Discourse, Public Space, and the Politics of Korean "Comfort Women:" Implications for East Asian Relations
IN THIS ARTICLE
The issue of “comfort women,” sex slaves utilized by the Japanese army during World War II, is treated in this paper as a collective memory in the consciousness of South Koreans. Differing narratives of this historical event, and the emphasis placed on it, serves as the underlying basis for increased present tensions between the governments of South Korea and Japan. To understand the complexity of these painful experiences as a collective memory requires a discussion on the impact of colonization as well as contemporary problems regarding a whitewashing of history and the utilization of public space for the memorialization of these women. The result of these factors is the exacerbation of tension between the South Korean and Japanese governments, mainly due to a widely perceived belief within South Korea regarding the Japanese government’s reluctance to engage in transparent discussions regarding history. The paper seeks to examine the roles of memory, public space, and discourse in the comfort women issue, examine Japan-South Korea relations, and ultimately emphasize the importance of focusing the narrative on the individual women who were subjected to such atrocities.
For South Korea, “comfort women” —a euphemistic term referring to nearly 200,000 women who were sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II—have become a reminder of brutal Japanese colonial rule. Although many of these women were from China, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and even the Netherlands and Australia (countries that fell under Japan’s sphere of influence during WWII), this paper will only focus on the experiences of the Korean comfort women, who comprised an estimated 50–-75% of the ethnic makeup of these victims. When Korea was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, the political situation of a subjugated Korea and dominant Japan allowed the Japanese empire to kidnap young women or coerce them into military brothels by lying about the nature of the promised work. While much of the discourse centers around the women’s stories, there is also a broader underlying intersection between topics of colonialism, power, women, and sex. Therefore, these themes contribute to the palpable tension in current politics, which has been characterized by an emphasis on security considerations and a recommitment to nationalism. The issue of comfort women as a collective memory then becomes a point of pain for Koreans angered by the remnants of colonial rule and brings into consideration the intersection of power dynamics and gender hierarchies in memorializing this forgotten history.
In order to follow the discourse surrounding this contentious topic, it is necessary to examine the term “comfort women.” For the purposes of clarity, this word is used in this paper as it is most widely understood, though it is a euphemistic translation from the Japanese word ianfu, which means “army prostitute.”2 However, this term in the Japanese language is problematic, as it not only suggests that as a prostitute, a woman’s sole aim was to provide service for men, but also implies that each woman was someone who consciously chose to trade sexual acts for payment. Therefore, ianfu does not accurately represent the situation for many of these women who did not possess agency in a number of aspects in their lives. Several separate survivors highlight how they were never allowed to leave the house, were regulated to one meal a day, and rarely, if ever, received monetary payment.3 A phrase that better encompasses the reality of their situation is “sex slave,” yet this is deficient in its own way as well, for it reduces the individual solely to the act that they were forced to carry out. Today within South Korea, they are referred to as weeanbu (위안부), another word for “comfort women” or sexual slaves—the term’s connotations clearly allude to one who was held against her will. Some South Koreans today also simply use the word halmoni (할머니) in reference to these survivors, a universal term for “grandmother” which carries undertones of affection and respect.
It is important to make the distinction between an apology South Korea would deem adequate and the concessions given by the Japanese government. South Korea’s criteria for an apology is a full acceptance of responsibility for the forced enslavement and marginalization of these women. In reality, the widely held view has been that the Japanese government’s concessions are disingenuous attempts at reconciliation, while the Japanese government contends their efforts fulfill moral responsibilities. However, because Japan’s past apologies have not met the expectations of South Koreans nor a number of the surviving comfort women, this painful subject serves as both a present-day source of tension and barrier to collaboration on other issues. Despite the history of Imperial Japan’s forcing of Korean women to become comfort women—which has created a collective memory that has been passed down throughout generations—the Japanese government shows reluctance to address its lasting emotional impact on Korea.
