Recently 10 Magazine Korea was fortunate enough to speak with Sylvia Yu Friedman, award-winning journalist, filmmaker, international speaker, and writer to discuss her life, her recent book, Silenced No More: Voices of ‘Comfort Women’ and her plans for the future.
<10MK>: Hello Mrs. Friedman and thank you for granting this interview for 10 Magazine Korea. We are extremely pleased to be able to speak with you about your life, work and accomplishments.
<SYF>: Thank you Neil. We journalists rarely talk about ourselves in our line of work. I am still getting used to being interviewed for my book!
During the weeks before this interview, I did some research on your life and careers, as well as reading some of the articles you’ve written. I have to say I am amazed by everything you’ve accomplished. Please correct me if I’m wrong on any of the facts. From what I understand, you’ve been involved with mass media since 1997, written two books, produced and co-produced multiple documentaries, been involved with many campaigns and philanthropic efforts to improve people’s lives as well as receiving multiple awards.
Since I was 15, I had vowed to become a human rights lawyer to fight the Japanese government on behalf of the ‘comfort women’ survivors of sex slavery during WWII or what some experts call child sex slavery. These women were used as sex slaves by the Japanese government and military, but they were never given a sincere, unambiguous apology that restored dignity and brought a sense of healing and closure. Some Japanese government officials have even gone on to say these girls were voluntary paid prostitutes, which is absolutely not true and downright unspeakable.
In an unexpected way, even though I took a different career path in journalism and filmmaking, I’ve managed to stay true to my dream at 15 and raise awareness about the issue of ‘comfort women’ Japanese military sex slavery and how it relates to modern day sex trafficking and slavery that is happening around the world.
I also understand that you speak five languages. I’m sure that helps significantly with your efforts to connect with and help people. Was it difficult for you to become skilled in so many languages or was this something that comes naturally to you?
The only language I speak fluently is English. As they say, if you don’t use it, you lose it. While I stopped speaking Korean with my parents at 11 or 12, I can still do simultaneous translation Korean to English of Korean dramas. But I can barely speak with a government official in Korean and cannot read the Korean newspaper. I have basic taxi language of four other languages and can get around a foreign country, but I lack the patience to really sit down and learn languages. I am always on the go – perhaps it’s a mild form of ADHD!
Learning languages is vital and someone said the limits of your language are connected with the limits of your world. I have always relied heavily on my translators which has its pros and cons.
How did you first get started with mass media and human rights activism? Were you always an outgoing person with the ability to speak in public forums or did your passion for people drive you in that direction?
The other day, I felt a wave of gratefulness… like “how did this Korean immigrant girl from Canada – and one who was so gangly and unassuming – get to have these adventures in China and all over Asia?”. This sentimental feeling was spurred on by re-connecting with old friends from my childhood recently. Their lives have remained pretty much the same in Canada while I have been transformed by the brutal things I’ve witnessed as a journalist and philanthropy advisor. I’ve seen a lot of human suffering. I have witnessed trafficking victims firsthand and had a close encounter with thugs from organized crime while investigating brothels in South East Asia region. I’ve had many close calls.
I didn’t start out with polished presentations at all. In fact, I had a fear of public speaking especially after my divorce in 2007. I struggled with a sense of shame and a shattered confidence over having a failed marriage. But suffering in a terrible first marriage gave me the will-power and empathy to be a voice for voiceless women like the ‘comfort women’ survivors and modern day human trafficking victims that I didn’t have before. When I focused on those who were less fortunate than myself, I not only felt this righteous anger rise up, but I was able to put my own issues and problems into perspective. I had choices in career and life. Most of the people in the developing world are fixated on where their next meal is coming from.
I read that your husband Matthew Friedman is a former U.N. and U.S. diplomat and he shares your passion for helping others. Is this how the two of you met?
