Meeting the first-generation researcher, to remember the first step - (3) Kang Jeong-sook

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  • Created at2019.03.16
  • Updated at2021.11.23

Interviewee : Kang Jeong-sook

Kang Jeong-sook
Kang Jeong-sook majored in the women's history of modern Korea, and currently works as a researcher at the Centre for East Asian History at Sungkyunkwan University. She contributed greatly to the early studies on the ‘Comfort Women’, by investigating the truth of the ‘Comfort Women’ issue, recording the testimonies of the ‘Comfort Women’ victims, etc. while working at the Korean Institute of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery and the Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization. Her main publications include 『The Fact-Finding Investigation of the Lists of Women Mobilized to Indonesia』, 「Study on the Course of Repatriation of Koreans who were Mobilized to Palembang, Indonesia during the Second World War」, 「The Responses of North Korea and Cultural Exchanges between North and South Korea on the Japanese Military Sexual Slavery」, 「A Study of the Status and Role of the Managers of Japanese Comfort Stations」, and so on.


Q. Please give us a brief introduction for the Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery webzine [Kyeol] readers who may not be familiar with your name. Please also tell us how you initially came across the ‘Comfort Women’ issue.

I began my studies by learning about the history of the national liberation movement (the peasant movement) during the Japanese occupation. As I studied women's history afterwards, I felt that this issue was important. Therefore, I joined the Korean Institute of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery in 1992 to start my investigative research. In 2000, I served at the Korean Commission for the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery and the Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization under the Japanese Imperialism Republic of Korea. In 2010, I received a doctoral degree via my studies [The Colonialism of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery]. Since then, I have been engaging in research activities, etc. related to women's history, including this topic.

The first time I discovered the ‘Comfort Women’ issue was through a novel I read in high school. I had a book about ‘Comfort Women’ at home, although I do not even remember its title now. I think it was a translated book that originated from Japan. It was a book that sexually objectified women to a severe degree. Reading it was so unpleasant that I burned it, because even though it was my father's book, I did not think it was an important one.

It was in the 1990s when I began to study the ‘Comfort Women’ issue in earnest. I started to write the part on ‘Comfort Women’ when 『Modern Korean Women's History』 was being written in the 1990s. While doing so, I thought that this issue was a concentration of various issues such as ethnicity, class, gender, etc. Coincidentally, that was also when the ‘Comfort Women’ movement was in full swing. I joined the Korean Institute of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery in March 1992. I was initially working for the Korean Women's Research Association, when one of the researchers from the Korean Institute of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery suggested that I join the institute, as there was a shortage of history researchers in the Korean Institute of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery. Therefore, I moved to the Korean Institute of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery in the belief that I was being dispatched there only briefly. However, my time there did not end up being brief. From that point onwards, I started to meet with the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims in earnest and ponder how to study the ‘Comfort Women’ issue.


Q. What aspect of the ‘Comfort Women’ issue did you want to focus on the most?

Since Japan kept denying the ‘Comfort Women’ issue, I tried to find evidence that would leave Japan with no choice but to acknowledge it. Therefore, I chose to study themes such as the prison camp register (e.g., 'registry documents') with the ‘Comfort Women’ victims' names written on them, a list of repatriates returning home, etc. These lists are supremely valuable materials showing the subtlety of the scenes at the time. Nevertheless, since the lists I discovered were not strictly the lists of ‘Comfort Women’, I had to prove whether those included on the list were real ‘Comfort Women’ or not. Therefore, I visited the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims in person and listened to their testimonies, and conducted cross-examination studies through other people's stories, including military workers, etc. I often felt rewarded as a researcher when they were finally confirmed to be true.