Historical and Social Context: War and Colonialism
The impact of Japanese colonialism is critical in understanding the power dynamic between the imperialist country and its colonies, and the resultant economic and sociocultural systems that enabled such state-sponsored rapes to occur. Korea was a colony of Japan’s from 1910 to 1945, meaning that not only was it a conquered territory, but a source of material resources and human capital. During this period, the Japanese placed restrictions on the press, education, and the Korean language, while many citizens were subjected to forced labor and brutal cross-cultural encounters. This imposition of power came in the forms of state and military control, as well as development that resulted in economic conglomerates and a focus on heavy industries and infrastructure.
It is precisely this economic development and infrastructure, which some credit as the reason for Korea’s hastened industrialization and modernization as a state, that explains South Koreans’ conflicting emotions towards Japan. However, no matter what economic benefit might have been derived from such a practice, at its core, colonialism denotes a clear power imbalance between the oppressors and the colonized—therefore, this is an inadequate justification for a brutal regime. Historian Bruce Cumings explores the difficulty of reconciling Japan’s colonial impact on Korea. He notes that the complex relationship between the two explains:
This narrative Cumings constructs explains the persistent view held by some South Koreans that no individual was complicit during the time of colonization, and the refusal to believe that the impact of colonization brought about any sort of benefit. Yet it is also a distorted view to insist that Imperial Japan alone bears the sole responsibility for its practice of systematic rape without a discussion of the sociocultural context that allowed the kidnapping of young Korean women to occur in the first place. This is not to say that Japan’s brutal colonial conquest was justified, but rather to emphasize the need to evaluate history from multiple narratives and less polarizing perspectives. Understanding the painful and complex history of colonialism, the effects of which are still felt today, is necessary to better contextualize the experiences of the comfort women.
Survivor Testimony and Collective Memory
The personal stories of survivors who chose to share their experiences have become embedded within South Koreans’ collective consciousness as passed-down memories that transcend generations. After the war, the shame many of these women felt due to the structure of Korean society, an emphasis placed on virginity and a tradition of stigma around sex, meant that their sufferings went unheard for almost 50 years after the war. In postcolonial and even present-day South Korea, the effects of such structure is far-reaching—as of 2016 the World Economic Forum rates Korea’s gender equality at a dismal 116 out of 144 nations evaluated.5 It is not then surprising that it took so many years for the first story to come into public awareness. In 1991, Kim Hak-Soon was the first woman to step forward and publicly testify to her experiences. Speaking about her experiences in Dae Sil Kim-Gibson’s documentary “Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women,” she states,
More than 200 women have felt encouraged to come forward and speak of their experiences since then. Today, there are only 35 known survivors in South Korea, all over the age of 90.7 Many live within the “House of Sharing,” a nursing home run by Buddhist organizations dedicated to publicizing the truth about comfort women as well as providing a space for survivors who participate in art therapy as a representational form to share their experiences.
Much of the written and oral testimony given by these women exhibits feelings of anger, disgust, or pain, and nearly all allude to symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Most speak of contracting venereal diseases such as syphilis and combating them through forced drug injections of the chemical “#606,” intended to induce abortions, instead of proper medical care or rest. Many of the women from rural areas were told that they would be doing work as maids or factory workers, as a way to provide an income to their families. Some were commanded to go without an explanation or because their relatives were threatened. Despite some differences in circumstance, the common theme among all these stories is that the socioeconomic backgrounds of these women made them particularly vulnerable to these atrocities. No individual knew of their fate until they were taken to a “comfort station,” usually located in China or Japan. One survivor spoke about having to “work” from “eight in the morning until ten at night.”8 In the documentary Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Woman, Cheung Seo Woon recalls: “the soldiers stood in line. Sometimes... I believe more than hundred men a day.”9 Many comfort women witnessed beatings, forced abortions or executions of those too sick to carry on. Many of these women, some as young as 14 or 15, talk about the initial shock, as nearly all were virgins, and the pervasive feeling of “wanting to die...right there and then.”10 One individual commented that “this rage is still so strong that I will not ever be able to rest in peace before the Japanese government apologizes to me personally for their crime committed against me.”11
The intensity and pain of these memories are so strong that the experiences of these comfort women fit into a framework of “collective memory,” where the emotions transcend generations and explain the existing antagonism. According to historian Arthur Neal’s characterization of collective memory,
In his words, the personal memories of survivors become interwoven into the collective memory of a nation, with the trauma ingrained in the nation’s history. The experiences of Korean comfort women follows this trajectory, as these individual memories have not only become incorporated into every Korean’s consciousness but have also become part of Korean and Japanese political discourse. The shift these memories made from individually held experiences to become a broader part of the social sphere occurred in stages. What was initially carried as a personal and shameful history later became crucial testimony necessary to call for proper memorialization and acknowledgment.