I met my husband during a TV interview in Hong Kong for a news documentary series on human trafficking. He flew in from Thailand to be a guest speaker at the American Chamber of Commerce and he spoke so powerfully about human trafficking and why we all need to get involved. At least four of us in that audience that day went on to become very involved in combating human trafficking long-term. At that time, I was feeling discouraged about living in Hong Kong, a very materialistic city where there wasn’t much of a focus on human rights. Then Matthew’s speech lit a fire in my belly again. I helped him set up other talks at corporations and we got married a few years later.
As activists, we need to keep the fire burning in our bellies and also practice self-care to keep going strong. Too many burn out in this field because of a lack of resources and a lack of unity due to each group working in silos.
Looking to your work…Could you please tell us about your most recent book, Silenced No More: Voices of ‘Comfort Women’, and how that came into being?
These Asian girls and women were deceived, coerced and trafficked by the Japanese government and military before and during WWII. For more than 50 years, survivors of this form of sex slavery organized by the Japanese government suffered in silence and felt too ashamed to speak out.
Experts say there were up to 400,000 of these girls and women taken to more than 1000 rape stations or military brothels across the Asia Pacific wherever the Japanese military were stationed.
I felt compelled to write about it to tell the world of what happened to these girls and women. Back in 1991, when I was 15, my mother told me about a ‘comfort woman’ survivor featured in a newspaper article in the Korean paper that she read in Vancouver. It was Kim Hak-Soon who was the first survivor to speak to the international media. She was really the first “Me Too” activist. It took Kim around 50 years to speak out after hiding her experiences for so long. The reason she testified was she heard a Japanese official say in a TV program that the ‘comfort women’ were voluntary paid prostitutes. She was so outraged and decided to speak out in the media.
As a 15-year-old, I couldn’t find any other information about these girls in my history textbooks or WWII books in the library. I learned later that many of these girls were murdered or died by suicide or ill health during the frontlines of war across the Asia Pacific from 1931 to 1945. Only the strongest survived and less than 100 survivors are alive today. Only several hundred women publicly came forward in different nations to testify they were forced. Many will take their secret to their graves.
It’s a little known chapter of history in the West but several UN experts have called it the largest human rights abuse against girls and women in the 20th Century. Even less known is the Japanese government’s unwillingness to bear full legal and moral responsibility for conceiving and implementing by force this form of wartime sex slavery where Korean and Chinese women (and women from other Asia Pacific nations) were transported to other places like Myanmar and Taiwan like ammunition. The West needs to know Japan’s unwillingness to bring healing to the survivors and closure to this issue which stems from their continuing racist views of Koreans and Chinese.
At 15, I also noticed that the elder Koreans had racial resentment towards the Japanese and boycotted Japanese cars and products. I later heard from my Chinese friends that their parents and grandparents hated the Japanese for attacking their villages in China during the war and killing relatives etc. The lack of closure for Japanese war crimes like the ‘comfort women’ has led to generational pain and racial hatred among Japan’s neighbors that has never been resolved. Compare that with Germany and Israel today where there is nothing from the Nazi past that cripples and haunts their relations today.
My call to action is we need a grassroots peace and reconciliation movement in Japan where we raise awareness of Japanese war crimes and how it impacted ordinary people in Asia Pacific.
Did you have any difficulties with people opening up with their story? (if so) How were you able to break those barriers?
Great question. I had to exercise a great deal of patience and learn on the go on how to approach and interview traumatized survivors. I had no formal training for this but relied on my intuition mostly to know how to connect with these women first as my elders. I treated them with honor as if they were my own grandmothers.
After my parents immigrated to Vancouver when I was two, my grandparents remained back in Korea. I never got to know them well and perhaps there’s a part of me that subconsciously wants to connect with grandmother figures.
I once asked one survivor at a home run by the NGO, The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, in Seoul, a home for survivors who were stranded in China for many years, to share her story. The NGO leaders encouraged me to push them to speak because they felt it was a part of their healing process. This one survivor was triggered and started screaming at me. I felt terrible that I had caused her anguish. These women have been seriously harmed and traumatized from sexual slavery from more than 60 years ago. It was very real.
