Musical about 'comfort women' draws attention to horrific WWII practice

“Comfort Women: A New Musical” follows the story of a young woman who is promised a job at a factory but is instead sexually exploited by the Japanese Imperial Army.
"Comfort Women: The Musical" debuted in 2015 and is on its third run in Los Angeles.
"Comfort Women: The Musical" debuted in 2015. Now on its third run in Los Angeles, it features actors (left to right) Brandon English, lead actress Abigail Choi Arader and Tim Jim Lim.Jeff Yeon

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By Agnes Constante

Theater director Dimo Kim learned about “comfort women,” the mostly Korean women who were forced into Japanese military-run brothels during World War II, when he was a high school student in South Korea. A few years later, when he shared a script he wrote about the women with his classmates at the City College of New York, he was slightly shocked.

“Classmates and professors started crying while I presented the script,” Kim, 28, said. “I figured, maybe this is not just a Korean political issue. I think it's a human rights issue that everyone can relate to.”

During World War II, an estimated 200,000 women from countries including Korea, the Philippines, China and Indonesia were forced into sexual slavery and “served” five to 60 soldiers a day, according to research by professors from Vassar College and Shanghai Normal University.

Kim was inspired to write about the women in 2012 after the re-election of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and hearing claims from Japanese groups that comfort women were professional prostitutes.

"Comfort Women: The Musical" tells the story of "comfort women" who were forced into brothels run by the Japanese military during World War II.Jeff Yeon

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Kim's production, “Comfort Women: A New Musical,” follows the story of a young woman who is promised a job at a factory in Japan but is instead brought to Indonesia to become a Japanese Imperial Army sex slave. The show debuted and sold out off-Broadway in 2015, and was nominated for best off-Broadway musical by BroadwayWorld that year. It ran again in 2018, and opened Thursday in Los Angeles for its third run.

As grassroots groups across the country continue to invest in various efforts to educate the public about the issue, including establishing memorial statues and distributing teachers guides, the musical serves as an effective and engaging way to teach people about comfort women, said Phyllis Kim, executive director of Comfort Women Action for Redress and Education, a community advocacy group based in Southern California. It’s particularly effective for those who have never heard of the issue before and for younger generations, she added.

“It is a pretty heavy subject, but through music and performance and acting and dance, I think we can more easily learn the history,” Phyllis Kim said. “I thought it was a great way to spread the truth of the history.”

Since its debut, the musical has undergone multiple transformations, Dimo Kim said. In 2015, heavier focus was placed on providing historical context and explaining sexual slavery. Three years later during the rise of the #MeToo Movement, Kim rewrote part of the script to empower the female characters by having them — rather than a male soldier — plot their escape from the military-run brothel. Along with those changes, this year's production has cut down on violent scenes.

“If we're too heavy on the sexual assault sequence or the torture sequence or anything violent, we miss the focus of the show, which is the girls,” Kim said. “And I don’t want the audience to think Japan is the devil and Korea is the victim. I’m trying to show more that this is a human rights issue.”

Since 2015, the musical has undergone various shifts, with recent changes to the script taking into account the #MeToo movement.Jeff Yeon

Lyndon Adolf Apostol, 25, who portrays one of the lead characters, said that while he had heard of comfort women before, participating in the production had provided him with a new depth of understanding of the issue.

“These narratives are not too far off from what could have happened,” he said. “What I’m doing on stage every night, someone could have lived that, and to me that’s more than just knowledge. It’s this human sort of connection that makes you care about something and do something about it.”

In the years since the musical's first run, Dimo Kim believes that the momentum for spreading awareness about comfort women has decreased, in part because of the Japanese government's attempts to suppress that history. Phyllis Kim, however, said she believes that such attempts aren’t effective, and instead have kept the issue alive by bringing more attention to it.

Dimo Kim said the show is expected to run next in Korea, China and the Philippines. He added that he hopes that people who come the show will be inspired to do their own research on comfort women.

“When they die,” he said referring to comfort women, “I wish they know that people heard their stories, and their braveness to talk about this issue worked. And I wish they just get honored. I’m not a politician or social movement guy. The only thing I can make is musicals. But through this musical, I wish people will talk about this.”