Memorialization and Public Space
The anger that is still vividly felt today has contributed to ongoing public protests and the creation of statues that emphasize the role of politics and the deeper underlying cultural issues regarding these statues in public space. For example, there is a seated bronze figure that memorializes and raises awareness about the issue of comfort women.The placement of this statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul is highly political, and a clear critique of the Japanese government’s reluctance to address the issue despite the symbolic presence of these women in front of them. It was unveiled in 2011 on the 1,000th day of the “Wednesday Demonstrations,” protests that have been organized by feminist activists within the Korean Council and have occurred every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy since 1992. It is still considered “the longest running protest in the world.”13 In response to its creation, the Japanese government recalled its envoy to South Korea, claiming that the protests and memorials presented one-sided views.
The statue was created by a Korean couple, Kim Seo-Kyong and Kim Eun-Sung, who spoke of the guilt and rage they felt, which ultimately propelled their desire to memorialize comfort women.14 The bronze girl sits defiantly in traditional hanbok (한복), with her hair chopped haggardly. This illustrates the detail that many Japanese soldiers forcibly cut the braids of young women’s hair, a symbol of virginity. She looks young but holds a defiant gaze; the combination of these two characteristics highlight a simultaneous vulnerability and resilience. To her right is an empty chair, symbolizing those who died of venereal diseases, committed suicide, or were murdered by the Japanese to conceal their atrocities following Emperor Hirohito’s surrender at the end of World War II. The public’s interactions with the figure are respectful—flowers are laid at her feet, and often a knit scarf or hat is placed on her as if to protect her from the cold. Surviving comfort women who visit the statue sit on the bronze chair to her right, and place their hand on the statue’s, as if to reassure her. Such interactions with the statue suggest a deeper meaning beyond memorialization of shared experiences as a source of consolation.
A similar figure has appeared on a number of Seoul’s buses. Commissioned by the Dong-A Transit company, there are five buses that displayed one of these statues until the end of September 2017.15 In a bustling metropolitan city that relies heavily on public transportation, the presence of one of these memorials in a transitory public space not only ensures that a wide range of people see it but also forces passengers to confront this defiant figure, and therefore the issue of comfort women as soon as they board. This transformation of the social space into one that conveys broader political and cultural meaning occurs not only with the mere placement of the statue on the bus, but with individual reactions to the figure and the feelings or memories it evokes. Overall, the numerous comfort women statues serve a unique function beyond memorialization—they evoke immediate reactions of compassion and immense grief towards the experiences of the women and create a strong, visceral rage towards the Japanese government and its people and the underlying history of colonialism. These representational figures therefore affirm the importance of commemorating historical events—there is both healing through memorialization and power in political protest.
