Park Yu-ha, a professor at Seoul’s Sejong University, was sued for “defaming” former comfort women when her book, “Comfort women of the empire,” was published in South Korea last year. A Japanese translation was finally released in November.
I was moved–or jolted, to be more accurate–by its sheer impact. I believe that her work will become an unwavering axis–something of a fixed star–in the firmament of all future writings on the subject of wartime comfort women, whether one agrees or disagrees with her.
I also felt her book must be about the loneliest star I have ever come across, if I may continue the astronomical analogy. And as I wondered what had compelled Park to embark on such a lonely mission, I was stunned into silence, unable to fathom the depth of her feelings.
Years of bitter controversy over Korean comfort women have created a deep and seemingly irreparable rift between Japan and South Korea.
On the one hand, there are people who refuse to see any difference between those women and prostitutes. On the other hand, there are people who insist that the women were forcibly taken away for “sexual slavery.”
The two camps have argued acrimoniously over the question of state responsibility.
In her book, Park notes: “The comfort women have recounted their experiences dispassionately for all these years. But the people who listened to them have chosen to hear only what they wanted to hear. On this score, there is basically no difference between the women’s supporters and those who insist there was never such a thing as the ‘comfort women issue.’
“While the comfort women discussed diverse situations, both sides picked out only the parts of their ‘memories’ that matched their own images of the Empire of Japan.”
What Park proceeded to do was to listen closely, with a totally open mind, to what each former comfort woman had to say. And what she heard were stories none of us has ever heard.
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While maintaining that the “responsibility” and “guilt” of sending Korean comfort women to the battlefront lay with the Empire of Japan, Park also severely condemns Korean dealers who actually recruited the women, as well as the Korean “patriarchal system that subjugates the women’s lives”–similar to Japan’s–that condoned the arrangements.
“The Empire of Japan is not the only party that must apologize to the women,” she wrote. “There are also people in South Korea (and North Korea) who must apologize.”
But this fact has remained overlooked. Why?
Sometimes, colonial subjects pledged their love, allegiance and cooperation to the suzerain state more fervently than the people of Japan even if their loyalty did not spring from the depth of their hearts. And that was the sort of “memory” nobody wanted to keep.
For Korean comfort women who were sent to the battlefront as substitutes for their Japanese counterparts, Japanese soldiers were, at times, most reprehensible beings who violated their minds and bodies. At other times, the women could also see them as comrades who were being dehumanized by the war as much as they themselves were.
The true voice of those women who had to live with such conflicted emotions was inconvenient for both Japan and South Korea. Neither nation wanted, nor needed, their true voice to be incorporated into its official “memory.”
Park wrote: “More than anything, ‘sexual slavery’ is an expression that obscures and suppresses all personal experiences and memories other than those of sexual abuse.
“There is no question that the comfort women were victims as a group. But to focus solely on that aspect and ignore their memories other than those as ‘victims’ is tantamount to denying their whole personality.
“This is the same thing as depriving them of ‘ownership’ of their own memories. In a sense, people will keep the women enslaved if they choose what memories they should retain.”
Comfort women, who used to be denied ownership of their bodies and minds, are now denied ownership of their own “memories.” The sorrows of their lives have turned Park’s book into the color of utmost loneliness.
In his book “Nikkan Rekishi Ninshiki Mondai towa Nanika” (Explaining the Japan-South Korea dispute over perceptions of history), political scientist Kan Kimura offers what I consider one sincere response from the Japanese side to the point raised by Park.
Kimura, who took part in a joint history research project of Japanese and South Korean scholars, became exhausted from the dispute over perceptions of history that no researcher on the Korean Peninsula could avoid.
He left Japan for the United States, where he wrote this book “for purposes of my own rehab training,” as he put it.
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Kimura ponders: Why does a bitter and seemingly fruitless dispute continue over perceptions of history? Why does a matter that was a nonissue in the past suddenly emerge as an important issue? And why does such an issue still torment us?
His answer: Because the “past” is never quite finished, and it becomes a contemporary issue for us in the present age when we face it.
But if the “past” is our present issue, how should we face it?
In “The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, History,” historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki observes that since our present lives continue to be shaped by oppressive regimes built upon past acts of brutality, this is how our future will also be shaped unless we take action to change the situation.
And she warns that since the prejudice that supported past acts of aggression is still within us, this prejudice will remain firmly entrenched in the hearts of the present generation unless we act proactively to eliminate it.
World War II and Japan’s colonial rule ended a long time ago. But do they really belong only to the distant past?
The answer is no. If the prejudice and bigotry that led Japan to that war are still alive within us today, the “past” is still very much alive.
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Genichiro Takahashi, born in 1951, is a professor of Japanese literature at Meiji Gakuin University.