Recently 10 Magazine Korea was fortunate enough to speak with Sylvia Yu Friedman, award-winning journalist, filmmaker, international speaker, and writer to discuss her life, her recent book, Silenced No More: Voices of ‘Comfort Women’ and her plans for the future.
<10MK>: Hello Mrs. Friedman and thank you for granting this interview for 10 Magazine Korea. We are extremely pleased to be able to speak with you about your life, work and accomplishments.
<SYF>: Thank you Neil. We journalists rarely talk about ourselves in our line of work. I am still getting used to being interviewed for my book!
During the weeks before this interview, I did some research on your life and careers, as well as reading some of the articles you’ve written. I have to say I am amazed by everything you’ve accomplished. Please correct me if I’m wrong on any of the facts. From what I understand, you’ve been involved with mass media since 1997, written two books, produced and co-produced multiple documentaries, been involved with many campaigns and philanthropic efforts to improve people’s lives as well as receiving multiple awards.
Since I was 15, I had vowed to become a human rights lawyer to fight the Japanese government on behalf of the ‘comfort women’ survivors of sex slavery during WWII or what some experts call child sex slavery. These women were used as sex slaves by the Japanese government and military, but they were never given a sincere, unambiguous apology that restored dignity and brought a sense of healing and closure. Some Japanese government officials have even gone on to say these girls were voluntary paid prostitutes, which is absolutely not true and downright unspeakable.
In an unexpected way, even though I took a different career path in journalism and filmmaking, I’ve managed to stay true to my dream at 15 and raise awareness about the issue of ‘comfort women’ Japanese military sex slavery and how it relates to modern day sex trafficking and slavery that is happening around the world.
I also understand that you speak five languages. I’m sure that helps significantly with your efforts to connect with and help people. Was it difficult for you to become skilled in so many languages or was this something that comes naturally to you?
The only language I speak fluently is English. As they say, if you don’t use it, you lose it. While I stopped speaking Korean with my parents at 11 or 12, I can still do simultaneous translation Korean to English of Korean dramas. But I can barely speak with a government official in Korean and cannot read the Korean newspaper. I have basic taxi language of four other languages and can get around a foreign country, but I lack the patience to really sit down and learn languages. I am always on the go – perhaps it’s a mild form of ADHD!
Learning languages is vital and someone said the limits of your language are connected with the limits of your world. I have always relied heavily on my translators which has its pros and cons.
How did you first get started with mass media and human rights activism? Were you always an outgoing person with the ability to speak in public forums or did your passion for people drive you in that direction?
The other day, I felt a wave of gratefulness… like “how did this Korean immigrant girl from Canada – and one who was so gangly and unassuming – get to have these adventures in China and all over Asia?”. This sentimental feeling was spurred on by re-connecting with old friends from my childhood recently. Their lives have remained pretty much the same in Canada while I have been transformed by the brutal things I’ve witnessed as a journalist and philanthropy advisor. I’ve seen a lot of human suffering. I have witnessed trafficking victims firsthand and had a close encounter with thugs from organized crime while investigating brothels in South East Asia region. I’ve had many close calls.
I didn’t start out with polished presentations at all. In fact, I had a fear of public speaking especially after my divorce in 2007. I struggled with a sense of shame and a shattered confidence over having a failed marriage. But suffering in a terrible first marriage gave me the will-power and empathy to be a voice for voiceless women like the ‘comfort women’ survivors and modern day human trafficking victims that I didn’t have before. When I focused on those who were less fortunate than myself, I not only felt this righteous anger rise up, but I was able to put my own issues and problems into perspective. I had choices in career and life. Most of the people in the developing world are fixated on where their next meal is coming from.
I read that your husband Matthew Friedman is a former U.N. and U.S. diplomat and he shares your passion for helping others. Is this how the two of you met?
I met my husband during a TV interview in Hong Kong for a news documentary series on human trafficking. He flew in from Thailand to be a guest speaker at the American Chamber of Commerce and he spoke so powerfully about human trafficking and why we all need to get involved. At least four of us in that audience that day went on to become very involved in combating human trafficking long-term. At that time, I was feeling discouraged about living in Hong Kong, a very materialistic city where there wasn’t much of a focus on human rights. Then Matthew’s speech lit a fire in my belly again. I helped him set up other talks at corporations and we got married a few years later.
As activists, we need to keep the fire burning in our bellies and also practice self-care to keep going strong. Too many burn out in this field because of a lack of resources and a lack of unity due to each group working in silos.
Looking to your work…Could you please tell us about your most recent book, Silenced No More: Voices of ‘Comfort Women’, and how that came into being?
Please read the rest of the indepth interview at 10 Magazine Korea:
My reflections: I was very impressed by the interviewer, Neil Wilson, who was so thorough in his research and incredibly kind. I was touched by his desire to help raise awareness about the survivors of Japanese military sex slavery. Thank you Neil!! This was one of my favorite interview experiences.
Another media interview is coming out on December 13th, 2018 in mainland China.