The unveiling of a statue in memory of the victims of sexual violence committed by the Japanese Army in World War II has led to diplomatic tension between Berlin and Tokyo. But there are good reasons for the statue to have a place in Germany.

  • Insa Eschebach

    Insa Eschebach, Religionswissenschaftlerin und Publizistin, vormalige Leiterin der Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück
  • Regina Mühlhäuser

    Regina Mühlhäuser ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin bei der Hamburger Stiftung zur Förderung von Wissenschaft und Kultur und Gründerin und Koordinatorin der „International Research Group ‚Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict’“. Gemeinsam mit Gaby Zipfel und Kirsten Campbell hat sie im Dezember 2021 den Sammelband „Vor Aller Augen. Sexuelle Gewalt in bewaffneten Konflikten“ veröffentlicht.

Passers-by often stand for a long time at the corner of Birken­strasse and Bremer Strasse in Berlin’s Moabit neigh­bour­hood to gaze at a bronze statue erected there in late September 2020. It depicts a girl in a tradi­tional Korean hanbok sitting in a chair. She gazes sedately ahead, but her hands in her lap are clen­ched into fists. Next to her is an empty chair which invites viewers to sit beside her. But just three days after the statue was unveiled, on 1 October, Japan’s foreign minister Motegi Tosh­imitsu spoke with his German coun­ter­part Heiko Maas and demanded that the ‘Statue of Peace’ be taken down. At the insis­tence of the Japa­nese embassy, the Berlin-Mitte district office has since revoked its appr­oval of the statue and requested that it be removed.

The bronze statue by the South Korean sculp­tors Kim Seo-Kyung and Kim Eun-Sung comme­mo­rates the tens of thou­sands of women and girls from many Asian count­ries who were recruited with false promises, coer­cion and force during the Pacific War (1931–1945) and were raped and sexu­ally enslaved by members of the Japa­nese mili­tary and their colla­bo­ra­tors. Most of the women came from Korea, a Japa­nese colony at the time. They were referred to as jugun ianfuor the army’s ‘comfort women’ – a euphe­mism. Mili­tary comman­ders used them to provide their soldiers conso­la­tion, sexual satis­fac­tion and a break from battle in order to increase their fighting power. But for the women, this entailed rape, enslavement and exten­sive physical and psycho­lo­gical injury. Those who survived found it impos­sible to lead a normal life after the end of the war in 1945.

Decades of silence

In the mid-twentieth century, there was no space for these women to talk about their fate. Sexual violence was considered an ugly but unavo­idable and ulti­m­ately natural side effect of war. This is clear from the post-war trials in Japan and Germany, during which sexual violence was barely addressed. Although the Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo (IMTFE, 1946–1948) codi­fied rape as a war crime, the ‘comfort women’ system was not examined in any detail. In two subse­quent trials in the former Dutch colony of Indo­nesia, nine Japa­nese soldiers and a bar owner were sentenced for rape and forced prosti­tu­tion, but the women them­selves were never ques­tioned. And only 35 of the 100 to 200 cases invol­ving white Dutch women were tried, even though several thousand Indo­ne­sian women had also been raped and sexu­ally enslaved. Power poli­tical inte­rests were clearly the main driving force behind these the convic­tions. At the time, there was little aware­ness that sexual violence is a crime. Moreover, soldiers with the Allied forces also perpe­trated acts of sexual violence at the end of the war and in the post-war years – in both Asia and Europe.

Hak Soon Kim spea­king publicly in 1991; source:

Just after the end of the Cold War, on 14 August 1991, 67-year-old Kim Hak-Soon from South Korea became the first survivor to speak publicly about her fate. Hundreds of women followed her example, leading to a type of #MeToo move­ment for the Pacific War. Japa­nese scho­lars subse­quently sear­ched archives and found histo­rical docu­ments veri­fying the estab­lish­ment of ‘comfort stations’ for Japa­nese soldiers and attesting to the Japa­nese Army’s shared respon­si­bi­lity for this. Nataly Jung-Hwa Han, chair­woman of the Korea Verband, the asso­cia­tion that arranged for the sculpture’s instal­la­tion, said: ‘The statue honours the courage of the survi­vors to break their silence, and it stands in oppo­si­tion to sexual violence in armed conflicts worldwide.’

The 93-year-old survivor Lee Yong-Su, who was unable to attend the dedi­ca­tion ceremony in Berlin on account of COVID-19, shared her thoughts in a video message: ‘The Statue of Peace repres­ents our life and our grief. As a witness to this history, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I want to ask you to please look after the statue. We also ask you to search for ways for our demands to be heard.’ The first version of the sculp­ture was installed across from the Japa­nese embassy in Seoul on 14 December 2011, during the 1000th ‘Wednesday demons­tra­tion’. Since 1992, survi­vors and their supporters have protested once every week – the 1,500th demons­tra­tion will be 2021. Very few of the survi­vors are still alive today, but the demons­tra­tions continue. The protes­tors demand reco­gni­tion of the ‘comfort women’ system as a crime, a formal apology to the women by the Japa­nese prime minister, and an assu­rance that these events will be taught and remem­bered in history books and through memorials.

