The reason why I became interested in the issue of the Japanese military 'comfort women'
This symposium has been held to find out what content the RIJMSS webzine should contain and what role it should take in the future. First of all, please reveal to us how each of the editors of the webzine came to connect with the issue of 'comfort women', and present any issues and concerns you have for the ‘comfort women'. If I may start first, in the early 2000s, when I participated in the oral testimony work for the survivors of the 'comfort women' during my master's degree, was how I first came across this issue in detail. As a woman and gender history major, I am highly interested in the ways in which we can record the lives and experiences of these women in our history. In fact, when we discuss the lives of women during the colonial period, then the experience of the 'comfort women' feels distinctly remote from that of ordinary women. I feel it is important to push such boundaries and I am interested in the connectivity such as the daily lives of ordinary women under colonial rule and the experience of the women mobilized for comfort stations, how the peacetime and wartime were connected to each other, and perhaps the banality reflected in this extreme experience or the extremity hidden underneath ordinary daily lives. In the context of the general discrimination and oppression that women under colonial rule had to experience, I would like to capture the experiences of women who were mobilized as 'comfort women' in a historical language.
I have been working on inquiring about the gender of discussions regarding ethnic literature from the perspective of a female literature researcher. In ethnic literature, female principals are often described as that of victims. As the narratives of the 'comfort women' were also inclined to appear mobilized (for the same purpose), I have always been conscious of the issue. In my generational experience, perhaps, the most intense representation of the 'comfort women' was the [Years of Upheaval]. An image of a person, somewhat pitiful and tragic, wearing a white hanbok, has been resolutely engraved in our memories to the extent that I have had concerns over how to overcome the image of the ‘comfort women’ among the public. I fully began to mull over the issue of the 'comfort women' when I wrote my doctoral thesis. This was because I was surprised to find out that there were a few descriptions of the Japanese military 'comfort women' in Korean literature in the 1950s. Despite the fact that many people remembered the 'military labour crops' and have heard about it through rumors, no one reproduced the women of the 'Volunteer Labor Corps'. During this period, when it came to the 'comfort women', they were referred to as the US military 'comfort women', and while redefining the US military 'comfort women' as corrupt women, the discourse was reproduced in a manner that "such women were bringing disgrace on the people.” It also means that they displayed an interest in the memory devoid of the Japanese military ‘comfort women’.
My initial interest in the issue of the 'comfort women' stemmed from the work of a Chinese writer Ding Ling who in 1941 wrote ‘When I was in Sunset Town’, a story about a Chinese woman who had no choice but to become a Japanese military 'comfort woman'. The protagonist in this novel is sexually assaulted by the Japanese army, becomes a 'comfort woman', and is subsequently used as a spy by the Communist Party. However, the demeanor that Chinese society displays towards her is one that is cold and icy, and the work perfectly illustrates the resultant sense of incompatibility felt by the author. After my encounter with Ding Ling's work, I met with Chinese victims through the collection of oral statements presented by 'comfort woman' victims, and I wanted to address the issue of the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ from my perspective as a ‘victim’, in the same way that Ding Ling raised the issue.
I am a researcher of modern Western and German history. Since I was no expert in relation to the issue of the 'comfort women', my relevant knowledge was not much different from that of the general public. I felt that the issue of the 'comfort women' was complicated and difficult to approach. However, the researchers of Western history in Korea have no choice but to fulfill the certain needs or requests of Korean society. After I was asked to present overseas cases at an international conference held in 2015 on the topic of women's rights and sexual violence during wartime, this was the moment when I became indirectly connected to the issue of the 'comfort women’. With a lack of knowledge and awareness on this issue, I gave a presentation on European cases, and the content was later reinforced for a thesis on wartime sexual violence in Europe during World War II and forced prostitution designed and executed by the German military and the SS (Schutzstaffel). While I was preparing for the thesis, I discovered that, even in Germany, known as “a model country for addressing past wrongdoings,” the issue of wartime sexual violence had been silenced for over half a century and the memory itself had been suppressed, and even after that, difficulties were apparent in making the issue known to the public. Given that the victims have still not been properly recognized or compensated for, it occurred to me that there could be a point of comparison between the way the west dealt with wartime violence and that of East Asia.
I have been working at the Korea Chongshindae's Institute for over 20 years. My primary focus has been on the collection of testimonies. From the 'comfort woman' victims in Korea to those in China, I have met a great variety of people. Recently, I have been working on a project to digitally convert the recording tapes containing the past oral interviews of victims and create a transcript, and while performing this work, I have reflected a lot as a person who has continued to engage in related activities. Although we were the researchers, we were sometimes so poorly prepared that we even disrupted the interviews during the course of meeting the ‘comfort women’ victims. In some cases, we failed to understand their statements and kept repeating the same question, again and again, each time we met them. It served as an opportunity to acknowledge regretfully that we lacked the necessary preparation even though we were researchers.
