The Past and Future of Testimony Presented by the “Comfort Women” (1): Testimony as Evidence and as Actions

Posts Lee Jieun

  • Created at2022.09.20
  • Updated at2023.05.22

Kim Hak-sun’s testimony, given on August 14, 1991, played a crucial role in raising public awareness of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” issue. Her testimony sparked civic movements, and the academic world responded with scholarly practices, such as historical records excavation. The survivors’ testimonies had a significant social impact and served as a powerful message delivered directly to the public. However, on the other hand, testimonies have also been susceptible to arbitrary editing and interpretation according to the intention or purpose of the listener, resulting in their exploitation to distort history and attack victim-survivors. Despite the fact that the collection and research of testimonies were initially developed through close cooperation between the civic society and academia, a growing gap in perception between the two sides occurred in the process of responding to the repeated attacks of historical denialism. In short, testimony is the most well-known aspect of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” issue for the public, yet simultaneously, the least understood. In this respect, examining the history of the academic world’s concerns about testimonies is expected to facilitate a deeper and broader understanding of testimonies.

In the early stages of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” movement, the most urgent task was to collect and record testimonies. This was partially attributed to the advanced age of the witnesses, but more significantly due to the insufficiency of historical materials and the research base on the “comfort station” system. In fact, the commentary on “Korean Comfort Women Forcefully Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery 1,” the 1st collection of testimonies published in 1993 by the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (hereinafter referred to as the Korean Council, now known as the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan), states that “the main focus of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” issue is to first clarify the truth,” emphasizing that the “feasible and prioritized task of approaching this issue from Korea’s standpoint is to revive the victims’ experiences.”[1] Consistent with this planning intention, the testimonies included in the 1st collection are reconstructed in chronological order and edited in vernacular style to help readers comprehend the conscription process, the “comfort station” system, and more. Additionally, since the early movement was intertwined with legal struggles, the testimonies’ character as “evidence” was strongly emphasized.

However, as academic research to uncover the reality of “comfort stations” accumulated and awareness of women’s oral life history advanced in the 1990s, testimony research expanded beyond the value of testimonies as “evidence,” and began to focus on the oral performance of testimony itself. From this perspective, testimony is no longer a monologue repeating the same content, but rather an act of representing the testifier’s past experiences in their own language, within the context of the relationship with the listener, and the testimony collection is a product of mutual dialogue and communication between the investigator and victim.[2] When the focus is placed on the orality of the testimony, not only the unique tone of the witness but also nonverbal elements such as facial expressions, gestures, pauses, and silence become part of the testimony.[3] Therefore, the methodology for transcribing it into written text also becomes an important part of testimony research. It can be seen that the testimony collections published after 2000 introduce various symbols to reflect the meaning of nonverbal elements as much as possible while preserving the oral language of the witness. The result of such contemplation is shown in the “march of countless open but unclosed quotation marks”[4] in the 4th volume of testimony collection and the “explanatory notes” in the 6th volume, “Stories that Make History,” which attempted to express the length and intensity of the witnesses’ oral testimony.[5]

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As testimony came to be recognized as an “act,” academic research was also conducted on the psychological and cognitive changes that testifying had on the person concerned.[6] As the understanding of testimony deepens, changes in the act of testimony according to the nature of the speech location or the nationality, gender, or age of the audience are not understood as flaws but rather as the witness’s subjectivity. However, attacks on the veracity of testimony often obscure or distort this development in perception. Even the general public, who became interested in the “Comfort Women” issue, tends to regard testimony as less credible if it changes. This is partly because “testimony as evidence” is strongly imprinted on the public, but also because the subjectivity of the witness is often unknowingly ignored. People often refer to witnesses as “living evidence,” but they are inclined to recognize them only as “evidence,” deleting the meaning of “living.” Therefore, it is important to remember that witnesses are not passive beings who simply repeat the same words, but subjective beings who reconstruct and reinterpret their experiences.

Research on testimony has constantly evolved, responding to attacks from history denialists and overcoming limitations in listening to and interpreting testimonies. As part of this, since the late 1990s, criticisms have been raised that only testimonies fitting the typical victim images are heard and overrepresented, but some of them have led to the erasure of colonial differences and the exoneration of the Japanese government.[7] In that sense, it is crucial to critically examine the fact that in Korean society, the victimhood of “Comfort Women” is often emphasized through the lens of chastity norms, as opposed to dismantling them, and explore the studies that reveal the diverse subjectivities of victim-survivors that cannot be included in the label of “Grandmothers” through testimonies and the ones that identify the continuation of victimization from the past to the present.[8] Meanwhile, the factual veracity of testimonies is proven not through inalterability or consistency but through mutual complementarity with history. Historical academia has accumulated research that seeks historical clues from victims’ testimonies, fills gaps in testimony through historical context and empirical data, and reconstructs the complete picture of victimization.[9] Through such research, testimony expands from a statement of a victim’s personal experience to testimony for those who were not able to return. This achievement of historical research will serve as a basis for listening to testimonies in depth beyond the narrow standard of “fact verification.” 

