Beyond Nationalism: The Ongoing History of the “Comfort Women” and Gender Politics

Posts Carol Gluck Eun-Shil Kim

  • Created at2022.08.11
  • Updated at2022.11.25

The Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (RIMSS) has organized a special discussion with historian Carol Gluck and feminist anthropologist Eun-Shil Kim to commemorate the International Memorial Day for Comfort Women, which falls on August 14. In this conversation, we explore the meaning of the glocal space of solidarity created by the “comfort women” movement at multiple levels, including those of civil society, the state, and the global context.

Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History Emerita at Columbia University, has been working on issues related to modern Japan, twentieth-century international history, World War II, history-writing, and public memory in Asia and the world. Her recent work includes “What the World Owes the Comfort Women” (2021) and “National Pasts as Political Presents: War Memory in East Asia” (2022).

Eun-Shil Kim has been a professor of women’s studies at Ewha Womans University since 1995. She has conducted research in the field of the embodiment and representation of women’s bodies, sexuality and biopower, the formation of the Korean nation-state, nationalism and gender politics, and globalization. Currently, she is working on issues that relate to gendered and sexual violence against women during Korea’s colonial period and the Cold War. 

Carol Gluck, Eun-Shil Kim


Encountering the “Comfort Women” Issue

How did you develop an interest in the “comfort women” issue as a historian and as a feminist scholar?


Eun-Shil Kim

When I returned from the United States in 1993, I was invited as a speaker at the 10th anniversary conference of the Korean Association of Women’s Studies, where the main theme was “Prospects and Tasks of Korean Women’s Studies.” While presenting my paper, I questioned what “Korean women’s studies” was and how it was defined. I argued that nationalism was operating in the definition of what Korean women’s studies was. As an example, I examined the first collection of testimonies by military comfort women[1] and discussed how nationalist discourse was deeply implicated in constructing the way in which those testimonies were described. My remarks had a significant impact and resulted in an intense backlash. That led to me being branded as a “feminist who is critical of nationalism.” Since then, I’ve been known in academia as the Korean feminist scholar who attacks nationalism from a feminist perspective. Whenever discourses on feminism vs. nationalism are mentioned, I am often mentioned as someone representing the side of feminism.

At the time, people would say to me, “I don’t understand it. Why do you criticize nationalism to advocate for women? Without nations, how can women be saved? The ‘comfort women’ are women, but at the same time they are Korean. Why do we separate ‘women’ from the ‘nation’? They should be part of Korea as a nation.” I answered by saying, “Women are the nation. Women are the people of Korea. What I’m saying is that the issue of comfort women will be difficult to resolve if the nation is regarded as ‘representative’ and women are seen as a subordinate part of the nation, while women’s interests are subordinated to the interests of the nation. The nation must represent the interests of women. It is problematic to say that the nation comes first, in the sense that women are supposed to remain silent to represent the interests of the nation.” That was the first time I got into the “comfort women” issue. It was in 1993. My paper “Women and Discourses of Nationalism: Critical Readings of Culture, Power and Subject”[2] was published in 1994, and it’s been said that the paper had a lot of influence on young female graduate students and young researchers. Many young women or young feminists read this paper and have the idea that “comfort women” should be approached in terms of women and their sexuality, state, and class.

Carol Gluck

I came to the “comfort women” from the larger issue of war memory and the politics of memory, at first in Japan and between Japan and other Asian countries. My concern from the beginning was the way memory relates to history. The gap between what I knew as history and what was out there in public memory turned me in the direction of studying the processes by which memory is created, maintained, and changed. 

Pursuing a mission to connect what I call “good history” to “good memory,” I realized that although I was talking about a global conflict—a World War—nearly all memories of the Second World War were articulated, practiced, and concentrated within national borders, within the framework of the nation. Because that made no historical sense to me, my watchword became “to keep the world in World War II.” So I studied the processes of creation, maintenance, and change of public memory in different places. 

