Director Lee Suk-jae gives names to the nameless 'comfort women' in 'Koko Sunyi'

A close-up of one of the women captured, identified as Park Sunyi. [CONNECT PICTURES]

“A ‘comfort girl’ is nothing more than a prostitute or ‘professional camp follower’ attached to the Japanese Army for the benefit of the soldiers.”

This description of “comfort women,” or the victims of the Japanese military’s wartime sexual slavery, comes from the infamous “Japanese Prisoners of War Interrogation on Prostitution Report No. 49,” interrogated and written by Japanese-American soldier Alex Yorichi in 1944, after 20 Korean women and two Japanese civilians were captured in August that year by the U.S. Army in the Myitkyina region of northern Burma, or today’s Myanmar.

The report is frequently quoted by Japanese historical revisionists and extreme right-wingers to undermine the basis of the comfort women issue. In the report, the 20 girls were described as being “selfish,” “whimsical,” “knowing the wiles of a woman” and of living a life of “near luxury.”

Attached in an appendix of the report is a list of the names, ages and addresses of the women. But to reporter Lee Suk-jae of local broadcaster KBS, the name “Koko Sunyi” stood out in particular. The name Sunyi was once the most common name given to Korean females during the early to mid '90s; however, it was her surname, Koko, which he found it strange as it was neither Korean nor Japanese.

Lee had been browsing through the reports as he was investigating into the 20 comfort women found in Myitkyina, hoping to track their records for information on their current whereabouts. Due to the lack of official records or written documents, the issues surrounding comfort women remain unresolved to this day — from those who claim that women were deceived and coerced to become sex slaves to those who argue that the women were paid prostitutes who willingly followed the Japanese military while working under a legitimate system. Some go so far as to deny the existence of these women altogether, while still others feel that this part of history is too shameful to be brought up again and should be put to rest.

Director Lee Suk-jae [PARK SANG-MOON]

The reporter, for Liberation Day on Aug. 15, 2018, had created a two-part special documentary series in the hopes of approaching the issue with logic and facts instead of solely relying on emotional testimonies from the victims, as many other media outlets had done. It was near the end of his research when he stumbled upon the name Koko Sunyi, and he didn't dive any deeper into the matter. Still dissatisfied, he ended up choosing to continue the search on his own, and created a film titled “Koko Sunyi,” which will be released in local theaters on Thursday.

“I felt the result [of the previous series] wasn’t perfect,” the reporter-turned-director said during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at a cafe in Sangam-dong of Mapo District, western Seoul, on Aug. 17. “I wasn’t satisfied with the completion, and I believed it was a duty unfulfilled [as a reporter], so I decided to continue my search.”

Lee took a year off from work, and, with the help of Hwang Byeong-ju, a historian at the Korean History Compilation Committee, and language experts, discovered that the peculiar surname “Koko” written in the report could have been misspelled from the Japanese surname Boku, and that it is highly probable that the woman’s Korean surname would have been Park.

Another critical reason why Lee clung to the name was that Sunyi’s face remains in the U.S. National Archives, in a photograph taken by the U.S. Army when the victims were captured from the Japanese for interrogation.

A photograph of the U.S. Army dispatched to Myitkyina to interrogate Japanese prisoners, Korean women and two Japanese civilians captured in August 1944. On the front bottom row, second from right, is Alex Yorichi, the writer of “Japanese Prisoners o

Browsing through the past family records in the region of Hamyang, South Gyeongsang, and searching the presumed year that Sunyi was born, Lee hit jackpot. He soon discovered, however, that Park Sunyi had died in 2008. Fortunately, the director was able to track down Park’s remaining family — her second daughter Hong Yeon and her grandson Park Min-yong.

To Lee's surprise, the family was oblivious to Park’s past.

“I believe the daughter’s emotions were complex when she saw the proof,” Lee reminisced. “One of the things she said has stuck in my mind — she said that if she knew about her mother’s past when she was young, she would have left her. I believe her comment represents the social context [and stigma put upon these women] between the 1940s and '50s. We already know from the victims’ testimonies that a majority of the comfort women did not return to their homes.”

The region of Myitkyina, where the comfort station of 20 Korean women and two Japanese civilians captured by the U.S. Army in August 1944 was located, is in present-day Myanmar. [CONNECT PICTURES]

Instead of returning to her home after the capture, Park spent nearly all of her life in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of northern China.

“She returned to her hometown in 2004, which by that time she is presumed to be in her 80s,” Lee said. “According to her family, she had said that the last four years of her life before she passed in 2008 was the happiest time of her life — returning to her home, and spending the time with her fellow seniors.”

Lee interviewed Kenjiro Akune, a Japanese-American war veteran who had witnessed the 20 Korean women captured in Myitkyina. [CONNECT PICTURES]

One of Lee’s achievements lies in interviewing Kenjiro Akune, a Japanese-American soldier who had witnessed the 20 women back in August 1944 in Myitkyina, for his 2018 documentary.

The writer of the "Japanese Prisoners of War Interrogation," Yorichi, died in January 1987. Lee was the first-ever Korean media reporter to interview Akune, a war veteran witness to the events Yorichi recorded in his report, and provide Akune's testimony of the interrogation between Yorichi and the 20 women. Akune claimed the interrogations were conducted without proper translation between Korean and English. The spokespeople of the women who reportedly did the interpretations were the former “comfort station” owners, Mr. and Mrs. Kitamura who were called “mama-san” and “papa-san” by the women, using the Japanese honorific title.

“It was revealed through [Akune’s] interview how the soldiers looked at these women with their stereotypes and why the report was written that way,” Lee explained. “I could feel how the women were treated inhospitably and how even the [American] soldiers looked down on them, a small group of women from a colony of Japan.

Tony Marano, also called “Texas Daddy,” is a YouTuber who has a huge following in Japan who offers an American perspective on Japanese political affairs, including the "comfort women" issue, which he claims were paid prostitutes based on the 1944 rep
Director Lee interviewed Marano to hear about his views on the comfort women issue. [CONNECT PICTURES]

“It was also confirmed from the interview that the women did not enjoy a ‘near-luxury’ life, nor were they allowed to shop or buy cosmetics. [Backing up his testimony] are the footages from Myitkyina preserved at the U.S. National Archives. [The location of the former comfort station] was a secluded region with hardly any facilities, just farmland. The infrastructure was so poor and scarce that the army had to construct a tent to use it as a makeshift hospital for the injured.”

Currently, the total number of Korean survivors of wartime sexual slavery is only 11. Lee believes that in order for the Japanese government to take a full legal responsibility over its past, efforts should be made to track and uncover the victims who did not return to Korea after the war ended.

Director Lee Suk-jae, left, visits The National Archives at College Park, Maryland, to search for records of Japanese prisoners of war interviewed by the American soldiers. [CONNECT PICTURES]

“Up until now, we focused on restoring the honor of and fighting for the welfare of the survivors,” Lee said, adding that people should continue to support for the remaining victims. “However, past records researched by historians and related experts show that many of the victims died in a foreign country, which I believe is crucial in tracking them down and putting them on record. […] In the report, many of the 20 women were said to have come from Jinju [in South Gyeongsang]. I’ve heard that the city’s family records were mostly destroyed during the Korean War [1950-53], but if a [state-organized] group or committee can look through the historical data left in other countries, we could uncover and officially record more of these victims, as we did with Koko Sunyi.

"[Koreans] have always focused on the numbers — that there were some 500 comfort stations and 200,000 victims of sexual slavery, but the actual records of the victims barely number up to one-10,000th of the reported number.”