Here and now, what is the “issue” of Comfort Women for the Japanese military?

Posts Editorial Team of Webzine

  • Created at2022.07.25
  • Updated at2023.04.24

Now that a considerable amount of time has passed since the issue of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” was publicized, what are the questions young researchers are asking here? The webzine “Kyeol” arranged a conversation with them to find out how the Japanese military "Comfort Women" issue is being interpreted from the researchers’ point of view.

-Date: June 22, 2022 
-Chairpeople: Lee Hunmi, Hwang Jin Kyung, Lee Aan and So-jeong from the Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (RIMSS)
-Interlocutors: Baek Jaeye (PhD degree program in Political Science, University of Massachusetts-Amherst), Song Hyerim (PhD degree program, Interdisciplinary Program in Comparative Literature, Yonsei University), Jun So Hyeon (Master’s degree program in International Cultural Studies, Sungkonghoe University), Cheong Hee Yun (PhD degree program in History, University of Massachusetts-Amherst)


Q. You have all different majors and some of you do not deal with the Japanese military “Comfort Women” issue. What are your current areas of interest? We are also curious to know how you first came across the issue of the “Comfort Women”.


Cheong Hee Yun

My area of study is “the 19th and 20th century racial science networks and decolonization activist networks in Germany and Japan seen through remains”. When it comes to the “study on resolving the past”, "Comfort Women" is often considered as a way to understand state violence in Korea, However, the "Comfort Women" issue is seen worldwide as a problem of wartime sexual violence as well as a matter of universal human rights and common sense. I found the difference intriguing.

I came to face the issue of the “Comfort Women” as I was thinking about how to understand the difference between the realm of the “Comfort Women” which has become a totem like the Holocaust and the “Comfort Women” who constantly testify to state violence. The "Comfort Women" being a totem means that, like the Holocaust, they have become an indicator of universal human rights. In other words, everyone takes it for granted and doesn't ask any questions about it. The “issue” of comfort women that I experienced in the United States was a discourse that everyone had to defend. Meanwhile, the comfort women “issue” in Korea is a discourse that puts everyone to the test. It is because it raises the question of whether Korean society can fully understand the violence against colonial women. Beyond the simple solution of solidarity with the victims, this question seems to continue to sound an alarm and ask questions about what the Korean society is missing.


I learned that state violence still occurs thanks to the book “ Comfort Women of the Empire[1] and “controversy over the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance”[2]. The fact that the testimony of the survivors of the “Comfort Women” slip through the cracks in society is violence in itself. I strongly objected to some assertions that “the “Comfort Women” and the Japanese military had a comraderie”, and decided that I should study the language to understand the intentions behind the actions of “Comfort Women” victims trying to regain their dignity as survivors. I also wanted to delve into study in order to understand why Lee Yong-soo ended up criticizing the activist group she had been with all her life and chose to join a conservative party.

Song Hyerim

I would like to tell you about my research in three keywords. One is memory. I am interested in testimonies as a way of accepting the memories of others that I have not experienced as my own. And I am studying the testimonies affectively. Testimony is recognized as an objective and positivist language, yet I think there are many fragments that cannot be put into words when the victims were talking about their painful experiences. I think that those fragments are pooled into what we commonly call emotion, or affect in more comprehensive terms. I am conducting research so as to argue that the testimony should be reconceptualized in the language of affect.


Before beginning to study testimonials, I started reading the testimonies of the "Comfort Women", and focusing on the “utterance” of the witnesses. Then, I shifted my attention to the “listenability” - whether we can hear what they say or can’t say. Now that there are very few opportunities to hear the testimonies of the survivors, I think it is time to think about how to accept the testimonies that have been archived in materialized form as if they were my own memories. I would like to develop this matter into the possibility of sharing.

Jun So Hyeon

I became interested in “Comfort Women” for personal reasons. Busan is my hometown. It is a city where many people migrated during the Korean War and the Jeju April 3rd Incident. And it is a place where the Bu-Ma Democratic Protest[3] occurred. Also, due to the presence of Han Jin Shipbuilding & Construction (HJSC), labor movements took place on a daily basis. As a result, I grew up watching the victims hate each other as the damage and harm were passed on from one generation to another.


