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Saturday, Dec. 2, 2006
DEATH SPARKS DECADE OF SEARCHING
China filmmaker finds wartime sex slaves
By JUN HONGO
In 1995, Chinese filmmaker Ban Zhongyi set out to meet a woman in a remote part of central China to record her story of sexual enslavement by the Imperial Japanese Army.
He never met her, but after more than a decade of research and over 100 tapes of interviews, he has a made a powerful documentary film about her life and the lives of other women forced into sexual service during Japan's occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s.
"It was tough, but it was worth it. I don't regret anything at all," the 48-year-old filmmaker said.
"Gai Shanxi and Her Sisters," which will open in February in Japan at selected cities, tells the story of the Chinese filmmaker's visits to central Shanxi Province to document the lives of what Japan euphemistically called the "comfort women," who were abducted and forced into sexual service for the Imperial Japanese Army.
Ban's initial goal was to document the life of Hou Dong E, known as Gai Shanxi -- "Shanxi Province's most beautiful woman" -- through interviews with her.
However, when he arrived in the tiny Shanxi hamlet to meet the 74-year-old, he was told she had just died.
"There was a big question of whether to pursue the story or not, because the main character of the movie was already gone," Ban said.
The filmmaker, who was born in Liaoning Province, decided to go ahead and document the legendary beauty's life through the stories of the surviving women in the region who had also been enslaved.
Ban studied Japanese at Heilongjiang University and came to Japan in 1987. He received his doctorate in journalism from Sophia University in 1991 and has written two books on the history of Sino-Japanese relations.
Many Chinese wondered why he wanted to make a film about such a terrible episode in his country's history.
"A cab driver in China said my movie was insignificant," he said. "He told me I should forget about that shameful past."
Ban was forced to find the women on his own because the local government didn't want to help him and he discovered intense discrimination against the tragic figure, which made it hard to persuade people to talk about her.
The people in the hamlet burned most of their photographs of Gai Shanxi and all of her belongings because they believed anything related to her would bring them bring bad luck.
But he persevered and over the years, Ban found women who shared horrific stories of being taken with the 22-year-old Gai Shanxi to a pillbox in nearby Jingui village, where they were raped every day by 20 to 30 men.
"She offered herself to the army in order to protect other girls," one woman said.
Another woman told how Gai Shanxi was raped by enlisted men during the day and was then usually passed to high-ranking officers for the night.
After two weeks of daily assaults, Gai Shanxi's body swelled up and she was sent home. However, the soldiers came back for her when she had recovered.
Just over a year later, Gai Shanxi was released. She returned to the hamlet, where she was shunned. She had physical problems from the rapes, including spells of uterine bleeding. She went through three marriages, but ended her life destitute.
"People in the village say she committed suicide," the director said. He said the cause of death is not certain because the body was quickly disposed of. She was put in a plastic bag and buried without a funeral.
Ban felt that viewers would question the authenticity of his film if he only relied on the stories of the women in the region, so he also spoke to former Japanese soldiers stationed in Shanxi Province during the war.
Many of the men he interviewed regarded the women as prostitutes, not slaves, and others admitted abducting women but claimed it wasn't such a problem because, as one ex-soldier said, "The comfort women were fed Japanese food and treated well."
However, Hajime Kondo, a member of the Fourth Independent Mixed Brigade, told a different story. He described in detail for the camera how his unit gang-raped a woman in Shanxi during the war.
The 86-year-old said the soldiers abducted the woman from a rural village and took her to a pillbox they had just built.
"The soldiers in their fourth year (of service) raped the woman first," he said.
After the three men were done, Kondo, in his third year, was told it was his turn.
When he entered the room, the woman lay naked on the floor, staring blankly at the ceiling.
"Somehow I didn't think I was doing a terrible thing," Kondo confessed.
"But now that I am back in Japan and have a family and grandchildren, I keep asking myself why I did it."
A father of two, Ban hopes to make more documentaries about the two countries in the future to help heal the wounds from the past.
"Young people in Japan don't mind the fact that politicians visit Yasukuni Shrine, because they don't know the history of war," he said referring to the Tokyo Shinto shrine dedicated to Japan's war dead, as well as Class-A war criminals.
"I wanted to spread the story of Gai Shanxi, who had to live through pain and ultimately take her own life. Understanding what really happened in the past is the first step in rebuilding friendship between the two countries."