"The Apology" and Humanizing the Comfort Women Issue

In 1993 Japan’s then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a statement acknowledging that the Japanese military was involved in establishing and maintaining “comfort stations,” or military brothels, throughout Asia during World War II. Known as the Kono Statement, it is widely recognized as an apology to the approximately 200,000 “comfort women,” some who were barely teenagers, to serve as sex slaves for military personnel. These girls and young women were coerced – some were outright kidnapped – with the promise of jobs in hospitals or factories but instead were forced to endure sexual abuse.

The year prior to the Kono Statement, in 1992, South Koreans began protesting the comfort women issue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, a weekly demonstration that continues to this day. It was at one of those protests in 2009 that Canadian-born filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung first encountered Gil Won-ok, a native North Korean who was kidnapped by the Imperial Japanese Army and forced into sexual slavery. She is one of the main subjects of Hsiung’s documentary The Apology, which will have its U.S. premiere on June 10 at IFC Center as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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“In 2009 I saw Grandma Gil at one of the Wednesday demonstrations,” says Hsiung during a telephone interview with JapanCulture•NYC. “At the time she was one of the youngest and healthiest of the protestors. So it was natural for me to gravitate to her.”

But this subject matter – and even documentary filmmaking itself – was not something that Hsiung had originally planned after graduating from film school.

“Documentary was not in my wheelhouse,” Hsiung says. She admits that her knowledge of the deeper stories of WWII and Asia was limited, saying that a lot of what she did know “were just stories I would overhear from my parents.”

ALPHA Education, an NGO based in Canada that researches the overlooked events of WWII in Asia, hired her to document the teachers attending a study tour.

“In two-and-a-half weeks, my whole life changed,” Hsiung says of the experience. “That’s where I really got to learn first hand [about the comfort women issue]. It was the first testimony that I heard in person. I was blown away by the struggle of [a comfort woman in Shanghai] being able to tell her story publicly. After all these years she’s coming out, and it’s still painful . . . You hear about these things in history, but you rarely get to understand the aftermath.”

Wanting to explore the comfort women issue more thoroughly, Hsiung decided to make The Apology, a documentary focusing on three “Grandmas,” what many of the comfort women are called. She interviews the aforementioned Grandma Gil in South Korea, Grandma Cao in rural China, and Grandma Adela in the Philippines. Each Grandma has a different personality: Grandma Gil is the most outspoken and politically active, Grandma Cao seems to be unaware of her place in history, and Grandma Adela wants to keep her experience a secret but finds an amazing sisterhood among other comfort women in her area.


Hsiung formed special bonds with each of the three women. “That adds to the pressure to making this the best film possible, to give them that space and platform that they so deserve.”

The young filmmaker shot everything, from the mundane daily routine of Grandma Cao to Grandma Gil’s public speaking engagements and hotel room naps to Grandma Adela’s support group meetings.

“To be able to spend that much time with one another, I had to gain their trust,” Hsiung says. “Bringing a camera into anyone’s space is so invasive no matter how you do it.”

So Hsiung showed her subjects her camera, what she was shooting, and footage of the other women, keeping them apprised of exactly what she was documenting.

Another way she gained their trust was through the universal language of food. Hsiung shared many meals with the women and the organizations that support them and began to get more access because, as Hsiung puts it, “conversations naturally happen around the dinner table.”

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Grandma Cao with her daughter

These conversations aren’t easy to hear. The Grandmas’ excruciating stories of the atrocities they suffered at the hands of soldiers in the Imperial Japanese Army evoke powerful emotions. What’s worse is that these Grandmas stayed silent for decades, filled with shame. Many comfort women buried their WWII experiences, not telling even their own children what had happened to them. Grandma Gil started speaking out late in life, but she approaches her speeches with blunt honesty and a sense of purpose. The Apology is a mix of the Grandmas’ personal struggles as well as the protests, humanizing the Grandmas while explaining what happened in Japan’s comfort women system.

