Harvard stands in solidarity with the survivors
Awaiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Harvard, a feeling of excitement swept over the university campus. The impending visit of the prime leader of one of the closest U.S. allies drew attention from a large crowd interested in international politics, attracting a myriad of people to entered the lottery for a ticket to his speech at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University - Abe’s first speech during his formal visit to the U.S.
The visit of Abe, however, aroused a slightly different type of reactions from the Korean population at Harvard, as we are very well-aware of the tensions between Japan and Korea in respect to the long-lasting historical disputes.
Abe’s visit meant much more than just a rare opportunity to see in person the leader of one of the world’s biggest economies. Rather, his visit signaled an opportunity to engage the campus in an active conversation about the issue of “comfort women,” an unresolved historical contention between the two nations.
A group of Harvard students organized a series of events addressing the issue of sexual slavery during World War II on the days leading to Abe’s visit. The two events included a speaker event of the testimony provided by a survivor of sexual slavery (“I’m the Evidence: Discussion with Lee Yong-soo, a former comfort woman”) and a silent demonstration preceding Abe’s speech right outside of the Institute of Politics (“Acknowledgment: A Silent Demonstration and Open Letter to Prime Minister Abe”). The Open Letter urging Abe to “acknowledge the Japanese state’s direct role in operating a system of sexual slavery during World War II” earned support from several student organizations at Harvard College and hundreds of individual co-signers.
The series of events was a success in raising awareness in the issue of comfort women. The events were highly publicized to different members of Harvard University, and the silent demonstration included people of different races and diverse backgrounds. Priyanka Narayan, a freshman at Harvard College, was one of the participants in the demonstration in the morning of Abe’s speech. She joined the protest because she “felt like she had to go to the protest to try to contribute in any way possible” after hearing the “incredibly moving” stories from Lee as a comfort woman survivor. According to Narayan, the demonstration provided people with “the opportunity to stand up for Lee and other survivors of sexual slavery … [as] they deserve acknowledgement and an apology from the Japanese government.” The story of the protest was covered next day on the first page of the Harvard Crimson.
The efforts of protest continued at the very site of Abe’s speech at Institute of Politics. Joe Choe - a current sophomore at Harvard College - challenged Abe to acknowledge “the Japanese government’s explicit involvement in the subjugation of tens of thousands of women into coerced sexual slavery.” While Abe called comfort women as “those victimized by human trafficking,” he yet failed to acknowledge the Japanese state’s direct involvement in the operations of sexual slavery during the war. After the speech, Choe expressed his frustration with Abe’s evasive answer. “The truth will always shine through,” Choe said.
On the day of Abe’s visit, national flags of America and Japan were hung at the front side of University Hall - a common gesture of respect at Harvard in case of a foreign leader’s visit. The tension regarding historical disputes between Korea and Japan persists to date, and Prime Minister Abe would not be generally welcomed by a Korean person deeply invested in the issue of comfort women. However, we welcomed Abe’s visit to Harvard. It gave us a chance to engage in the conversation regarding the sexual slavery issue, to raise awareness and gain support from the campus, and to reiterate to the global society that we do not - and will not - forget the atrocious history of comfort women during the Japanese colonization. Together we stood in solidarity with survivors of sexual slavery, and we urge this protest and discussion to extend beyond this past week welcoming Abe’s visit to Harvard.
Kwon So-yeon, Junior majoring in neurobiology at Harvard College and former intern at the Korea JoongAng Daily