Park Yuha and Takeshi Nakajima talk on ‘Comfort Women’ issue

Park Yuha (Professor of Sejong University; Author of The Empire’s Comfort Women) x Takeshi Nakajima (Editorial Board Member)

The Empire’s Comfort Women, authored by Professor Park Yuha of Sejong University, South Korea, has been at the epicenter of a long-running controversy among scholars in Japan and South Korea. Nine former Korean comfort women filed a libel suit against Professor Park. Last November, Professor Park was indicted without detention.  Fifty-four scholars based in Japan and the United States issued a public protest against this legal action by the South Korean authorities. In the meantime, some scholars reacted against this public protest. Professor Takeshi Nakajima, a member of this journal’s editorial board, was among the fifty-four who voiced their objection to Professor Park’s indictment. He interviewed Professor Park last February during her visit to Japan. What is at the core of the public debate over The Empire’s Comfort Women?

Nakajima: I first became familiar with Professor Park’s work when your 2006 book, ­Towards Reconciliation, came out. I then heard that your subsequent book, The Empire’s Comfort Women, was sparking an acrimonious debate in South Korea. I made a point of reading the book’s Japanese translation as soon as it became available.

I see this book and its analytical framework to be driven by a series of questions formulated by Subaltern Studies. This scholarly framework emerged mainly in India in the 1980s. It interrogates the subjectivities of the oppressed individuals and groups. The Empire’s Comfort Women foregrounds the multifaceted subjectivities of Korean comfort women and lays bare the violence inherent in the “Empire” that condemned these women to these horrendous historical circumstances. Some have charged that the book is an apologia for Japanese imperialism, but nothing can be further from the truth. The book, as I see it, is a piercing indictment of Japanese imperialism.

Park: That’s exactly the way I problematized things. Some critics took issue with the title of the book itself.  What I meant by The Empire’s Comfort Women is that these were the women forcibly mobilized for the empire. Secondarily, the title also refers to the ways in which these women were forced to cooperate with the empire. I’ve been often asked: “which is your more central point?” I think that such a question – or a way of positing such a binary upon which the question is premised – resulted from the fact that the person who asks it remains captivated by a conventional conceptual framework: he or she can not abide the ambivalence and impermanence of comfort women’s positionalities and subjectivities.

Patriotism as a Fallout of Over-adaptation

Nakajima: One of the most important problems you raised in the book is the question as to how to define the positionality of Korean colonial subjects who acted as brokers of the comfort women system. They were complicit in the forcible transport of these women. At the same time, though, they had their own livelihood to worry about. They found it necessary to do what their Japanese colonial masters dictated. On the other hand, some of the comfort women began to hold a sense of pride as handmaidens of the Japanese Imperial Army, condemned as they were to the most hopeless of life circumstances. What you are arguing here is the polar opposite of those Japanese right-wing pundits who argue that these Korean comfort women somehow benefited from their lot. Your critics got this totally wrong: they are falsely accusing you of agreeing with those Japanese right-wingers. Far from it.

I studied anthropology and went into history later. In that process I became aware of the existence of myriad individuals whose stories fell through the cracks between the ideological extremes. This awareness informed my book、Nakamurayano Bosu (Subhas Chandra Bose and the Nakamura Company). Bose sought to use Japanese military might as a way to liberate Asia and India at the same time he was extremely critical of Japanese imperialism.  As such, he can not be defined in the conventional rightist-leftist binary.

The same thing can be said about the so-called Korean collaborationists of Japanese imperialism. For example, Lee Kwang-su did not pander to Japan.  He was a very harsh critic of Japan. In the 1930s, his position began to shift. What changed? Well, the Japanese state articulated the theory of universal subjecthood under Japanese imperial rule. Lee’s rhetorical strategy was to turn this theory on its head to argue that if all subjects were equal under Japanese imperial rule, then Korean should be treated equally as Japanese. His was a shrewd rhetorical acrobat using the Japanese imperial theory for his own end. I believe it’s important to unpack Lee’s complex subjectivity by taking stock of his ideological strategy.