My first goal was to understand what I call the “operations of memory” at work in contemporary societies. Both individual and collective memories are created at one time but maintained and changed over the course of years. Studying how memory has changed might enable me to address a second, and to me increasingly urgent, question: how is it possible to change public memory? How, for example, to keep the “world” in World War II in the face of relentlessly national narratives? How to engage in the process of memory-making as it happened in the hope of better connecting history to memory, or the past to the present and future? It is in that context that I encountered the “comfort women” issue in 1991, and I have stayed with it ever since.

Like the Holocaust, the “comfort women” emerged into public memory in a process that occurred over time. After the end of the war in 1945, the genocide of the Jews was not at the top of people’s minds in European memories of the war; that did not happen in most places until the 1970s and afterward. The “comfort women” did not become prominent in public memory until the 1990s. They were no secret: people knew about them, they had appeared in novels and plays and visual art. In the case of Japanese “comfort women,” they were even discussed on the floor of the Japanese Diet. It wasn’t a question of knowledge but of lack of presence in public memory. Yet by the turn of the century, the “comfort women” had become known around the world as a traveling trope for sexual violence against women, as the Holocaust was for genocide.

I first looked at the “comfort women” issue as an example of how memory change happened—how it moved across countries, within countries, across groups, within groups. Although my path to the subject may have been different, you’ll see that Professor Kim and I share a concern about the relation between gender and the nation.

Eun-Shil Kim

As a feminist anthropologist, I was interested in how the sexual violence and pain inflicted on the bodies of the former Japanese military comfort women were told and represented. I was interested in what was being said when, where, and to whom, as well as what power was controlling the narratives of the comfort women. I was also interested in how the stories of their experiences were represented in the collections of testimonies or documentaries. In the 1990s, 2000s, and today, the contents of the testimonies of the comfort women and the way listeners/audiences understand and interpret them have changed. I think we share an understanding about the changes in the situations of the “comfort women” over time.

The Statues of Peace in Berlin, Germany ©Yonhapnews


When a Statue Travels: Context and Positionality

Can the issue of Japanese military sexual slavery travel beyond the national level? The Statues of Peace worldwide show the transnational status of the Japanese military “comfort women” issue. In that regard, what is your opinion on the global circulation of these statues?


Eun-Shil Kim

The “girl of peace” statue symbolizes the coerced sexual violence and hardship suffered by “comfort women” in South Korea. The statue represents two aspects: one symbolizes the universal and general aspect of the sexual violence and coerced rape experienced by women during war, and the other is Korean-specific and contextual in the sense that innocent girls were forcibly taken away from colonial Korea to military comfort stations to become “comfort women.” When the statue of the young girl was created in Korea, a strong focus was on representing the coercion and harm experienced by Korean comfort women as part of a narrative in which innocent girls were cheated, kidnapped, and deceived in employment and sent to the comfort stations. It was a powerful image and message. However, there has been criticism of the statues as a symbol that silences the experiences and stories of various women who were also forced into the military comfort stations. As a result, the image only represents certain women as military “comfort women” victims.

I was also critical of the statues at first because I saw the potential for them to reproduce and reduce the victims of the comfort women in a specific way. However, as time passed, people thought that the statue did not need to represent all the various experiences of the military comfort women, and that it could represent women who were mobilized for war and suffered as a result of sexual violence. I thought it would be meaningful if the statue of a girl offered a way for people to contemplate sexual violence against women during war. Although representations begin with some particular initial intention, they do not always mean the same thing to everyone. The meaning changes, depending on the time, the space, and the person who encounters the representation.

I think there are many issues that you can raise about the Statues of Peace being raised in various places around the world. When you send a statue of a girl from Korea to another country, there is a strong aspect of criticizing the Japanese government for not recognizing or apologizing for the “comfort women” issue during the colonial era in Korea. Korean nationalism is strongly implicated here. However, in the case of the statues raised in places like Glendale, San Francisco, and Berlin, the meaning of the peace statue to local people is not same as in Korea. The message of the statue is created when it comes together with people and the history of the locale. 