Contested memo­ries

But Japan is unwil­ling to acknow­ledge its histo­rical respon­si­bi­lity. In what is known as the Kono State­ment issued on 4 August 1993 by Kono Yohei, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secre­tary at the time, the Japa­nese govern­ment conceded that women and girls had been ‘recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coer­cion, etc.’ and it expressed its ‘remorse’. However, it refused to reco­g­nise the women as victims of war crimes or to offer a formal apology and repa­ra­tions. When a new govern­ment was formed in 2012, the re-elected prime minister Abe Shinzo and his party disputed the estab­lished facts in the Kono State­ment and announced that it would be revoked. It was only under pres­sure from Washington that Abe aban­doned this course of action.

More recently, Abe’s govern­ment tried to draw a line under the issue in 2015 with an ‘agree­ment’ nego­tiated behind closed doors with the South Korean govern­ment of the time. This deal involved a non-specific apology by Abe (who avoided acknow­led­ging Japan’s respon­si­bi­lity) and a lump sum payment to Korea ‘to restore the honour and dignity and heal the psycho­lo­gical wounds of all former comfort women’ (which framed the survi­vors as pitiable old women instead of victims of crimes who had suffered a grave inju­s­tice). In return, South Korea declared that it would ‘refrain from accu­sing or criti­cising Japan’ on an inter­na­tional level in the future and would have the bronze statue of the girl removed from outside the Japa­nese embassy in Seoul.

‘Comfort Women’ statue in Seoul, 2017; source:

As an expres­sion of their protest, women’s and human rights groups have campai­gned world­wide ever since for the instal­la­tion of this statue and other monu­ments, and in doing so they have regu­larly trig­gered diplo­matic inter­ven­tions by the Japa­nese govern­ment. Nothing seems to have changed under Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshi­hide Suga. ‘Japan wants to silence the trans­na­tional citi­zens’ move­ment, but we are not going away,’ Nataly Jung-Hwa Han said.

Indeed, while Japan treats the issue as if it were a bila­teral problem with South Korea, the victims come from all of the count­ries that were occu­pied by Japan. This is what makes the bronze sculp­ture so powerful: it high­lights the histo­rical conti­nuity of sexual violence against women in armed conflicts. It condemns rape and sexual enslavement, at all times and ever­y­where – not aggres­si­vely, not with a raised fist or a flag, burning torch or weapon in its hand. It condemns through its presence and persis­tence – and that is where its strength lies.

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In this respect, it was only logical for poli­tical scien­tist Kien Nghi Ha to speak at the dedi­ca­tion ceremony in Berlin about the sexual violence committed by Korean soldiers during in the Vietnam War; today affected Viet­na­mese women are fighting for an apology and repa­ra­tions from the South Korean govern­ment. It was also logical that many of the spea­kers at the ceremony, inclu­ding Sara Frem­berg from Medica Mondiale, mentioned similar violent crimes committed by the Germans during World War II. It is clear that Germany also needs to grapple with what the statue represents.

Sexual violence by German soldiers in World War II

During World War II, German soldiers committed acts of sexual torture and rape throug­hout the count­ries occu­pied by the German Reich. Based on mili­tary docu­ments as well as personal accounts and inter­views, rese­ar­chers over the past 25 years have shown that crimes of sexual violence were a wide­spread pheno­menon among German troops. To increase their soldiers’ fighting power, ensure their loyalty and hinder the spread of sexu­ally trans­mitted dise­ases, the leaders of the German armed forces estab­lished mili­tary brot­hels in France and the Nether­lands as well as the Soviet Union. Many of the women in these brot­hels were sexu­ally enslaved. And regard­less of their indi­vi­dual situa­tions, they all expe­ri­enced violence at the hands of soldiers bruta­lised by war.

This is a rele­vant topic at concen­tra­tion camp memo­rials as well. Women impri­soned in the Ravens­brück concen­tra­tion camp were recruited to work in brot­hels at ten other camps – not brot­hels for soldiers, but rather for male prisoners. As a perfor­mance incen­tive, ‘hard-working prisoners’ were to be ‘provided with women in brot­hels’ accor­ding to a plan concocted by Reichsführer-SS Hein­rich Himmler in 1942. This idea was based on the notion that a bonus system – which involved alle­viated impri­son­ment condi­tions as well as brothel visits – would boost the moti­va­tion of male prisoners to perform forced labour.

The female victims were rarely able to talk about their expe­ri­ences. In the occu­pied count­ries, they faced the threat of being denounced as colla­bo­ra­tors, and even female concen­tra­tion camp prisoners were suspected of compli­city after the war. The accounts written by former male concen­tra­tion camp prisoners after their libe­ra­tion reveal that they stig­ma­tised the women as ‘anti-social’ and did not view violently coerced sex work as forced labour.