Park: A book entitled The Diary of A Manager of the Japanese Comfort Station was published in South Korean in 2013. This book portrays a Korean manager of a comfort station who internalized the mindset of a Japanese imperial subject. On page 321 of the book, the man’s diary entry for New Year’s Day, 1944, reads: “the majestic power of the emperor should emanate to all directions” and “I prayed for the unending valor of the Japanese Imperial Army.” This man was born in 1905.  As such, he lived through Korea’s colonial period. To me, it’s not surprising for Koreans in this generation to harbor what may ironically be called “patriotism” under the Japanese imperial regime. These people were mobilized under the system of total war mobilization that began in the late 1930s. My intent was to emphasize the complexities of their subjectivities. I also pointed out in my book what was wrong with the thinking and argument of Japanese right-wing pundits.

Not supporting the Right Wing

Nakajima: Japanese right-wingers take your argument about the semi-familial sense of bonding some Korean comfort women shared with Japanese soldiers to mean that these Korean women benefited from their circumstances. Nothing is more brutal than the despair these women must have lived in.

Your book also talks about how Japanese soldiers, torn apart from their own families back home, began  to identify with Korean comfort women as their virtual family. These men lived next to death. They were not allowed to cry. Korean comfort women were the only ones they were free to expose their vulnerabilities to. The Korean women, on their part, tried to embrace these soldiers’ despair and hardship. Some of these soldiers were drafted against their will – just as the Korean comfort women were recruited against theirs. And yet, what these Japanese imperial soldiers did vis-à-vis the Korean comfort women remained within the structure of imperial violence against its victims.

Park:  I believe it is important to remind ourselves that complex and multiple emotions coexisted within an individual Korean comfort woman, and this multiplicity comes from the multiplicity of the experiences she had in terms of time and space. Even within the same location and timeframe, Korean comfort women’s experiences were diverse because their ages and Japanese language proficiencies were diverse.

What I wanted to portray in this book was “people who do not fit comfortably into the vessel of a national story.” Whether heartfelt or superficial, we identify with a national story. In reality, however, there are a whole range of experiences and emotions that can’t be neatly contained within such a national story. Facing that fact, those situated in the center of a national story try to hide it or penalize it.  Needless to say, the question of gender surfaces in that process too.

Nakajima: I think it is an ultimate travesty to interpret your argument as an apologia for the Japanese right-wingers or giving a pass for Japanese imperialism. Many Japanese young men died in kamikaze missions. Their story is centrally controlled by the Japanese right wing. They say these young men sacrificed their lives for the nation and the emperor. However, there were many former kamikaze pilots whose experience didn’t comport with this orthodoxy. Some deserted because they did not want to die. There were many different subjectivities. Bracketing these diverse subjectivities into a single story is tantamount to erasing the diversity and complexity of their experiences. The Left should not make the same mistake of violent erasure.

Park: Only a few people were actively engaged in the problem of comfort women, but the Korean mass media became deeply invested in the question and polarized national opinion about this question. On the surface of it, it may appear that the fault line runs along national boundaries (Japan vs. South Korea), but I think it is actually divided between the Left and the Right. We all tend to form our opinions according to our ideological positions.  As a result, people who seek to think free from such ideological shackles have tended to have only limited room to maneuver. That’s why I wanted to listen to the voices of these unsung people and stake out an alternative space for such historical voices.

What I meant by “Empire” goes beyond nation or ethnicity. It subsumes within itself the problems of subjugation, exclusion and discrimination perpetrated around the categories of gender and class. In other words, the problem of comfort women has been generally defined as a problem regarding Japan as a nation, and in that sense, it was understood as a political problem. In this way of thinking, one misses the problems of economy, the factor that compelled people to move in the first place. Many people migrated within and outside the empire as they internalized the economic aspirations of the state. The conventional framework failed to heed these people.

