In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, an empty chair at the banquet silently calls for justice. In 2010 when the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, a vacant seat was left for him at the presentation ceremony. The empty chair is a powerful metaphor of being silenced.
The empty chair is a technique used in Gestalt therapy to enable someone in conflict with another person to imagine him or her seated opposite in order to be able to unburden themselves of their innermost thoughts. Speaking out and voicing hurt are therapeutic. And in art, as well as in psychology, absence is often presence, signifying remembrance.
When Charles Dickens died, the artist Luke Fildes had been illustrating Dickens’s last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Fildes painted a watercolour of the writing desk in the author’s study with its now empty chair. Several magazines later published a black and white engraving of this haunting image.
On the morning of 19 April 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked a rental truck with explosives in front of the Alfred E. Murrah building in downtown Oklahoma City. The massive explosion that took place killed 168 people. As a memorial, the city erected a “Field of Empty Chairs” standing in nine rows to represent the floors of the building. Each chair bears the name of someone killed on that floor. Nineteen small chairs represent the children. The chairs are located where the building once stood.
In Seoul, Korea, every week from 1995 a group of former comfort women, now grandmothers, and their supporters have protested in front of the Japanese Embassy. In December 2011, they marked their 1000th protest by unveiling the statue of a young girl in traditional Korean dress, who sits facing the Embassy with an empty chair beside her. The statue is a permanent presence, daily confronting those entering and leaving the building. Of the 234 former comfort women registered with the Korean government, only 63 are still alive. Since the statue’s unveiling, in winter passers-by have bundled up the young girl in blankets, hats, and scarves. Others have left money and gifts at her feet.
“Comfort women” is a euphemism for the approximately 200,000 women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. Comfort women were stationed in brothels, called “comfort stations”, located throughout Japan, Korea, China, and numerous other South Asian countries. In order to populate such stations, the Japanese military used a variety of methods from kidnapping to trickery (often luring women with the promise of jobs). Once at the comfort stations, women were subjected to daily rape and torture at the hands of soldiers, doctors, and other officials.
In 1965, Japan paid South Korea $800 million in grants and soft loans as part of a treaty that “normalized” relations between the two countries. Part of this sum was meant to be used to compensate victims of Japanese colonization; not just comfort women, but also forced labourers and those who were conscripted into the Japanese army. Yet Korean dictator Park Chung-hee used most of the funds for infrastructure projects to encourage economic development. Only a small amount was ever used for compensation and many people never received recompense.
According to the Japanese government, the 1965 treaty satisfied the need to pay reparations to the comfort women on a state level, leaving payment of individual reparations up to the South Korean government. However, in 1995, the Japanese government also established the Asian Women’s Fund as a stop-gap measure to silence ongoing requests by comfort women for individual compensation. The move was deemed inadequate because the money did not come from the Japanese government, but from private donations. Once again, the Japanese cited the payments in 1965 to explain that making individual reparations was no longer its responsibility.
Recently, South Korea’s Supreme Court took a landmark decision to demand that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel Corporation compensate Korean victims of forced labour. The country’s former comfort women still await recognition, restitution and contrition. It remains to be seen how much longer the Japanese government can turn a deaf ear to the mute clamour of the empty chair.