After ten years of interviewing survivors, I now know more of how to be with and how to engage with traumatized victims.
I’m sure it’s hard to come up with an exact number of women who suffered through these atrocities, but earlier you mentioned 400,000, is that the commonly agreed upon figure? Did these “comfort stations” keep records or documentation about the women and if so, were you able to see/use these records to locate victims and/or gather data?
I used to go with the official figure in the United Nations reports and that is up to 200,000 girls and women were coerced and forced into sexual slavery before and during WWII. Now, some Chinese academics have found evidence in China that points to at least 200,000 Chinese women alone and they believe there was a total of at least 400,000 girls and women enslaved by the Japanese military. Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki, the leading ‘comfort women’ expert in Japan, has found hundreds of archival evidence in the Department of Defense in 1993 and over recent years that directly link the Japanese government and military’s implementation work in the trafficking and sexual enslavement of their colonial subjects (Korean and Taiwan were colonies then) and women in conquered lands throughout the Asia Pacific.
However, the Japanese nationalists or right-wing in Japan argue that the statistics are inaccurate and their modus operandi is often to fixate on the numbers and other statistics and accuse the survivors of exaggerating and lying. Their views are charged with racial hatred; they are kindred with Holocaust deniers. Hypothetically, even if it was just one person who was raped and enslaved during the war, that person deserves to receive an official government apology that brings healing; and to receive official reparations (compensation) and a sincere acknowledgement of the suffering she endured. I hope we can see a swift resolution and closure for the sake of the dwindling numbers of elderly survivors.
I knew that women in Korean, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia experienced these atrocities but I was a bit shocked when I read your article titled The sex slaves of Japanese soldiers deserve – at least – a real apology in “The Globe and Mail” (published January 12, 2016) and discovered that this also happened to women from the Netherlands. Could you expand on that?
At 15, when I first learned about it, I assumed the victims of Japanese military sex slavery were all Korean girls and women. But as I got my hands on more academic and U.N. research, I learned that the victims included Dutch girls and women from prisoner of war camps in Indonesia, then a colony of the Netherlands. Girls and women from China, the Philippines, East Timor, Singapore, France’s former colony in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and other occupied territories that became part of the Japanese Empire during World War II, were forced into sexual servitude for the Japanese military. I wrote about one court case involving Dutch women that was the only such case brought forward at the end of WWII in my book and how one Americanlawyer, Barry Fisher, believes that Asian women were discriminated against. There was only some justice for “white women” victims.
In the past, Japan has really downplayed the topic of ‘comfort women’, preventing closure for the victims. Has there been any progress or recent actions by the Japanese government towards resolving these matters?
The Japanese government continues to anger the elderly women survivors by not consulting them when they were pushing a Korea-Japan Comfort Women accord in 2015 to bring closure to this historical sex trafficking issue at the center of Japan and Korea’s foreign affairs. The Japanese government demanded that the comfort woman issue would never be raised again and that the statute in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul be taken down. President Moon has described the use of sex slaves by the Imperial Japanese military as a “crime against humanity” and there’s talk of disbanding the “dysfunctional” foundation that was formed during the 2015 agreement which was made without consulting any of the survivors themselves. Past visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other Japanese lawmakers have angered not only the survivors and wartime sex slave activists but especially civilians in China who feel the shrine symbolizes Japan’s war past by honoring the war dead including 14 Japanese military leaders convicted as war criminals at the end of WWII. Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki sums it up like this: “(The Japanese government is) still ambiguous about who is responsible for setting up the comfort women system, and they haven’t promised to do anything about preventing it from happening again the way they did during the Kono Statement in 1993. If anything, their attitude is more backward than before.” Gay McDougall, a renown US civil rights lawyer said earlier this year at a UN meeting this wartime sex slavery is a “wound that has been festering for far too long” and that Japan must do more for WWII ‘comfort women’.