“I really wanted to hone in on the personal stories in addition to the political scene,” says Hsiung. “That to me is another side of the story that is still happening – the complexity within the family. Some people will never come out; there are villagers the same age as Grandma Cao whose families don’t want them to talk about it. In 2013 a Grandma grabbed me by my arm and told me to come into her house. She didn’t want to be on camera, but she told me everything because her family wasn’t around. How many still will carry this to their graves? We need to stop the cycle.”

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Grandma Adela

Listening to the stories of what happened to the Grandmas, it’s hard not to feel at once heartbroken and outraged. But the Japanese government has apologized more than once, in 1993 with the Kono Statement as well as in 2015, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed an agreement with South Korea and pledged $8.3 million in reparations to create a foundation that will support the remaining survivors. However, there is criticism about the sincerity of those apologies and the true purpose of the reparations.

“It depends on what you call an apology,” says Hsiung. “It’s important to consider wording. It’s difficult, right? They’re trying to express sympathy without taking responsibility . . . In terms of the funds, I know that right now the Korean Council isn’t accepting any of that and are starting their own public fund to help the Grandmas around the world. We have to consider the words that are said and the actual responsibility that follows that. The Japanese government still doesn’t want to acknowledge the issue. They didn’t consult the survivors, and it’s kind of hard to think of issuing of an apology or agreement that doesn’t take into consideration the survivors.”

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Mee-hyang Yoon with Grandma Gil

Someone who is taking the survivors into consideration is the other star of The Apology, Mee-hyang Yoon, co-chair of the NGO Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Yoon works closely with Grandma Gil, directing the Wednesday protests and facilitating Grandma Gil’s travel and events, fighting for the rights of the Grandmas. Hsiung says she captured only a fraction of Yoon’s activities, but the making of The Apology lasted almost a decade.

“I didn’t think it would be a seven-year odyssey,” Hsiung says of how long she took to film the project. “I was 25 and thought it would be two years. I was learning and researching and filming at the same time, which is very different from a typical documentary filmmaker who has had years and years of research. I was documenting it as I was going along.”

She managed to edit 435 hours of footage down to less than two hours, but Hsiung exclaims, “I didn’t want it to end! It could be a ten-hour movie with four intermissions, and I could serve people dumplings in between.”

Having The Apology screen during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is especially important for Hsiung because she says the Grandmas’ stories are helping others come forward with their experiences.

“One of the most powerful things from traveling with the film is that people from 20-year-old to 75-year-old women are speaking out about things that have happened in their past,” says Hsiung. “It’s such a privilege to be that ear to know that people are connecting . . . It will in one way or another propel change. We are part of a global community that needs to change and look at it as a whole and not as isolated. It starts by listening and being present. We need to be able to start conversations that might be uncomfortable.”

Since the film’s release, Hsiung has been sharing messages from audience members and Facebook posts with the Grandmas. “The story still continues,” says Hsiung. “Even though the film is done they still need our support.”

Hsiung says there is “still so much to share,” so she and her team are working on a 30-minute educational version of the film, and they’ve established the website The Space We Hold to serve as a digital archive, making the stories of the Grandmas more accessible.

The making of The Apology has deeply affected Hsiung. “It’s changed me completely,” she says. “I see the power of relationships. I’ve always known this in my own life; I’ve always believed in the wisdom of our elders. I believe that even more. It’s been accentuated. We used to live a time and place where our elders were our entertainment. We’ve lost that tradition in all cultures. I’ve spent so much time with these grandmothers, and because of that I’m rich in knowledge, entertainment, my own history, and where I belong in it.”


The Apology screens as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

Saturday, June 10, 7:00 pm – IFC Center
Followed by Q&A with director Tiffany Hsiung and Sarah Taylor, Advocate, Women’s Rights division, HRW

Sunday, June 11, 8:30 pm – Film Society of Lincoln Center
Followed by Q&A with director Tiffany Hsiung and Sarah Taylor, Advocate, Women’s Rights division, HRW

To purchase tickets, please visit the Human Rights Watch Film Festival website.