While I was in Japan as an international student, I began studying the issue of the Japanese military 'comfort women' during my master's degree in graduate school. When I was studying in Japan, on August 14, 1991, Kim Hak-soon gave her first public testimony in Korea, and immediately after that, I had the opportunity to interview her. At the time, I also didn't fully comprehend what the Japanese military 'comfort woman' meant. But as I listened to her statements, I intuitively realized that this was a class issue. I also changed the subject of study for my master's degree from the independence movement of female socialists to the ‘reality of the comfort stations and Korean comfort women’. At this time, the issue of the 'comfort women' was known to relate to the issue of forced detention in which soldiers grabbed the hair of unmarried women at gunpoint, loaded them on trucks, and took them away. Therefore, when I first presented my viewpoint of approaching the mobilization of the ‘comfort women’ as a class issue at a seminar at graduate school, I was heavily criticized. I also wrote a doctoral dissertation from this perspective, and received comments that “it lacked the feminist perspective.' At the time, it was common in Japan to view this issue as discrimination against women, but as I believed that the issue of the ‘comfort ‘women’ was deeply related to everyday violence and class discrimination brought by colonial policies, I placed greater emphasis on the issue of racial discrimination. I am currently studying the feminist perspective, but I believe that it is necessary to speculate deeply about nationalism. Because as we dig into the “issue of the comfort stations and comfort women” we must deeply speculate about a nation. Studying the 'issue of the comfort stations/comfort women' is a difficult topic in many aspects. I think I was able to commence with the issue because I didn't fully understand what it was at first. Of course, I do not regret my choice.
For the past 7 years, I have been conducting a project of organizing and describing the data related to the ‘comfort women’ at the Center for Korean History. At first, my research field was the history of modern society, but while carrying out this project, I naturally became more interested in the 'comfort women'. While organizing the data on ‘comfort women’, the data I found to be most impressive was, unexpectedly, a document capturing the routine and dry contents. Many documents provided the hours available for either the officers or soldiers to use the ‘comfort stations’, how much each class of the ranks paid, and how the hygiene inspections were carried out. Looking at these dry documents, it felt a little odd. The people that the 'comfort women’ victims who suffered terrible ordeals had to deal with were just ordinary Japanese people (in the military). They were soldiers, but at the same time, they were Japanese people who arrived at the battlefield and shed tears while writing letters to their families back home. This is when the concept of the ‘banality of evil' occurred to me. I am telling this story because I felt the need to expand the level and scope of the issue of the 'comfort women' beyond the nationalistic issue perception and method that had been previously discussed.
Even though my major may be different as a Japanese Studies major, when I look at Japan as the subject of my study, the issue of the Japanese military 'comfort women' was an inevitable task for me. Therefore, I have been translating the previous discussions held in Japan into the Korean language for many years. In this process, the research conducted on the issue of the Japanese military 'comfort women' is led by Japanese researchers, while they must also refute and persuade the public whenever the claim of historical revisionism is raised, and I often felt that I was simply translating their work in the Korean language. To me, I could not come up with any reason other than the fact that the Japanese studies itself as a discipline was too dependent on Japanese academia. In Korea, there exists the ‘Japanese Studies’, which has internalized the logic of historical revisionism in Japan, but if I wanted to map out another form of ‘Japanese Studies’ as a discipline to counter it, I would need to create an opportunity to dive into this issue, think, and then act as an independent being.
My deep interest lies in Japanese colonialism, modernity, and governmentality. As I was born and raised in Japan, I have written and lectured on the issue of Koreans in Japan. In the early and mid-90s, while being engaged in ethnic activities with other Korean university students in Japan, I became aware of the issue of the ‘comfort women’ as part of the issue of the forced mobilization of Koreans (forced detention at the time). We held study meetings, and at that time, in a secondhand bookshop, I found and read a book written by Senda Kako, but I still remained relatively unfamiliar with the issue. In 2000, the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery was held, and an issue was raised with NHK's video editing due to political pressure. The court which declared Hirohito guilty was certainly an incident that shook the foundations of Japan, a state under the system of the Emperor, and thus blatant repression followed. As was witnessed in the late 90s, historical revisionism that denied the Japanese military 'comfort women' or the Nanjing Massacre began to fester in the right-wing camp and even the liberal camp attempted private negotiations through a national fund, which made me realize that there was a serious problem with the way Japan accepted the issue of ‘comfort women’. As the issue of the 'comfort women' has always been at the center of the reactionary movements in Japanese society, it was natural for me to pay attention. Nevertheless, I have always felt indebted for not studying this issue in full scale. As I admired at the senior researchers in Japan who continued to work tirelessly, perhaps I thought “it doesn’t have to be me.” Now I hope to use this opportunity to go beyond that certain level.