Is there one person you met in the course of writing this book whose story really stood out to you or really touched you?
I’d say every one I’ve met and interviewed impacted me with their experiences of unspeakable suffering. The first survivor I met in Washington, D.C. in 2001, Kim Soon-Duk, was the one to spur me on to document their experiences. Kim asked me to tell the world about what she went through. Unfortunately, my book was published after she passed away. I still feel guilty about that.
These women have lost everything. Most were not able to marry or have children of their own. They still suffer horrific health problems and mental health issues. Their stories need to be told to the world. And sexual violence in war continues through ISIS and with Boko Haram. And the cycle of sex trafficking continues with 4.5 million girls and women suffering around the world. This must end!
What is something you want people to know before reading your book? And what you like them to take away/gain from reading the book?
Hope. I want people to have a sense of hope that we can help these survivors and modern day sex trafficking victims by speaking out on their behalf and raising awareness. We can lobby for a sincere unequivocal apology from the Japanese government that will bring closure for these victims but also heal generations of racial hatred and suspicion towards the Japanese in communities around the world that has come about from war crimes that were never dealt with properly at the end of WWII. There is deep racism in Japanese society towards the Koreans and Chinese and other minorities.
I also hope to see a grassroots movement of racial reconciliation or conciliation where we can dialogue and agree on a foundation of truth about wartime atrocities like ‘comfort women’ sex slavery and the Rape of Nanking and other human rights violations committed by the Japanese military during WWII. I have hope in the next generation of millennials. They are leading the way in raising awareness and standing with the ‘comfort women survivors in Korea and in other nations. BTS fans recently raised a lot of money for the ‘comfort women’.
Thinking back through everything you’ve done, do you have a preference towards one type of media for getting your message out?
I am producinga movie loosely based on my book. I’d like to focus on producing feature films in the coming years. Movies are a powerful medium for raising awareness like the Schindler’s List movie catapulted Holocaust awareness into a global stratosphere. I want to see more movies made on ‘comfort women’ sex slavery by the Japanese Imperial military.
Of the documentaries/films you created, which one is closest to your heart and why?
I still tear up when I watch the Healing River film on ‘comfort women’ survivors in mainland China and a Japanese Christian reconciliation team that paid their own way and prepared dances and calligraphy and apologies to the survivors. I’ve seen these dozens of times but when I watch the Japanese team kneel on the ground, I feel moved by their humility and willingness despite severe opposition from other Christians in their churches and even from their families.
The issue of ‘comfort women’ is very divisive among the Japanese because some, even in North America, feel they are being unfairly highlighted and attacked by the Chinese and Koreans. But they are missing the point entirely. We need to address this historical human rights violation and learn from it so that it will never repeat again in history and this will help heal the racial divide.
There were Japanese in Canada and America who were interned in camps and had their possessions and businesses confiscated from them. They deeply suffered too and received an apology from the US and Canadian governments many years later.
I spoke on the issue in Macon County in Georgia and the African Americans and the Caucasians separately said to me after the talk that I spoke a parable about race relations in America.
What are some of the difficulties you’ve faced when creating your documentaries and films? Were there any “scary” encounters or moments when you felt you were either going to be harmed or perhaps end up in a prison or be deported?
I’ve gone into some scary areas as a journalist or on behalf of philanthropists to check out frontline work against sex trafficking or programs that help drug addicts with HIV in Asia. Back in 2013, I took out my mobile phone to film a notorious brothel in one country (will not name the nation) and the mamasans came out with the thugs to check my phone. Thankfully, we were sitting in the car and could see them coming and I was able to delete the footage when I stepped out of the car. Even after showing them that my phone didn’t have any footage, they were convinced I uploaded it already onto social media and kept yelling at us. My life flashed before me and I thought I’d end up in a ditch somewhere. There were no street lights for miles – that’s how far we were from the city center. One of them screamed, “The police are coming” and they scattered. But I know there were no police. It was a divine intervention and we were able to escape unharmed.