Before entering graduate school to study sociology, I met a woman who participated in the May 18th Gwangju Democratic Uprising. What puzzled me at that time was that I had the feeling that there was something not talked about behind the official narrative that said about the May 18th Gwangju Democratic Uprising in a certain way. Later, when I went to the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum, I had a similar experience and was comforted by it. I was curious to know why I was comforted by the May 18th Gwangju Democratic Uprising and the “Comfort Women” cases. Thinking about the connection between feminism and women’s history, I wanted to hear the stories of the women who survived. That's how I became interested in the "Comfort Women" issue. 

Baek Jaeye

When I was in college, I participated in “Peace Road”, hosted by the Museum of Sexual Slavery by Japanese Military affiliated with the House of Sharing. (The “Peace Road” is a workshop program in which Asian youths visit institutions and historical sites related to the Japanese Military "Comfort Women", hear various voices and carry out discussions.) In this workshop, I came to face the issue of the "Comfort Women" for the Japanese military. Toward the end of the program, I heard the testimony of Lee Ok-sun. That she grumbled, “testimony is also violence,” and “Now I’m too exhausted,” lingers in my mind to this day and prompts me to think about what we can do.


During my graduate studies, I became interested in the fact that the Allied Forces knew about the existence of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” system, yet did not take it to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal or any other post-war trials. And I wrote a master’s dissertation on it. However, as I was writing my thesis, I realized that it is crucial to look at the “Comfort Women” issue in more comprehensive terms although the history of the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ itself is important. So, I have expanded my areas of study to wartime sexual violence and international law related to it. To this end, I am pursuing a PhD program. Now, I am zeroing in on how the Japanese military "Comfort Women" movement as a social movement understands and mobilizes international law to achieve its goal. 

Q. We had many incidents and issues in Korea as there existed complex contexts, including the liquidation of past history, the process of recording victims' testimonies, accompanied by symbolic violence, etc. Among them was the case of Professor Park Yu-ha’s “ Comfort Women of the Empire” and the “controversy over the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance”. In line with these incidents, several women's movements such as the feminism reboot and the #MeToo movement were combined. We wonder how these issues may have affected the research process of young researchers, and how they were combined and dismantled in the process.


Baek Jaeye

I believe that the Japanese military "Comfort Women" issue cannot be regarded simply as a system or a collective experience that occurred in the past. Rather, it is related to wartime sexual violence that still occurs today, and it is a movement that gives insight into social movements as a whole. I think the experience and know-how accumulated by the Japanese military "Comfort Women" movement for the past 30 years, and the universality and specificity of the "Comfort Women" issue can provide valuable resources for many social movements that are emerging now. So, the Japanese military "Comfort Women" movement can act as a hub for movements including women's and minorities’ rights. If it expands externally and becomes a foundation for other movements, wouldn't it be necessary to dismantle the existing ones internally and reconfirm why we started this movement and what the core values ​​were in the first place?


Jun So Hyeon

It was the feminism reboot that affected me greatly. During the #MeToo movement, the survivors' words were denied and suppressed, reminding me of the denial of the testimonies of “Comfort Women”. I think the reason why this secondary damage occurs is because of an existing belief that women's words are not to be trusted due to lack of consistency. That perception creates continued denial in #MeToo and the "Comfort Women" issue. Because the “main battlefields“ (mainstream society such as the United States and Europe), where individuals like Professor John Mark Ramseyer at Harvard Law School continue to deny the issue, are extremely male-oriented, the issue of "Comfort Women" strikes me as an ongoing problem connected with feminism. Therefore, I thought that the speech and choices of the weak and women should be understood with much more consideration, and that speaking and listening should be relational.


Song Hyerim

I think testimony, at its core, is the language of struggle. That is why it is bound to carry political implications. And it seems that those who bear the burden of testifying are inevitably put in the position of the weak. The responsibility of testimony is always given only to the person concerned, and in that process, a hierarchy arises, and as a result, ethical problems or violence occurs. And I think they are all in line with the history of the "Comfort Women" movement, which has experienced all sorts of hardships. Wouldn't the history and the experiences of the "Comfort Women" movement give some insight into the ethical issues arsing within the recent feminist movement or minority movements? 

In fact, my worries deepen as I realize that the “Comfort Women” movement is centered around the victims directly involved. I think the strategy of raising awareness by counting survivors should be critically reviewed in that it is done by repeatedly summoning individual victims without regard for their dignity and privacy. I believe this is also intertwined with the issue of social awareness towards the victims of sex crimes. Therefore, I think the testimony movement will highlight the importance of balance where experiences and emotions of victims or people directly involved are duly acknowledged, and others participating in the movement carry out their roles without giving undue burden to the victims. 