In the extension of the wartime mobilization system, I have given much thought to the issue of the ‘comfort women’. In addition to the testimony, speaking of the wartime mobilization system in the late Japanese colonial period, from a confined perspective, the mobilization of the 'comfort women' is inseparable from how the wartime mobilization system should be viewed. Therefore, I am torn about how to view the wartime mobilization system in the context of gender politics. I believe this is slightly different from women's history. Gender research moves towards building a vision of history that is different from the existing predominant discipline system, rather than addressing a certain issue. In order to establish a new paradigm, rather than the grouping of conflicting the ‘issues of comfort women’, it is necessary to work on how to restructure the vision of history for the wartime mobilization system from a gender perspective. With an awareness of this problem, I began to study the issue of 'comfort women'. In addition, I studied the issue of the 'comfort women' in the context of the experience and testimony of war and violence, the limitations of the state-led memorial and alternative memorial politics.
Why does the nationalist approach need supplementation?
The comparison between the lives of the “comfort women” victims in Korea and the situation of the “comfort women” victims of the Japanese military in China allows us to learn that “nationalism” played a pivotal role for the victims. The importance of receiving the status and place within the country, the home to the ‘comfort woman’ victims through a nationalistic approach cannot be emphasized enough.
That is completely true. However, if we view the issue of the ‘comfort women’ in the Japanese military only from the nationalistic perspective, then focus has to be placed on the issue of ethnic discrimination such as how inhumane and immoral the Japanese military was. Although the issue of the 'comfort women' in the Japanese military is an issue of ethnic discrimination, this subject includes a variety of issues such as discrimination against women, gender issues, a class issue, and addressing colonial rule. In particular, it also gives rise to an issue connected to the current story of women's rights represented by the Me Too movement. However, there still occurs an aspect that relatively few such parts have been discussed, perhaps because there has been a tendency to look at the issue of the 'comfort women' only from a nationalistic perspective.
The issue of the “comfort women” in the Japanese military first discussed the structure of the forced colonial mobilization under the wartime system, that is, the national issue, but in the context of the mobilization of women as “comfort women”, the patriarchal system in the society of Joseon also played a role. Various aspects such as where Korean business operators intervened in the mobilization of the 'comfort women', the operation of the comfort stations during the Korean War, and the distressing view of the same ethnic group towards the 'comfort woman' victims were often hidden from a nationalistic perspective.
In Japan in the 1990s, many people accepted the issue of the 'comfort women' as an issue for women and thus participated in social movements. Korea, on the other hand, proceeded with its movement centering on a nationalist perspective. Despite the fact that both issues should have been accepted, the perspectives of feminism and nationalism were discussed in a confrontational manner. When the movement to address the issue of the ‘comfort women’ was first ignited in the 1990s, as it was strongly combined with the issue of colonial rule, and had to be dominated by the image of nationalism. Also, this may be the reason why it has thus far remained intensive in Korean society.
Nowadays, as many years have passed, we have overcome the tendency to view the issue of ‘comfort women’ from a nationalistic perspective to a certain extent. In fact, over the past 20 years, many discussions have been held to deal with the issue of the 'comfort women' in the Japanese military from various perspectives, such as the issue of colonialism and wartime sexual violence. I believe that the criticism itself that ‘we should not view the issue from a nationalistic perspective only’ oversimplifies Korean society. Certainly, it is true that a universal feminist view is lacking as many people still approach the issue as, 'imagine your daughter or sister had suffered the same thing’.
Recently, issues have been raised against previous studies in various ways such as paying attention to the patriarchal nature of Korea and to the lives of the victims after liberation, going beyond nationalistic interpretation, which have led to the discovery of new facts. For example, immediately after liberation, under the rule of the United States Army Military Government in Korea, the sexual harassment of Korean women by U.S. forces occurred on trains. Unusually, the incident was reported in the newspaper, and at the time, the so-called society personage discussed how to address this issue. During this discussion, they brazenly argued that ‘since the sexual desire of the US military is inevitable, it would be desirable to create a comfort station such as the Japanese colonial era to protect ordinary women. This is the passage that demonstrates the patriarchal nature of Korean society. However, these sources have previously not been captured as historical sources. Since various views have been presented towards the issue of ‘comfort women’ in recent years, such historical facts have begun to be unearthed.
Apart from how the researches are actually being conducted, the reason why the nationalist perspective is dominant or that it feels dominant is that the domestic media mainly convey the news and issues with a focus on the movements that attempt to address the issue of the 'comfort women’ and the public encounters many articles that hold the Japanese government responsible. As a result, people may feel that the issue is still viewed from a nationalistic perspective. In addition, 28 years have passed since Kim Hak-soon's public testimony. In order for the issue of the 'comfort women' to remain as a lesson in history for Korean society, apart from the movement aimed at addressing the issue, our society needs to expand the reasons to include Korean society in the issue, that is, to regard it as my issue.