Carol Gluck

I think you may be asking a lot of a statue. On the one hand, you question what is symbolized because it reduces the “comfort women” to an innocent young girl, which is certainly a reductive view. On the other hand, you say that the statue loses its meaning because in Berlin it stands for sexual violence in general. Maybe we are asking a statue to do more than it can do in terms of not being reductive, on the one hand, and more than it can do in ensuring a consistent meaning over time and space on the other.

A critique of the symbolized innocence might make sense in the Korean context of patriarchy and emphasis on chastity. When a similar statue is erected in Mitte in Berlin, the context is different; visitors neither know about its meaning in Korea nor see it with the same eyes. The symbol itself is not the same in California or Berlin. 

This applies to monuments and memorials in general, which tend to be both reductive and malleable in meaning, but when a statue travels, it may be reductive or meaningful in different ways. In Berlin Mitte, the statue is perceived less as an innocent Korean girl than as a symbol of female sex slavery, wartime rape, and sexual violence anywhere in the world. It also recently has been a place where Asian immigrants gather to solidify their community, ascribing yet another meaning to the Statue of Peace.

Eun-Shil Kim

Definitely, the Statue of Peace has symbolism. The statue as a symbol represents the damage and sexual violence of war. Racially, it represents the Asian woman in white-dominant societies. In this sense, the space of a statue in Western society can be a meeting place for diaspora members, migrants, and minorities, representing people from non-Western countries, including ones in Asia, and those who are suffering without necessarily knowing the history of the “comfort women.”

As Professor Gluck said about the process of memory, public memory changes. After witnessing the process of public memory changing over time, I’ve come to think that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to raise the statues abroad. Why not? Some of the history of the “comfort women” is maintained and changed, and at the same time the statue’s history becomes distorted, modified, and transformed in this context.

Carol Gluck

In Germany, the statue may relate more to immigrants than to ethnic politics, which is a focus of the “comfort women” issue in the United States, or it may relate to forgotten horrors of the past, as it did for the Armenian-Americans who supported the Statue of Peace in Glendale, California. The context was different in each case, and context matters.

One has to give credit to the Japanese government, because if it did not make such a noisy fuss protesting every statue that goes up in any country, the statues—and hence the “comfort women”—would be less well-known, and the statues would not as effectively carry the symbolic meaning of “organized sex slavery” to global audiences. In that sense, the Japanese government has done the “comfort women” movement a favor: it is as if every time it protests one statue, another statue goes up somewhere else. This is a perfect statue-creating policy. 

The location of the statues also matters, since it reflects the locality, whether it is inner-city Berlin, the suburb of Glendale, or a public park outside Atlanta. The meanings that attach to these different monuments also change over time. Monuments and statues that were meaningful to one generation might find subsequent generations fifty years later hanging their clothes to dry on them. It is probably a good thing that the Statues of Peace are only a part, and not the main carrier, of “comfort women“ memory across time and space.

Concerning the statue in Berlin, there have been criticisms that German society has been silent for a long time about its wartime sexual violence at the end of World War II, especially the fact that Soviet troops raped their citizens.


Eun-Shil Kim

There are various forms of sexual violence against women in all wars. However, even in war-related histories and studies, sexual violence has not been addressed to date. The issue of comfort women was an important catalyst even for German feminist scholars to raise and investigate the issue of sexual violence at the end of World War II. There were debates and controversies surrounding the Statue of Peace in Berlin, but the German issue of wartime sexual violence was not discussed in conjunction with it. The Statue of Peace was a problem between Japan and Korea, and it was particularly a problem for women in colonial Korea as the weaker parties.