Q. At a time when the testimonies cannot be heard directly from the survivors, we think there must be a responsibility that the remaining researchers need to fulfill. In that context, we understand that the generational shift is being talked about in the “Comfort Women” issue. Have you ever thought about this issue? 

Cheong Hee Yun

I believe many of the issues currently being discussed, including the problem of representation, the violence of positivist understanding, and the lack of language that allows witnesses to be witnesses, will remain the same even after all the “Comfort Women” survivors have passed away. However, now I feel that a different battle is about to unfold. I was told recently that there is a work of the testimonies of survivors created in tandem with AI technology. This work may be considered value-neutral by some, yet, I believe that if the exhibition of such testimony is organized without fully considering the circumstances or context, it could be a violent and dangerous course of action. Since the materials reproduced are the result of a specific arrangement with clear intentions in mind, I think we need to think about how to intervene in the creation and dissemination of those representations and make the testimonies become testimonies.

Song Hyerim

I have been to the interactive testimonial exhibition[4] that Chung Heeyun mentioned. I think that advanced technology and attempts to embrace it are necessary thanks to the ripple effect, however, it seems that there are unavoidable limitations. The contents of the exhibition covered more questions and answers about the past than those about the present. When we recreate or represent the lives of the "Comfort Women" victims, we still cling to their past experiences and call them witnesses. In other words, we simply tend to represent those victims only through their experiences of being "Comfort Women". There has to be a new way to break it down. So, I think the word “transition” is more appropriate, rather than the “generational shift”.

Jun So Hyeon

I think the process of interpreting, retelling, listening, and writing testimonies should continue. If this is a process that is to continue even after the victims pass away, I wonder why the “Comfort Women” issue should only be talked about as something that future generations need to deal with. “Why do I keep thinking about the comfort women issue? ‘What does it have to do with my life?” When I asked myself these questions, “Comfort” (Emmanuel Moonchil Park, 2022) gave me guidance to the answers. This movie retells the story and testimonies of Kim Soon-ak through the voices of activists in the 2010s. It is difficult to perfectly explain the experience of violence within an individual, so I think it is necessary for women of the next generation to talk about such experiences once again and to resonate them with their own lives. Wouldn't the process of accepting themselves and resisting the voices of oppression that have occurred in women themselves following the internalization of male-oriented norms help feminist activists now?

Baek Jaeye

I did not think that the generational shift means a generational change in a biological sense. As I mentioned earlier, it indicates an internal dissolution. I think a generational shift should occur in a way that dogmatized discussions, arguments, and approaches, i.e. the central points of movements and academia are segmented and dissolved. To this end, I believe that a sincere and careful reading of the testimonies and data accumulated so far should be followed by an open discussion on the core values ​​of the movement to resolve the issue of the Japanese military "Comfort Women".


* You may read the full version of <Conversation with Young Scholars 1: Here and Now, What Is the ‘Issue’ of Comfort Women for the Japanese Military?> in Korean edition of webzine Kyeol.

Here and Now, What Is the “Issue” of Comfort Women for the Japanese Military? (Part 1) - Facing the “Comfort Women” Issue

Here and Now, What is the “Issue” of Comfort Women for the Japanese Military? (Part 2) - Generation Shift in Dealing with the “Comfort Women” Issue

Here and Now, What is the “Issue” of Comfort Women for the Japanese Military? (Part 3) - Change in the Position of Quotation Marks: from “Comfort Women” to the “Issue”


  1. ^ After the publication of Professor Park Yu-ha's book “ Comfort Women of the Empire”(2013), a lawsuit was filed by 9 "Comfort Women" victims for false information and defamation, and is still ongoing.
  2. ^ In 2020, Lee Yong-soo, a victim of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” and women’s rights activist, disclosed that Yoon Mee-hyang, the chairman of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance’, which is a Korea’s representative “Comfort Women” civic movement organization, had embezzled donations and took advantage of the “Comfort Women” victims. This sparked controversy.
  3. ^ The Bu-Ma Democratic Protest was the democratization movement that took place in Gyeongsangnam-do, including Busan and Masan in October 1979. It served as a decisive opportunity to break down the Yushin regime of then President Park Chung-hee.
  4. ^ The Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (RIMSS) and a group of researchers developed a program, using artificial intelligence technology, and exhibited it in 2021-2022. This program allows visitors to experience the “Comfort Women” victim testimonies in a conversational form.

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