What can we speculate through the issue of 'comfort women’?
To raise one question, when we talk about resolving the issue of the ‘comfort women’, no public discussion has been carried out as to what the ‘resolution’ refers to. Since the early 1990s, the victims of the ‘comfort women' have continued to reveal themselves, and for over 28 years, they have spoken of a great variety of things, but this society has never discussed what would amount to the ‘resolution’ from whose perspective and from doing what and how.
When we discuss that the victims want an ‘apology’, questions are raised such as, “Why do they want an apology? Then who should apologize? Who is responsible for the issue of the 'comfort women'? Who was the leader at that time? Japanese military? Japanese people? Should all Japanese people apologize, just like the Repentance of the 100 Million that was once discussed in Japan? If they do so, will that change the past?” Certainly, the past cannot be changed. Even if they apologize a million times, and even if entire population of Japan repent, nothing will change the past. But the future may be impacted. That is what it means to demand an apology. For example, when the civil society movement activists are asked, "How did you come to become involved in this kind of movement?" regarding the issue of the 'comfort women' of Japan, they almost always answer, "The moment I learned of the issue of the 'comfort women', I couldn't live as before." In becoming fully aware of this issue the future of the individual was changed indefinitely. Demanding an apology carries a symbolic significance that we must never be allowed to deny our historical wrongdoings.
When it comes to the resolution, there are things shared within a big framework, such as an official apology, compensation for damage, memorial and commemoration, history education, and the prevention of any recurrences. In addition to this shared framework, when we discuss the solution, it seems necessary to discuss whether they are the only solutions. There can be various ways of addressing the issue, and based thereon, it would be better if the webzine could suggest the viewpoint that requires engaging in activities in various ways.
After the issue of “comfort women” was raised in Japan, many conscientious intellectuals of Japanese society have worked together to bring change to Japanese society through this issue. However, in Korea, compared to the tremendous amount of time, effort, and cost involved in the issue of Japanese military 'comfort women', considering as to how such a discussion has contributed towards the maturation of Korean society and the growth of (female) human rights in Korean society, it is difficult to give a high score. In moving past looking at the issue of 'comfort women' simply as an issue of the Japanese Empire and the Japanese military, we should have instead taken a step forward and considered the issue as a lever for Korean society to become a better society in the future, but unfortunately, we may have lacked such thoughts.
I do think Korean society has made some progress, though. For example, in 2014, the U.S. military sexual slavery and camp town women filed a lawsuit against the government of the Republic of Korea demanding compensation. They sought to hold the government responsible for the mobilization of women's sexuality by the state. As a result, a somewhat unsatisfactory ruling was delivered as they only partially prevailed. Nevertheless, the process in which Korean society shared an awareness of this issue, and the victims were aware that they were victims and raised the issue was largely affected by the movement and researches on the issue of ‘comfort women’.
At the last editorial meeting, it was very impressive to hear that Professor Lim Hyung-wha was part of it because she decided to take this issue as her own. What Professor Kim Heonju said earlier (the banality of evil seen from dry and icy documents) would also be the reason for taking this issue as my own. If I continue to ask what the issue of the 'comfort women' means to 'I' in the webzine, then this issue may enable the expansion of further reasoning, that seeks to go beyond the war crimes of the Japanese Empire.
In Korea, an entertainment culture that objectifies women is common, and men are often consumers of this culture. However, with these issues set aside, Korean society now confronts the issue of the 'comfort women'. In that sense, the gap between a Japanese military man who used the stations without compunction and an ordinary Korean man who is enraged against the 'issue of comfort women' may not be as large as expected. In fact, I think there is a continuity of the culture of the 'comfort women' in the culture of the military. As Professor So Hyeon-suk briefly mentioned about the related case, when the special comfort squad was established during the Korean War, its purpose was to increase military morale. It is in the same vein as the Japanese military creating the 'comfort women’. Another article in the Dong-A Ilbo on December 30, 1952 when the war was at its peak, provides that, in order to provide compensation at a state level for the soldiers who have returned home on leave, a comfort station should be established in each region to comfort the soldiers. As an extension, it caused the issue of yanggongju, and the mobilization of the US military sexual slavery in the 1960s and 1970s.
To be continued in Part II.
- Editorial Conference Part II – How to connect with the public over the issue of the 'comfort women'
Kwon Myung-ah/Kim Heonju/So Hyun-suk/Yeo Sun-ju/Yoon Myung-sook/Lee Seon-i /Lim Hyung-wha/Jo Gyeonghee/Jeong Yongsuk/Heo Yun
the Editorial Team of the Webzine