Although it cannot be generalized, I assume that when (other) Asian women’s issues are approached in the West or Japan, there is a tendency where it is as if women’s issues become “non-Western” or “Asian.” I feel like there may be some issue here, especially one in which gender becomes outsourced as something that is “not their problem.” Along with this context, there is also the matter of the German issue of sexual violence not being discussed together with the Korean comfort women issue.  I mean that when they deal with certain issues, they do so by embracing other countries’ problems in a way that illustrates how “we are different.” Sometimes it does not seem to be easy for them to discuss the problems of countries less “developed” than theirs. I find myself asking if gender-related problems in Asia or Africa are not seen as being the same as their own problems.

Carol Gluck

I agree with you, and this is true of many international or transnational views. It’s more comfortable, for example, to criticize racism in the United States than to confront racial discrimination in one’s own society. This kind of national myopia is nothing new, arising as it does from a lack of knowledge or understanding about other countries. We are affected by stereotypes too.

This also brings to mind the old proverb warning that “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” It is not really the case that German scholars and memory activists are outsourcing their wartime experience of rape at the hands of the Red Army. It is true that the topic was politically taboo in the former East Germany, where most of the Soviet rapes had occurred, and also true that many German women remained silent for many years, as did their counterparts in southern Italy, France, and other places. But the subject is now a part of German public memory, while efforts continue both in scholarly research (see Crimes Unspoken by Miriam Gebhardt, which addresses the sexual violence committed by other Allies too) and in seeking belated recognition for the victims.

It might be said that some South Korean activists are “in-sourcing” the nearly universal experience of wartime sexual violence by focusing it so centrally on the “comfort women.” Of course, the context was different—different in Berlin in 1945, different in southern Italy in 1944, different during the Dirty War in Argentina in the 1970s, different in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s. Yet wherever it occurred, wartime rape was also depressingly the same. Military brothels, too, were not uncommon, even if others were not as extensive and brutal as Japan’s “comfort women” system. Also, of course, there were tens of thousands of “comfort women” from occupied countries across Asia. This is not only a Korean issue or memory.

Eun-Shil Kim

You could argue that “outsourcing” is not the proper term here. But I want to be a little bit critical about how gender issues are always displaced. That’s the reason I mentioned it.

Professor Gluck made an interesting and insightful point in mentioning how some South Korean activists are “in-sourcing” the nearly universal experience of wartime sexual violence by focusing on the “comfort women.” In fact, it should be pointed out that there is a problem where Korean scholars are unable to explore other cases around the world in depth and establish solidarity with sexual violence in wartime or conflicts that take place globally. Although many societies where sexual violence has occurred during conflicts have been affected by the Korean military “comfort women” movement, I think it should be acknowledged that the Korean “comfort women” movement does not have much experience in establishing links or doing research on other cases around the world.

Carol Gluck

When people with different concerns in different contexts join to speak about the same thing, that’s where the magic happens. That, for example, is how the “comfort women” became “sex slaves,” a term used emphatically by international lawyers and feminists in their reports in the 1990s, and now of course used widely—and opposed vigorously by the Japanese government, which only further entrenches its use.


“Comfort Women” Memory in the Future and Women as Actors

Carol Gluck

I am not the same kind of an activist as many members of the audience here. But we agree that the “comfort women” system was a system of sexual slavery that never should have happened and should never happen again. Here is my point: I want the memory of the “comfort women” to do work in the world. I want the memory to make things different for women now and in the future. I believe it is possible for the memory of what these women experienced to help make that kind of system, and sexual exploitation and violation, less frequent, more criminal, and so on. I’m an instrumentalist when it comes to public memory. I want memory to do work: to do work on behalf of the victims and—even more so as the victims pass away—to do work for women in the future. So that’s why I prize connecting across national borders and collaborating with people I don’t necessarily agree with in other respects. 