Who actually reaped economic benefits from exploiting other people? I also wanted to be self-reflective by acknowledging the fact that some Koreans were also complicit in that exploitation. Of course, many of the managers of the comfort stations were Japanese and I did write about them in my book also.

Writing in spite of binary

Nakajima:  Activists supporting the former Korean comfort women are hard put to reconcile their idea of what the victims should be like with your portrayal of the Korean comfort women, some of whom even bonded with Japanese soldiers. On the other hand, your portrayal does not comport with the image of prostitutes, one bandied about by the Japanese Right wingers either. I think that your book tried to get to the core of the structure of violence inherent in the Empire by exposing these multiple fissures emanating from the false binary.

Park: Initially, many of my critics in South Korea were male scholars. Their position was that one should never, ever, foreground things that might end up exonerating Japan. But I wanted to ask and ask again what they were exonerating, suppressing and obscuring.  There is no gainsaying that the Korean people were ruled and victimized by the Japanese and the Japanese state. But just acknowledging that fact erases from view structures of violence not reducible to nation and ethnicity.

Nakajima: I think that’s exactly the question of representation that Subaltern Studies problematized at the tail end of the 1980s and in the 1990s. What many Subaltern scholars, such as Gayatri Spivak, have criticized is the power and violence of attempts to create and represent “the right” Subaltern subjectivity as orthodoxy.

Park: You are right. I was often criticized for “not being an expert” or “not being an activist.” Some held that since I was not the victim myself I had no business proposing reconciliation. This idea of anointing only one “stakeholder” – the idea that dies hard – has ended up excluding parties that do not fit the anointed model. At the same time, this kind of argument has tended to obscure the fact that people who deign to speak for the victims are similarly stakeholders. The violence I see in the situation lies in the fact that these multiple elisions have not been heeded.

Nakajima: I, too, was criticized as a “non-expert” after I signed on to the public protest against your indictment without detention. I consider myself a historian, broadly speaking – one who studies the history of ideas and the history of the Showa period. If we should argue that, in order to be an “expert” in the Korean comfort women question, one must be able to read Korean sources or be scholars specializing in comfort women, then many of us are even barred from participating in the discussion about comfort women. Once you begin suppressing discussion among “non-experts,” it becomes impossible to explore a question from multiple angles.

Subjectivity elided

Nakajima: Your book also highlights former Korean comfort women who felt alienated from the House of Sharing set up by supporters. I think they felt that way because once the orthodoxy about Korean comfort women becomes entrenched, their emotions that don’t quite fit into that mold will be inevitably displaced.

Of course it is important to value the work of those women who criticized from inside the House of Sharing what Japan did to them. It’s not a question of whose position is more valid.  We must acknowledge the diversity of opinions and positions among former comfort women.  At the same time, we must capture the entirety of the historical experiences of former comfort women who have all too often been tossed around in the politics and polemics of the entire problem. Unless we can do that, we can’t even begin to make a first step towards the problem’s resolution.

Park: This former comfort woman was not comfortable with the general direction of the relief movement and the understanding about comfort women. Partly because she was bereft of family, she often gave me a call to chat. She shared with me her predicament, such as, if she fails to criticize Japan, she gets accused of being a Japanophile or a “hypocritic” comfort woman. She also wondered if she took the initiative by forgiving Japan, Japan might respond in kind, whatever that may be. I talked about this woman’s views at a symposium held in South Korea in April 2014 (before I was indicted). At this forum I also talked about former comfort women who expressed a wish to receive Japanese atonement money without going through the Korean supporters’ group. A month and a half later, I was sued.

Nakajima: At the core of the problem is these discords and ambivalence of views. But when it comes to the problem of comfort women, these factors go out the window, unfortunately. You shined a light on this reality and called for an honest public discussion. I believe that what you have problematized is an important question informed by Subaltern Studies.

February 5, 2016  at Osaka

Translated by Sayuri Shimizu