Do you have any new documentaries or films currently in the works?
I’m writing a book about my experiences meeting slavery victims in Asia, all the unsung heroes who are helping the marginalized and the lessons I’ve learned, many from mistakes made along the way. I hope I can finish the movie on comfort women in the next few years and another movie on sex trafficking in the U.S. based on my husband’s script is being produced.
I also read that you were heavily involved in the “852 Freedom Campaign”. Could you tell us more about that? The difficulties? The breakthroughs?
Since March 2015, my husband Matthew and I were part of a team of professionals that came together to raise more awareness about slavery in Hong Kong. There was a swirl of activity and a fast-moving convergence of many open doors and dozens of willing volunteers who wanted to use their talents for the cause. I ended up helping to lead this movement that had a momentum of its own. We had meetings at least three times a week and reached more than 25,000 people through over 55 events, several of them city-wide events, from March 2015 to December 2016. We’ve had more than 80 churches represented at our events and also in our prayer chain where we mobilized people to pray for the slave victims, for ‘comfort women’ survivors,and for the ending of slavery.
This is a city where even two churches don’t really work together. So it was a miracle breakthrough to see so many people from different churches participate beyond just a conference.
In January 2017, we handed the baton over to the Chinese speaking groups to be able to reach the rest of the 97% of the Chinese speaking population in Hong Kong. To make a long-lasting difference in Hong Kong, you’ve got to reach the majority of the Chinese speakers. I also wanted to go back to work and produce movies and media on human rights issues.
What’s on the horizon for you?
My book Silenced No More: Voices of ‘Comfort Women’ has been translated into Chinese. The Japanese translation of my book will be finished in early 2019. A Korean publisher is considering the manuscript and a very influential Korean-American film producer is helping me.
I also have a few investigative articles on human trafficking to wrap up in addition to the book and movie script on ‘comfort women’ and sex trafficking that I’m writing.
On a side note…In your career, you’ve travelled to many locations around the world, but I saw a statement you made about a particular area you really like. You said something along the lines of, “I’ve fallen madly in love with southwest China bordering Myanmar”. What makes that region so special to you?
That region in the “Golden Triangle” several years ago was mostly untouched. For instance, the city of Kunming in Yunnan province didn’t have a Starbucks then. Now there are many Western brands in the city. When I traveled to the remotest parts of Yunnan province and Myanmar, even the roads were dangerous and the areas were hard to reach. But what was so inspiring was meeting these committed NGO workers who would go to these places on a regular basis to help heroin addicts, or people suffering from HIV/AIDS and the poor. And, the variety of food in these areas are incredible too and great food always helps one to fall in love with the region!
Again, I’m amazed by everything you’ve accomplished. I am currently reading your book, Silenced No More: Voices of ‘Comfort Women’ which I purchased from Amazon and I’m interested in seeing and reading your other works. Where would I be able to find them? You mentioned that Silenced No More is available Chinese and will soon be in Japanese as well but are your works currently available in Korean or other languages?
I hope I can find a Korean publisher soon for my book on ‘comfort women’. That would be a dream. I was born in Busan and left for Vancouver at the age of 2. I never felt a connection with my Korean identity until I started to learn about ‘comfort women’ sex slavery victims when I was 15. I still feel like the Korean immigrant kid with the braces so it’s still a surprise when I stop and look back on all that I’ve been involved in. And it isn’t just me. I’ve been blessed with a beautiful husband and a wonderful capable team around me.
Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with 10 Magazine Korea and for everything you’ve accomplished towards making the world and people’s lives better. It was truly an honor to be able to discuss your work and I look forward to seeing the results of your future efforts. I wish you and your husband all the best.
Thank you for allowing me to share this issue of ‘comfort women’ war-time sex slavery with you and your readers. If anyone wants to keep in touch, I can be reached through my website, Facebook or Twitter.