It is critical, and courageous, for the victims to speak out, tell their stories, and make their rightful claim to be included in public memory, but testimony in itself is never enough. It almost always takes other kinds of actors to bring such experience into public memory and make it work, so to speak. That is what happened with the “comfort women” issue between 1991 and today. One last point about women as actors: women have been suppressed, impressed, and oppressed in nearly every society in the modern world—an unfortunate fact. But women are also actors, and they are always acting. Feminism is one of their actions, one of the things that has helped to bring about change, but so have the voices and views of many other actors (including men). The “comfort women” issue exemplifies this, both in the victims’ willingness to speak and also in their advocates and memory activists working on their behalf.

Eun-Shil Kim

This is a wonderful idea that I learned from you. But there is a question I want to ask you about the “actors.” We know of many activists who are not victims, but who work on behalf of victims. So they are activists and actors. But now we are encountering some differing voices and conflicts surrounding the actors. In that case, we are talking about the victim’s voices. What do you think about this kind of contestation and these tensions among the actors surrounding the “comfort women” issue?

Yong-Soo, Lee (Women’s Rights Activist, Survivor of “Comfort Women”) / The Moral Witness ©Cornell University Press


Carol Gluck

I think the Lee Yong-soo case is interesting for several reasons. There’s a context for her recent interventions, partly to do with the scandal in the main South Korean advocacy organization and partly arising from other changes, including the 2015 agreement between Japan and Korea. When you look at the actions of former “comfort women” across the years—though many of them have since died—it is clear that Lee Yong-soo is not alone in her feistiness. Her recent actions benefit from her persistence, the trigger of the organizational scandal, and changing times.

As for activists fighting against activists, I think that’s fine. If it brings more dynamism to the issue, all the better. Writing about Holocaust memory, Carolyn Dean defines “moral witnesses” as people who speak on behalf of what she calls “global victims,” to the point that sometimes the activists’ voices are the only ones that are heard. (The Moral Witness, 2019) She suggests there is a problem if activists begin to act as witnesses in place of the witnesses themselves. These are questions then to ask all activists: What are we doing, why are we doing it, for whom are we doing it, and what is our self-interest or personal relation to what we are doing? Activism isn’t necessarily an open-hearted, well-intentioned, and unpositioned action; we are all prisoners of context. 

We have Lee Yong-soo, who is alive and determined to speak up, but in ten years the survivors will be gone. Yet we will still have the problem of advocates and activists speaking on behalf of “comfort women” memory; we need to question our motives. It’s a matter of honesty, of intellectual and political honesty, and I think it’s a real issue.

Special Discussion for the 2022 International Memorial Day for Japanese Military “Comfort Women”


When discussing sex discrimination and wartime sexual violence, we should consider Korea’s unique situation as a country that is heavily militarized due to its political division. The priority on military matters and security has led to the construction of a patriarchal social structure. Prof. Gluck’s research interest in Japanese military sexual slavery began with World War II, and you have specialized in Japan after the war. How do you see the connection between the militarized situation, patriarchal social structure, and sexual discrimination?


Carol Gluck

Not only in Korea but elsewhere too, the Second World War did not end in 1945. Territorial division and loss, forced exchanges of people, anti-colonial struggles—all of these things continued for years, for decades in some places. In this respect, East Asia and Eastern Europe are similar, both having returned to war memory and confronted the past anew after the Cold War ended, nearly always in nationalistic terms. I would also mention that Korea is not the only place that is highly militarized and masculinized.

The politics of war memory is as heated in Eastern Europe as it is in East Asia today, both within but especially between countries. Denialists, masculinists, leaders wielding history as an ideological instrument and political weapon—all of these are present in both regions, acutely so in the case of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. One notable contrast is that because of the “comfort women” movement, this so-called “women’s issue” possesses a greater public prominence in South Korea than in other places. In this respect, one might say the “comfort women” issue in South Korea is distinctive, though I’m not sure I see this as a consequence of a particular national history.

What can we do with the comfort women’s history at the national and transnational levels?


