Korea. But his subsequent actions, or lack thereof, have only fueled the flames of anger, demands for justice and heartfelt apologies. The UN’s first national report on violence against women – specifically military sexual slavery during World War II – was published in 1996. It accused Japan of crimes against humanity and described several ways to make amends, including accepting legal responsibility. Most of them have not been heard.

This challenges one of the themes of my play: how does a nation apologize for the crimes of its past? Germany succeeded (it took time), why not Japan? There are too many twists and turns to list what has happened bilaterally between South Korea and Japan since Kim Hak- soon spoke. When Angela Merkel visited Japan in 2015, she spoke of survivors of “comfort women”, a signal for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to acknowledge the atrocities. Suffice it to say that the few remaining survivors in South Korea – eleven, according to a report in May – have not been exonerated. It’s the tragic ending to a story about Asian trauma.

As a writer, it doesn’t stop there for me. The play is not “just” another story of trauma in a country – my country – in East Asia. A key strand running through the play explores why post-war reconciliation by Japan never happened the way it did in Germany. The Cold War, geopolitics and America’s need to consolidate its allies against the Soviet Union and China weighed heavily on the issue.

I won’t go into details here. What I will touch on is the hope that the public will connect a past atrocity to today’s world events. The story is a personal drama of three women framed against the major political tensions of their time. They dared to speak truth to power (and patriarchy), encouraging others to do so and precipitating change. Their quest amplified the suppressed reality of sexual violence, as did #MeToo, and other pressing issues that now envelop us: governments covering up atrocities, women’s bodily autonomy, revisionism, misogyny and the legacy of colonialism. Finally, “The Apology” is a universal story of challenge by those who would otherwise be forgotten, marginalized, or silenced to a larger agenda.

Shame works both ways. The shame of the victim and that of the aggressor at having been caught, or “called” in modern parlance. Collective shame is a force to be reckoned with, whether of the survivors or a perpetrating nation. That doesn’t mean this story has a neat answer or solution. But it can fuel public discourse on human depravity and, happily, the counterbalance of morality and hope. It is a perpetual struggle that transcends time and space. It is worth writing.

The Apology is at the Arcola Theater from September 15 to October 8.


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