I was also interested in revealing the relationship between the state-regulated prostitution system and the ‘Comfort Women’ system. We should consider the term 'forced' mobilization. If 'force' refers to 'physical force' only, then I would not want to use the word 'force', because while there was forced mobilization which used physical force, there was also structural force that did not involve any physical force. In terms of structure, the ‘Comfort Women’ system is not different from the state-regulated prostitution system, as structural force and violence are embedded in the state-regulated prostitution system. Thus, we must understand the broad meaning of force. I think this part remains as a challenge. Our society is currently interested in distinguishing the ‘Comfort Women’ system from the state-regulated prostitution system, but we tend to refuse to listen when we hear that those two are interlinked. We need to invest every effort in explaining that to the public, but I see that the explanation keeps getting delayed. My wish and challenge for those viewing the ‘Comfort Women’ issue is for them to go beyond simply denouncing Japan, to expand the discussions on what problems our society need to be aware of and what moral standards our society should have.


Q. Who was the first surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victim that you met? I would like to know the circumstances related to the oral statements at the time.

Because that was the time when the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims were just beginning to come forward, they gave many short interviews in the form of coverage. Following that, we started to talk about producing a collection of testimonies. At that time, I met Kang Duk-kyung and Park Ok-ryeon. Their stories are featured in the First Volume of the Collection of Testimonies. I was about 35 or 36 at the time. Without a shadow of doubt, the victims saw me as a newlywed bride back then, which made them filter out what they were expressing. They did not think I would thoroughly understand their stories. They thought I was a generation too young to comprehend the bitter taste of their world.

The public was also very interested in the ‘Comfort Women’ issue at the time. Actually, it is not easy to study a topic if there is an excessive level of interest in it. There were the images of ‘Comfort Women’ that people conjured up, and these have not changed much still to this day. They had to be 'virgins'; they had to be 'forcefully' taken by the Japanese to suffer physical violence; and they had to be severely abused. Those are considered to be the general images of the ‘Comfort Women’ victims. The surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims were so vulnerable until then that they could not even tell anyone that they were the victims. In other words, they were probably afraid that people would not treat them as victims if their damages were even slightly different from the general images of the ‘Comfort Women’ victims. That may have discouraged the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims from speaking out. People tend to fit things into the image frames they have chosen even if they do not match the reality, because doing so feels the most comfortable and the safest. Therefore, it is important for researchers to verify the facts while listening to the testimonies with discretion.


Q. As you mentioned, there must have also been a lot of challenges for your research on ‘Comfort Women’ in the early days. Can you share the specific anecdotes, if you have any?

Around 1996, Japan's national broadcaster NHK asked me to conduct an investigation together with them in order to search for Kim So-ran, one of the victims mentioned in the records from a prison camp in the Philippines. Thus, I started looking for Kim So-ran in Japan while still carrying around with me the records from the prison camp in the Philippines. I carried out the investigation together with Yeo Soon-joo at the time. We found the archived family registers with the help of the myeon office of her hometown in South Korea. People were allowed to check the archived family registers at the time, although this is no longer the case now. We found out that Kim So-ran was in the United States. We managed to obtain her contact number in the United States, and reached out to a friend in Los Angeles for help at the time. We eventually found her.

However, there was something we did not take into account. I never thought about Kim So-ran’s position, as I was only concerned about validating the facts of the data. At the end, I thought, 'This must be a huge shock to her'. Fortunately, her husband knew all about her past when he married her. Also, she was actually living in South Korea but was in the United States only temporarily for her permanent residency. Therefore, I had the opportunity to hear her stories in South Korea. Nevertheless, as she had health problems at the time and was extremely cautious about this issue, she did not leave us a single picture. The name Kim So-ran is also an alias. Kim So-ran's oral statement is included in the Third Volume of the Collection of Testimonies, which features a small photo taken at the prison camp.

Researchers tend to do whatever it takes to find out what they want to find out. We often fail to consider how the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims would be feeling. However, the lives of the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims should be prioritized above anything else. I came close to such a case myself in Okinawa, when an activist based in Okinawa asked me, "How is that supposed to help the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims?" This made me realize, 'Ah, this is why I should learn from my mentors.' Thus, I stopped what I was doing right then. I recognized that the many things that we wanted to know about were not helpful for the life, future, etc. of the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims.


Q. Although the oral history method is currently recognized as a methodology in the historian community, the method was not viewed as important back then on the grounds of its lack of objectivity. In a way, it may have been the testimony of the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims that changed this view. Was there any aspect of your work on oral statements that you paid special attention to?

The surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims often fail to make precise distinctions between the different times and spaces, not only because their memories are old but also because they have trauma. We need to understand that. Therefore, we must constantly think and repeatedly question the concepts of time and space that we should orient for the specific contents of their oral statements. Their statements would often get tangled up with previous statements, or the previous statements would often change. We must go through this process to understand the context of the stories told by the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims. It is not that they lied, but that we should broaden our understanding of the oral statements by the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims.  

Also, we needed to take an extremely cautious approach to ensure that the Collection of Testimonies containing the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims' stories is not denied by the Japanese right wing. Nevertheless, the methodological aspect of presenting the oral history was vastly immature, because back then our society was not at the level which can employ a well-organized methodology. Thus, the best we could do was to assert that the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims had said so, and that our views on them were so and so.

Most of the resolutions for social problems are preceded by relevant movements and are followed by research. However, if the research is overlooked while the movement is carried out alone, then the researchers may end up not being able to say what they need to say. For example, if a movie or play based on a historical event is produced without sufficient historical research, it tends to focus on excessively provocative presentations and can drift apart from the truth. Similar problems can be witnessed in the ‘Comfort Women’ research.


Q. You mentioned earlier that it is important to listen to other people besides the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims, such as military workers. Could you please elaborate more on this?

We can extract the better coordinates of time and space from the military workers who had worked on the field at the time than from the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims. These people include military personnel, military workers, laborers, etc. who were mobilized in the area where the ‘Comfort Women’ victims were at. These former military workers can tell us about the parts we are confused about as we were not alive at the time. Also, some of these former military workers even visited the comfort stations themselves. They cannot say who these ‘Comfort Women’ were, but they can tell us about how many comfort stations and how many people there were. We can conduct cross-examinations and obtain much richer stories by listening to their accounts together with the testimonies of the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ victims. Therefore, I also investigated and studied the military workers, but I missed numerous important opportunities and many people because I lacked the research funds. That was just before they also passed away, so the lack of timing proved to be an immense loss. Not many of them would still be alive now.


Q. What would you like to say to the younger scholars who are currently studying the ‘Comfort Women’ issue?

Researchers normally begin their studies from the area they are interested in. I think that if the direction and contents of your research are different from what you had expected initially, then it is better to stop for a while and practice thinking by yourself. It would be good to practice searching and researching in your own way if something feels a little bit odd to you. Of course, it would be even better if you have your own beliefs about it. For example, there are studies that were written with nationalistic sentiments. I think researchers should be able to have a sense of doubt: they should be able to agree with those studies at an emotional level while spotting inconsistencies from historical data. I think that is the only way to conduct fresh research and make it meaningful. Otherwise, we would just end up following the crowd and no new research would ever be created in such a way.


Q. I think what you mentioned is very important. Certain frameworks created by the existing research itself can sometimes be a barrier for the young scholars, and I think it would be important to boldly raise questions about them rather than getting stuck in simply by pursuing them. Then, what direction should the Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery take for the future?

I think that in order to begin a study on the ‘Comfort Women’ issue, one must commit to continuing the study for at least 10 years. That is, researchers must be nurtured on a long-term basis, not through short-term projects. Researchers tasked with research should be given a chance to continue with the second and third rounds of the research, instead of insisting that they simply finish the research after giving one presentation about the research. The ‘Comfort Women’ issue is a very difficult subject unless one continues to study it. One needs to pull out the information from a speck of data and produce an interpretation from it. One would find it difficult to see the big picture as things seem small. Therefore, researchers need to be supported so that they can continue with their research. As we now have a place such as the Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery, I hope this institute will provide steady support. It is important not to rush into producing research results in a short period of time, but to continue with the research diligently. One must conduct research sincerely in order to discover new findings. Expecting to come across something significant within a short period of time will result in misinterpretation. I think that is something the researchers need to be extremely careful about.


Interviewer: So Hyun-sook (Head of the Research Team, Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery, 2019)
Interviewee : Kang Jeong-sook
Arrangement : Slowalk


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