Eun-Shil Kim

At the national level, I think the ideas and social system around sexual violence against women need to change in Korean society. We must change the male-dominated sexual norms and practices in order to combat sexual violence during times of peace. Sexual violence in peacetime and sexual violence in wartime are related and connected. Therefore, the #MeToo movement among young women represents a very important form of practice to contemplate and to stop the widespread sexual violence that is taking place in society. It is difficult to stop sexual violence against women during wartime if the scripts and practices of male-centered sexuality or the structure of desires are not also changed in peacetime. The #MeToo movement in Korea, in which young women are implicated with the Japanese military “comfort women” victims, is very important. The #MeToo movement, which addresses sexual violence as a problem, and the #WithYou movement expressing solidarity with victims of sexual violence are important political movements that seek to solve both the issue of sexual violence in peacetime and the issue of the “comfort women” during wartime. I believe that it can be a way of practicing the ethics of affirmation. At the transnational level, as Professor Gluck said, the Japanese military sexual slavery issue does not generate the same memories because it travels through such different contexts. Also, we have to note that the transnational movement of “comfort women” may contribute to changing society in a positive way by guiding more people to pay attention to the Japanese military sexual slavery issue. Therefore, we can achieve a more meaningful cause when we connect these changes.

Carol Gluck

I agree with everything you said. I would like to underline just two things. The first one is that sexual violation in war is just the extreme end of a continuum of sexual violence against women that includes domestic violence, which is endemic, and all forms of violence against women in everyday life. Thus, part of the work that the memory of the “comfort women” can do in the world is to help us to think about violations of women’s rights on a continuum and to combat those violations in everyday life, not only in extreme situations of conflict and war. That means trafficking, domestic violence, and as you said, the #MeToo movement. Sexual harassment in the workplace is an instance of something that goes on all the time in women’s lives from the time they are very young and can be extremely violent, and indeed murderous, as they grow older.

As a second point, I think we should do more to connect transnationally and try to find common ground. Common ground doesn’t mean agreement; it means asking, What is the goal of our work? What is the common ground that we are willing to work together to improve? We need to act in our specific national, local, and regional contexts, of course, but concerted transnational collaboration also holds considerable promise, not least because the “comfort women” issue is so compelling as a cause. It would be good not only to have solidarity conferences in Asia about the “comfort women,” but to get together transnationally and pose the common question: “What can we do with this memory now?” 

The second quarter of the 21st century will soon begin; now is the time to work together. I believe that effective transnational activism has a chance both to influence policy in the future and to honor the memory of the “comfort women” and their suffering in the past.



  1. ^ “Korean Comfort Women Forcefully Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery,” The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, Seoul: Hanul, 1993.
  2. ^ Eun-Shil Kim, “Women and Discourses of Nationalism: Critical Readings of Culture, Power and Subject”, Korean Women's Studies, Vol. 10(1994), pp. 18-52.

Related contents

Writer Carol Gluck

Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History Emerita at Columbia University, has been working on issues related to modern Japan, twentieth-century international history, World War II, history-writing, and public memory in Asia and the world. Her recent work includes “What the World Owes the Comfort Women” (2021) and “National Pasts as Political Presents: War Memory in East Asia” (2022).

Writer Eun-Shil Kim

Eun-Shil Kim, Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies and the Dean of the College of Social Sciences at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea. Since 1995, she has been involved in helping to develop the intellectual community of feminist scholars in Asia while continuing to explore Asian women’s studies as transnational feminist practice. She also served as President of the Asian Association of Women’s Studies (AAWS) from 2016 to 2019. She has conducted research in the fields of women’s bodies, sexuality, and biopower; the formation of the Korean nation-state and nationalism; the embodiment of the experience of comfort women; and the “holomong” (widows) of Jeju April 3. Currently, she is working on the study of feminist politics of knowledge/power, post-development, and gender and state violence during the colonial period and the Cold War era.