Discourse in Politics and Differing Historical Narratives
The use of public space to create heightened awareness of Korean comfort women has increased discourse regarding these incredibly sensitive experiences and how to reconcile them. Japanese politicians’ varying interpretations of historical accounts have contributed to this debate and may have influenced attitudes toward reparations. For example, Nariaki Nakayama, a prominent Japanese politician within the Liberal Democratic Party declared, “we need to raise our voices and tell the world that [females] were not forcibly taken away.”16 While his view does not represent the majority of Japanese officials, it is still disturbing and trivializes or denies the experiences of thousands of women. Certain academics possess a similar view, such as Kumagai Naoko, a Japanese historian who researches comfort women extensively. He argues that “sex slaves” is a term that does not encompass all perspectives or experiences, and cites archival evidence that some of these women were paid.17 Even if this were true, it does not detract from the fact that the majority of the women were never compensated, and that they were forcibly taken or lied to about the nature of the work. For example, Ms. K, an anonymous survivor, recounts “our supervisors took the money, saying they would save it for us. In any case, I never received a penny from them.”18 Statements that deny or qualify the experiences of these comfort women invalidate the suffering of the majority of the individuals for whom this was not the case.
These varying historical interpretations not only influence broad views held by individual government members, but also the official stances of the government as a whole. The Japanese Foreign Ministry, which has issued a number of statements since 1992, is careful to omit harsh or antagonizing language. Even the Kono statement of 1993, largely understood as the Japanese government’s first acknowledgment of the atrocity of the issue, is not entirely forthcoming. What Jennifer Lind calls Japan’s “History Problem,” meaning the issue of whitewashing historical events, is prevalent even in government statements and publications. Nowhere in the Kono statement is there any explicit mention of rape or sexual slavery. Instead it uses words such as “coercion” and “coaxing,” technical language that suggests distance and non-engagement. By contrast, the language of many of the survivors is direct and explicit.
However, it must be emphasized that this concerning view is not held by most Japanese historians or citizens. Many of them continue to call for their government to adhere to a more transparent approach in addressing the issue of comfort women. For example, the Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi worked tirelessly to expose Japan’s concealment of wartime atrocities in pursuit of portraying accurate historical facts.19 In addition, over 400 Japanese scholars have penned and signed the “Open Letter in Support of Historians in Japan,” which urges Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reconsider typical historical narratives within Japan.20 Conversely, South Korean scholars have also de-emphasized the narrative of forced kidnappings and brutal rape as the sole account of events. South Korean professor Park Yu-Ha was accused of defamation and fined for her book Comfort Women of the Empire, which outlined the fact that South Korean individuals, not solely the Japanese, were occasionally involved in the kidnapping of some of the women.21 The South Korean government and public’s swift response to this particular historian (as many branded her a traitor) is also alarming. It displays a commitment to a single version of history closed off to alternative historical accounts and any possible changes. The ongoing controversies regarding what is the accurate narrative of events point to a larger problem in dealing with emotional histories—that it is both incredibly painful and difficult to overcome the status quo and long-held beliefs.
The Continuing Issue of Comfort Women in Present Day Interactions
Outrage has resurfaced after the release of a 2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea, which was largely intended to resolve the issue by using $8.3 million to contribute to a foundation for the survivors in exchange for the removal of these statues around South Korea.22 However, the desire for a direct apology from Japan and the issue of whether or not survivors should accept payment from a foundation unaffiliated with the Japanese government became politicized. According to The New York Times, “critics inside and outside Japan complained about the Japanese government's decision to set up the fund as a private one, making clear that the ‘atonement’ payments came from citizens. They saw this as another tortured attempt by Tokyo to avoid taking full responsibility for one of the ugliest aspects of the war.”23 Survivor Kim Soo-Ja stated:
The survivor’s testimony suggests the idea that only a depoliticized apology or reparations in the form of compensation would be viewed as genuine efforts at reconciliation.
According to a poll, nearly 75% of Koreans did not think that the Japanese government’s statement was sufficient.25 Many of the interviews with survivors reflect this view; they expected a full acceptance of responsibility and a formal apology from Japan. Instead, South Korean activists and survivors saw the statement as an attempt by the government to silence the comfort women, to continue to evade assuming responsibility, and to limit the activists’ activities. Due to the fact that many comfort women survivors and activist groups viewed the agreement as an insincere attempt at an apology, the 2015 agreement negotiations fell through. It must be emphasized that although the sufferings of the survivors can never be truly atoned for, an accurate and objective historical account as well as transparent discourse is the necessary first step before attempting reparations.