Ruth Klüger (1931–2020) in the German Bundestag, 2016; source:

By contrast, Ruth Klüger, the lite­ra­ture professor and Ausch­witz survivor who died recently, set the record straight in her speech on the Day of Remem­brance for the Victims of National Socia­lism on 27 January 2016 in the German Bundestag: ‘This was not freely chosen work, despite the cynical accu­sa­tions some­times levelled at these abused women after the war. Even with the passage of time, prosti­tutes were not reco­g­nised as forced labou­rers and the survi­vors were not entitled to or didn’t attempt to claim resti­tu­tion – repa­ra­tions, in other words. Their fami­lies were even less inclined to do so, for they felt so ashamed. These women were never accorded the respect usually, if not always, given to camp survivors.’

‘Les oubliées’

This view of history only began to change when the survi­vors of the ‘comfort stations’ in Asia found the courage in the 1990s to share their stories and show their faces in public. These women shed a light on rape and sexual enslavement as a coll­ec­tive expe­ri­ence and syste­matic war crime. This deve­lo­p­ment can also be attri­buted to the women’s and human rights groups who sought to raise inter­na­tional aware­ness of sexual violence in contem­po­rary warfare. Their acti­vi­ties addi­tio­nally drew atten­tion to the violent sex crimes committed by German soldiers and the forced prosti­tu­tion in the concen­tra­tion camps. In 2017, a minia­ture version of the Korean Statue of Peace was displayed at the Ravens­brück Memo­rial. The Ravens­brück Memo­rial now addresses the subject in its perma­nent exhi­bi­tion, and a memo­rial plaque is due to be unveiled in 2021.

A current example from the Sach­sen­hausen Memo­rial, too, shows that the issue has finally taken hold in memory culture. As part of an inter­na­tional work and study camp known as the Young Inter­ven­tions project, a 20-year-old student from France created two life-sized female silhou­ettes, which she placed at the former site of the camp brothel and labelled ‘Les Oubliées’ – ‘The Forgotten’. Although this is probably only a tempo­rary instal­la­tion, one thing is appa­rent: even in Germany, the Statue of Peace is not alone. Hopefully she will be joined by many more sisters.

Social aware­ness of sexual violence as a crime seems to have grown in recent years. The topic is incre­asingly visible in the public sphere. Artistic prac­tices can mediate between the histo­rical and the aesthetic, and they can trans­form abstract know­ledge into some­thing concrete. This is precisely what the Statue of Peace does in Berlin-Moabit, where the neighbourhood’s resi­dents have hono­ured the seated girl by leaving flowers. A public memo­rial space has been created that invites inter­ac­tion and discussion.

Poli­tical pressure

At the statue’s dedi­ca­tion ceremony, Ute Müller-Tischler, head of the Depart­ment for Art, Culture and History of the Berlin-Mitte district, empha­ti­cally commended the sculpture’s message: ‘I am pleased that the Statue of Peace can raise aware­ness of this issue here in Berlin-Moabit. Because let there be no mistake: while the forced prosti­tu­tion of Korean women and girls is the concern here, humi­lia­tion, exter­mi­na­tion, abduc­tion and rape are stra­te­gies found in nearly every war. Even today. For me, this sculp­ture repres­ents all women who are objec­ti­fied in wars, used as war mate­rial, robbed of their huma­nity, physi­cally and psycho­lo­gi­cally destroyed. For these women, the sculp­ture breaks the silence and demands reco­gni­tion.’ The fact that the Berlin district office caved in to pres­sure from Tokyo and called for the statue to be removed just a few days after this speech reveals how contested and fragile the approach to dealing with this subject conti­nues to be in Germany.

During Germany’s tenure as chair of the UN Secu­rity Council in 2019, German foreign minister Heiko Maas said the preven­tion of sexual violence in conflicts was a central focus of Germany’s policy. On 23 April 2019, the Secu­rity Council adopted UN Reso­lu­tion 2467, proposed by Germany, which aims to fight sexual violence in conflicts and streng­then the posi­tion of the victims. Just how serious the German govern­ment is about wanting to do justice to the victims of this form of violence will be measured in part by how it responds to Japan’s statement.

The Coali­tion for the Statue of Peace in Germany has since announced that it will take action against the decision of the Berlin-Mitte district office. The statue should stay put. It should stand as a symbol of oppo­si­tion to sexual violence in armed conflicts, at all times and everywhere.

Addendum 15 October 2020

The Korea Verband, supported by the Coali­tion for the Statue of Peace in Germany, submitted an emer­gency appeal against the decision of the district office. The statute can now remain in place until the admi­nis­tra­tive court has ruled on the appeal. Mean­while, the parlia­men­tary groups for the SPD, the Greens  and the Left  in the district have issued state­ments calling on the district office to reverse its revo­ca­tion of the appr­oval it previously granted to the statue.


Trans­la­tion: Jessica Spengler