By Park Boram
BUSAN, Oct. 11 (Yonhap) -- A bronze statue of a Korean girl in front of the Japanese Embassy in South Korea stands today as the most salient symbol of a thorny diplomatic issue between the two countries: Japan's wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women.
As a Japanese American who was not well versed on the debate of the former Korean sex slaves, euphemistically called "comfort women," Miki Dezaki set out on what became a three-year filmmaking journey to investigate the highly sensitive historical issue.
"Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of Comfort Women Issue," which premiered in the documentary competition category at the 23rd Busan International Film Festival on Wednesday, is the product of the three years of research. And it became his directorial debut.
The two-hour documentary pits the Japanese right wing's denial of the wartime atrocity against calls for acknowledgement and apology by Japanese left-wing historians, former comfort women victims and Korean activists.
The production was a process of opening his own eyes to the issue, having started the research with little more than the mainstream Japanese media's dissenting perspective.
"I do, after researching, think that there is a right and a wrong to this whole thing. You have to look at it in terms of international law and human rights law because you have to have some kind of common ground to stand on," Dezaki said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Wednesday on the sidelines of the festival.
The young director also pointed out that Japan was breaking its own domestic law prohibiting the trafficking of women out of the country as his documentary carries the pros and cons of the most contentious points of debate between Korea and the Japanese right wingers, including whether the former comfort women were coercively mobilized, whether the estimated number of 200,000 comfort women victims is valid as well as whether the women were indeed enslaved.
"My conclusion is that Japan, legally speaking, has a legal obligation to apologize and pay reparations ... (although) I don't know if the Japanese government will apologize formally and legally," Dezaki said. "It will be very, very difficult."
"It will take the Japanese people to demand it for that to happen," Dezaki said, adding that that will be possible only if the Japanese people understand the history.
But today's Japanese media subject themselves to "self-censorship" on the comfort women issue so as to not arouse the ire of the government, he said, because "They know what to say and what not to say to not rock the boat in Japan and naturally things like this became right wing."
Such a lack of correct information in Japan is the reason why he stepped in, Dezaki said. Now he wants as many people from Japan and elsewhere as possible to see the film, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
"Hopefully I can get this out in Korea and Japan in educational broadcast or even theaters or any way I can," he earlier told the audience after the screening of the documentary during the festival. "I don't care about making money off this film. I just want people to see it as much as possible."
His documentary does not stop at the bilateral dispute, but explores its undercurrents -- Japan's growing efforts to militarize itself and erase its wartime wrongdoings -- as well as the United States' under-informed intervention to mediate in the historical issue.
"The right wing in Japan are censoring (information) because they use or erase historical or war memories to basically convince Japanese people that their country is great and that that's worth dying for," Dezaki argued. "Now as more and more Japanese people are forgetting the atrocity and what they did, people are more willing to fight for Japan or die for Japan in a war."
"As an American, I thought it was really important (also) to show this influence Americans had on the comfort women negotiations," Dezaki said, referring to the now dormant comfort women deal signed between South Korea and Japan in 2015.
"It's in their interest to get it over quickly, but (it's) short-sighted. So they are causing more problems by doing that," he said, alluding to some U.S. pressure in the signing of the 2015 Seoul-Tokyo deal, which was later declared flawed by President Moon Jae-in who came to power in 2017.
A theatrical release of the politically explosive film has the potential to provoke a backlash from the Japanese right wing. But he is not afraid of a possible death threat after he heavily meditated on the subject of death during his one-year stint as a Buddhist monk in Thailand before his film career, Dezaki said half-jokingly.