The narrative of Korean comfort women was able to come to light due to the shifting social norms and the creation of memorials in public space which gave a platform for survivors to speak out and allows them to continue doing so. As a result of the shift in discourse, there is a need for both South Korea and Japan to confront their histories and evolving identities as nations, which will dictate the relationship between the two in addition to the roles each will play in the East Asian political sphere. Given the symbolic power of memorialization and structures in public space, the question becomes one of Japan’s cooperation in maintaining the statues and therefore a broader commitment to historical accuracy. Japan must refrain from calling for the destruction of these monuments due to their historical and symbolic significance if its goal is to signal a willingness to engage with multiple historical perspectives and acknowledge the past. Ultimately, the testimony of comfort women survivors and the perpetual presence of memorial statues reveal the tension between historical narratives and discourse, as well as the power of collective memory to exhibit ongoing traumas of colonialism. It is especially important to recognize that cooperation between Korea and Japan is necessary to find the balance between memorializing past events and looking towards the future as both occupy seats of power in East Asia. The politicization of the issue, exemplified by Japan’s reluctance to issue individual apologies, reveals the lasting effects of colonialism on the relationship between Korea and Japan—one that is unlikely to improve without a sincere engagement with differing historical narratives in order to acknowledge survivors.
The author would like to thank Dr. Roxanne Varzi, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine, for her assistance with this project.
Bemma, Adam. "South Korea: World's longest protest over comfort women." South Korea News | Al Jazeera. September 07, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/south-korea-world-longest-protest-comfort-woen-17008024721239.html.
Cetusnews. "17.07.27 Survey: 75% of S. Koreans think 'comfort women' issue unresolved." Cetusnews. July 27, 2017. http://www.cetusnews.com/life/Survey--75%25-of-S--Koreans-think-%E2%80%98comort-woen%E2%80%99-issue-unresolved.BJX9fiNvIZ.html.
"Forcibly recruited Korean sex slaves a myth: lawmaker." The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/06/08/national/politics-diplomacy/females-wernt-forcd-into-wartime-military-brothels-nippon-ishin-lawmaker/#.WiV1IhNSySN.
“Global Gender Gap Report 2016.” World Economic Forum. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/GGGR16/WEF_Global_Gender_Gap_Report_2016.pdf.
Herald. "'Comfort women' statues resonate with Koreans." The Korea Herald. March 03, 2016. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20160303000844.
Jun, Kwanwoo, and Martin, Alexander. "Japan, South Korea Agree to Aid for 'Comfort Women'." The Wall Street Journal. December 28, 2015. https://www.wsj.com/articles/japan-south-korea-reach-comfort-women-agreement-145186347.
Kumagai, Naoko, and Noble, David. The comfort women: historical, political, legal and moral perspectives. Tokyo: International House of Japan, 2016.
Onishi, Norimitsu. "Japan’s ‘Atonement’ to Former Sex Slaves Stirs Anger." The New York Times. April 24, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/25/world/asia/25japan.html.
Orreill, Kirsten. "Who are the Ianfu (Comfort Women)?" New Voices, no.2 (December 2008): 128-52.
McCurry, Justin. "Buses in Seoul install 'comfort women' statues to honour former sex slaves." The Guardian. August 16, 2017.
Neal, Arthur G. National Trauma and Collective Memory: Major Events in the American Century. Armonk, N.Y: Sharpe, 1998.
Min, Pyong Gap. "Korean “Comfort Women.”" Gender & Society 17, no. 6 (2003): 946.
"Number of Comfort Stations and Comfort Women." Number of Comfort Stations and Comfort Women. http://www.awf.or.jp/e1/facts-07.html.
Schellstede, Sangmie Choi. 2000. Comfort Women Speak: Testimony by Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military. Edited by Soon Mi Yu. New York, NY: Holmes & Meier.
Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Woman. Produced by Charles Burnett and Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. Directed by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. By Donald Sur.
1.) "Number of Comfort Stations and Comfort Women." Number of Comfort Stations and Comfort Women. http://www.awf.or.jp/e1/facts-07.html.
