Since I started Project Sonyeo, I was fortunate enough to interact with many different people who have been fighting for the Comfort Women’s fight for justice. Different people do this is their own ways: political methods, student-led activism, or art. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Akira Tsuboi, a self-taught Japanese painter fighting against Japanese historical revisionism.
Akira Tsuboi was born in 1976 in Tokyo. While studying in the department of literature at Keio University, he started to show his drawings to other people. His art reflects grave misuses of government power: the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident, immigration policies, Japanese politicians, and Covid-19’s victims.
He first heard about Comfort Women in 2017 when he met an editor named Yuka Okamato. She helped him connect with Korean Minjung (folk) artists such as Sung-Dam Hong and Cheong-Yeop Jeong and helped him hold a joint exhibition on the topic of nuclear power in Korea. When Okamato invited him to a photo exhibition by Ahn Se-hong, Tsuboi recognized the gravity of the Comfort Women issue. He said in our interview, “Although I am embarrassed to admit this, I used to think that the Japanese military Comfort Women issue was a problem between Japan and Korea.” For the first time in this exhibition, Tsuboi found out that there were victims from the Netherlands, the Philippines, and many more countries. This moment was when he began to actively learn about Comfort Women.
Tsuboi began research by looking at both government sponsored and private sources. He also visited Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM), the only museum in Japan that highlights sexual violence in war and Comfort Women. The more he learned, the more he realized how relevant and ongoing the Comfort Women issue was. He was shocked when he recognized that most Japanese people did not know the bare minimum about Comfort Women.
As he painfully starts his journey to depict the atrocities committed to Comfort Women, he begins with careful research, absorbs his shock and grief, then starts to come up with a rough sketch. In order to accurately reflect the various types of girls taken to Comfort Stations, there is a lot of details to be considered. For example, some of the women taken from China were Miao people, who must be depicted wearing different clothes to Han Chinese women. Tsuboi also referred to Japanese officials of the time when drawing soldiers. He said, “Although the soldiers have individualized faces, the common characteristic is that they do not care about the victims of their sexual urges and violence,” and therefore depicts them with passive and detached face expressions.
When he portrays Comfort Women, he is always conflicted between portraying their individuality or prioritizing their collective sorrow. When he listened to Kim Hak Sun's testimony and she spoke about three girls who were at a Comfort Station with her, he realized that although Kim Hak Sun was talking about three individual girls, their stories were representative of the other girls at Comfort Stations. He said, "It was as if each girl who did not survive from the Comfort Stations were demanding that the survivors tell their stories, and in return, surviving Comfort Women like Kim Hak Sun would tell stories on their behalf."
It is not just the Japanese people's fault that the majority of them do not know much about Comfort Women. The Japanese government has continued on a policy of political censorship and historical revisionism. The exhibition "After 'Freedom of Expression'" opened on July 6 in citizen's Gallery Sakae, Nagoya. The purpose of the exhibition was to display controversial pieces of art and emphasize the importance of expression. Among many diverse pieces of art, the exhibition displayed the Statue of Peace, a video by Nobuyuki Ohura of a burning photo collage of former Japanese Emperor Hirohito, and a series of photographs taken by Ahn Se-hong of Korean Comfort Women in China. The exhibition was temporarily closed after threats. Regarding the threats to art about Comfort Women, Tsuboi said, “The results of the vicious opposition were all revealed, the opposition’s leader representative Takashi Kawamura’s foolishness was shown, and with the attempts at removing the Statue of Peace in Mitte, Berlin, more internationally attention was drawn to Japanese censorship. Art has power, and the exhibition “After ‘Freedom of Expression’” embodies this power.”
All of Tsuboi’s work is carefully thought out, with each painful stroke an attempt to depict that pain that the young girls who suffered in the Comfort Stations would have felt. His overall theme of misuse of government authority is the driving force for all his work:
“It seems to be the norm in the world for public authorities to try to erase their misuse of power from history. They try to obliterate it. But the violence is real, and the victims are still there. Art has the function of informing and conveying this to people.”
Tsuboi’s paintings were originally planned to go on display in Korea, America, and Okinawa but with the halt to exhibitions due to covid-19, his artwork is currently in the basement of his wife’s Korean house in Busan. When asked about his aspirations, he said that he wants those paintings and his recent artwork “'A legendary monster appeared about 70 years later, living in the Far East” to go on display for the public to see one day.
Tsuboi would eventually like to create a network of artists from all over the world who produce works that oppose Japan's historical revisionism.
“I am a powerless painter, but I will do everything I can. This is the mission given to me.”
It is only through the hard work of individuals like Akira Tsuboi who continue to challenge society’s norms that change is made and governments' crimes are not forgotten. Art has a way of uniquely expressing emotions and sorrows trapped in the past to people all over the world, regardless of language barriers. I hope that Japanese artists like Tsuboi will continue to fight against attempts at restricting freedom of expression and continue to show the world what happened 70 years ago in the Comfort Stations.
I thank Akira Tsuboi for his thoughtful answers and for his work fighting for Comfort Women.
Please support his work on his Instagram page: @akiratsuboi19761013