Recently, studies have expanded the scope of research on testimonies beyond oral testimony: testimonies presented in the forms of “memoirs” and “essays”; the critical examination of the memoirs of veterans. Some studies also scrutinize how testimonies of “Comfort Women” were represented in the past by analyzing interview articles that were exploited for obscenity by publication commercialism prior to 1991 and newly excavated essays of survivors.[10] It is worth noting research that sheds light on the soldiers’ awareness of “Comfort Women” and reveals the value of historical records in the “Comfort Women” eyewitness accounts appearing fragmentary in the war memoirs of soldiers.[11] As the Japanese military “Comfort Women” movement has continued for more than 30 years and their testimonies have accumulated, there are ongoing efforts to examine changes in the perception of testimony by focusing on the early stages of the movement as well as to critically review the process of collecting and recording testimonies.[12] Additionally, there is a tendency to pay attention to the autonomous movements that emerge from each area, with a critical mind that the “Comfort Women” movement and its research have been centered on the Korean Council. Research on regional “Comfort Women” movements is expected to further enrich testimony records.


  1. ^“Forcibly Taken Korean Military ‘Comfort Women’ 1,” published by the Korea Chongshindae’s Institute, a research organization connected to the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, Hanul Academy, 1993, p. 15.
  2. ^Testimony Team of the Korean Committee on the 2000 Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, “How to Read this Collection of Testimonies,” “Forcibly Taken Korean Military ‘Comfort Women’ 4: History Rewritten through Memories,” Pulbit, 2001, pp. 35-36, (Only the book title and page are indicated below).
  3. ^Lee Seonhyeong, “Methodological reflections on testimonies of Japanese military Comfort Women,” Master’s thesis, Seoul National University, 2002.
  4. ^The 4th Collection of Testimonies states that “the quotation marks indicate that the contents of the testimony were not edited by the editor, but were composed by quoting the words of the testifier,” and that it is a “symbol reminding readers that the testifier is speaking now and urges them to listen to her and to become witnesses as we do” (“Forcibly Taken Korean Military ‘Comfort Women’ 4,” p. 35).
  5. ^A research team at the War and Women’s Human Rights Center affiliated with the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan’s Military, “Stories that Make History,” Women’s Human Rights, 2004.<>
  6. ^Hwang, Eun-jin, “A Study on the Process of Consciousness Change of the Japanese Military ‘Comfort Women’ Victims,” Master’s thesis, Hanyang University, 1998; Shim Young-Hee, “From Silence to Testimony: The Life of the Korean ‘Comfort Women’ after the Return,” Korean Studies Quarterly, 2000; Sakamoto, Chizuko, “(The) Politics of the Testimony: the Case of Japanese Military ‘Sexual Slavery’ Survivors,” Master’s thesis, Yonsei University, 2004.
  7. ^Kim Bu-ja’s “Victims’ Testimonies and Feminism of Historical Revisionism,” presented at the 2019 Korean Oral History Association Conference, offers a critique of such an approach.
  8. ^Representative studies include Hyun Ah Yang’s “Testimony and Writing History: Representation of Korean Military Comfort Women’s Subjectivities,” published in Society and History in 2001, and Yang Hyun-ah’s “Lasting Postcolonial Trauma in Testimony of Korean ‘Comfort Women’ Survivors,” published in the Journal of Korean Women’s Studies in 2006.
  9. ^The “Records Memories: Stories of ‘Comfort Women’, Untold Words,” (Feb 25 – Mar 20, 2019) exhibition, based on the research results of the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Jung Jin-sung research team, delivered the testimonies of survivors after reconstructing them in a historical context and filling the gaps in their testimonies utilizing excavated records. Other noteworthy achievements of historical research based on the testimonies of survivors include Kang Young-shim’s “Life Stories and No Repatriation of the ‘Military Sexual Slavery’ by Japan after the End of World War II,” published in the Journal of Korean Modern and Contemporary History in 2007, and Park Jung Ae’s “Establishment of a Japanese Military Comfort Center in Manchuria and Korean ‘Comfort Women’,” published in the Journal of Asian Women in 2016.
  10. ^Lee Jieun, “Korean ‘Comfort Women’ outside of Nation-State and Failure or Rejection of Homecoming,” “Sai,” 2020; Bae Ji Yeon, “The Issues of the Tragic Mobility Narrative and Testimony,” The Society of Korean Literary Criticism, 2022.
  11. ^Furuhashi Aya, “A Critically Reading of the ‘Comfort Women’ in the Memoirs of Japanese Soldiers,” Northeast Asian History Foundation, 2021.
  12. ^Lee Jieun, "Cross Reading of Early Testimonies from the Japanese Miltary’s Comfort Women Movement," Institute of Historical Studies, 2021.
Writer Lee Jieun

Completed Ph.D. in Korean Language and Literature at Seoul National University. The author is researching the narratives of women on national borders, including the Japanese military “Comfort Women,” the women in military camp towns, and North Korean female defectors while working as a literary critic. She has recently published several critiques and articles, including “On the Dehistoricization of Historical Existence and Its ‘Injustice’” (2022), “Cross Reading of Early Testimonies from the Japanese Miltary’s Comfort Women Movement” (2021), and “Schizophrenia of Patriarchy Nationalism and Potential of Writing Women’s Life History” (2021).