2.) Kirsten Orreill. "Who are the Ianfu (Comfort Women)?" New Voices, no. 2 (December 2008): 129.
3.) Sangmie Choi Schellstede, Comfort Women Speak: Testimony by Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military, edited by Soon Mi Yu. (New York: Holmes & Meier, 2000), 8.
4.) Bruce Cumings, “The Legacy of Japanese Colonialism in Korea,” in The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945, ed. Ramon H. Myers and Mark R. Peattie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 218.
5.) “Global Gender Gap Report 2016.” World Economic Forum. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/GGGR16/WEF_Global_Gender_Gap_Report_2016.pdf.
6.) Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Woman. Produced by Charles Burnett and Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. Directed by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. (Seoul, 2000).
7.) Bemma, Adam. "South Korea: World's longest protest over comfort women." South Korea News | Al Jazeera. September 07, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/south-korea-world-longest-protest-comfort-women-170908024721239.html.
8.) Schellstede, Sangmie Choi.Comfort Women Speak
9.) Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Woman. Produced by Charles Burnett and Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. Directed by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. (Seoul, 2000).
10.) Schellstede, Sangmie Choi. 2000. Comfort Women Speak, 30.
11.) Ibid., 92.
12.) Neal, Arthur G. National Trauma and Collective Memory: Major Events in the American Century. (Armonk, N.Y: Sharpe, 1998).
13.) Bemma, Adam. "South Korea: World's longest protest over comfort women." South Korea News | Al Jazeera. September 07, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/south-korea-world-longest-protest-comfort-women-170908024721239.html.
14.) Herald. "'Comfort women' statues resonate with Koreans." The Korea Herald. March 03, 2016. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20160303000844.
15.) McCurry, Justin. "Buses in Seoul Install 'Comfort Women' Statues to Honour Former Sex Slaves." The Guardian. August 16, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/aug/16/buses-seoul-comfort-women-statues-korea-japan.
16.) "Forcibly Recruited Korean Sex Slaves a Myth: Lawmaker." The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/06/08/national/politics-diplomacy/females-werent-forced-into-wartime-military-brothels-nippon-ishin-lawmaker/#.WiV1IhNSySN.
17.) Kumagai Naoko and David Noble. The Comfort Women: Historical, Political, Legal and Moral Perspectives. (Tokyo: International House of Japan, 2016)
18.) Sangmie Choi Schellstede. 2000. Comfort Women Speak, 104.
19.) Onishi, Norimitsu. "In Japan, a Historian Stands by Proof of Wartime Sex Slavery." The New York Times. March 31, 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/31/world/asia/31yoshimi.html.
20.) “Open Letter in Support of Historians in Japan.” Letter. 2015, May 5, 2015. https://networks.h-net.org/system/files/contributed-files/japan-scholars-statement-2015.5.4-eng_0.pdf.
21.) "Professor Who Wrote of Korean 'Comfort Women' Wins Defamation Case." The New York Times. December 22, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/world/asia/korean-comfort-women-park-yu-ha-japan.html.
22.) Jun Kwanwoo and Alexander Martin. "Japan, South Korea Agree to Aid for 'Comfort Women'." The Wall Street Journal. December 28, 2015. https://www.wsj.com/articles/japan-south-korea-reach-comfort-women-agreement-1451286347.
23.) Onishi, Norimitsu. "Japan’s ‘Atonement’ to Former Sex Slaves Stirs Anger." The New York Times. April 24, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/25/world/asia/25japan.html.
24.) Pyong Gap Min. "Korean “Comfort Women” in Gender & Society 17, no. 6 (2003): 946.
25.) Cetusnews. "17.07.27 Survey: 75% of S. Koreans think 'comfort women' issue unresolved." Cetusnews. July 27, 2017. http://www.cetusnews.com/life/Survey--75%25-of-S--Koreans-think-%E2%80%98comfort-women%E2%80%99-issue-unresolved.BJX9fiNvIZ.html.