Comfort women issue: A message to students in Western society
Among Japan, Korea, China, and other countries in Asia, there exists a big divergence in their understanding of the unfortunate history of the past. Therefore, there exists a deep rooted animosity among them as a consequence.
Between the people of (South) Korea and Japan especially, there exist a big difference in the perception of and the opinion on how to resolve the issue of the “comfort women” that existed during the time of the Asia Pacific War. Underlying the differences of the opinion are the exclusionist nationalism and the conflict between the left and the right.
The issue of the “comfort women” in the 1930s is commonly regarded as a problem created by the Japan of the 1930’s, but such an approach is overly simple because there are many other related issues that cannot be ignored. If the responsibility for an issue is over-simplified, it prevents us from seeing the responsibility of other actors. The consequence of this is that we cannot prevent the violence toward women that continues in other forms. The problem of comfort women should be seen as the problem of the women who were moved in accordance with the desire of the state to expand its power, and mobilised to serve men who were segregated.
What made the migration of women in such a large scale possible was the expansion of imperialism in the modern period when the big powers began to take advantage of the development of transportation. And the women who were mobilised as comfort women were the ones who, due to poverty, could not be protected by the community they belonged to.
Furthermore, there were numerous middle agents who worked to fill the demand created by the desire of the state and men. In other words, there existed private businesses that were benefitting economically by making use of the political and economic desire of the state as well as the sexual desire for domination among men. In addition to the men who visited the comfort stations (as customers), these business men used human body for economic interest. They betrayed Emanuel Kant’s principle that human beings should be treated as ends and not as means.
I could see that the tragic happenings that occurred nearly seventy years ago repeating again to the poor women in Korea today as well as many women in the less affluent countries. Nevertheless, the majority of Korean people continues to hold the view this problem as that of Japanese, thus foreign, men raping our, Korean, women.
However, this problem is more fundamentally that of the women who were sacrificed by the patriarchy as well as that of class exploitation of the lower class. Thus, the problem of Korean comfort women is that of mobilization of poor women in the colonized area. In order to resolve and prevent the problem of comfort women, we need to see the full picture of this kind of structure.
In this sense, the problem of the comfort women is not only that of Japan, but also that of all ex-imperialist states, such as Britain, France, Netherlands, which had exploited local women by making colonies in order to expand the state power. The USA that even today has constructed military bases in many locations around the world, and maintains a setup in which local women serve American soldiers is also implicated in this problem. In other words, the comfort women problem is not simply about what happened due to the war, but an issue of the expansion of state power which includes the presence of military bases before the war.
The comfort women for the Japanese military were originally Japanese women. It was the colonisation that led to the recruitment of the Korean women. Therefore, the relationship between the comfort women and the soldiers in the system of the Empire where the role of the comfort women was to “comfort” the soldiers of the same country, strictly speaking, was not the same as that of the victims of rape in the context of wartime violence in the “conquered” area.
I saw the reason why the issue of the comfort women had not been resolved over 20 years as being due to the lack of clear understanding of this structure. And it was for this reason that I wrote the book, “the Comfort Women of the Empire: the Colonial Domination and the Battle for Memory”. This book was favourably received in both Korea and Japan when it first came out. However, some Koreans and Japanese reacted negatively. (Ironically) those who reacted most negatively were the activists and researcher of the comfort women issue who have worked long toward the resolution of the problem.
To them, my presentation of the problem seemed as dilution of the responsibility of Japan. Under this situation, one of the movement groups to support the comfort women conveyed their distorted interpretation of my book to the still remaining comfort women. They suggested incorrectly that my book defamed the comfort women and sued me for it, demanding a very large amount of compensation.
However, the issue of the comfort women is one in which sexual discrimination is mixed with class discrimination as well as ethnic one. Among these, the focus so far was only on the state responsibility. What I attempted to bring out (in my book) was the responsibility of those actors hidden behind the proper name “Japan”, i.e., the responsibility of the middle agents and the reminder of the responsibility of men who under the patriarchal system pushed the women out as sacrificial lamb and also treated them as means to release male (sexual) desire.
However, this way of seeing the comfort women issue is still not sufficiently understood in Korea. And as a result my book being incorrectly known as criticising the comfort women, I am being criticised nationwide after I was legally accused. Not only Korean nationalism, but also the Cold War framework that solidified after the collapse of the Empire also played a role in shaping the researchers and activists of the comfort women issue.
The reason why this issue was regarded for long as Japan’s problem was that the period for which Japan was engaged in war was long and the area covered was wide, and most of all, Japan had systematised the system of the comfort stations.
Because when the comfort women issue first surfaced, it was known only as being an issue of the “innocent girls forcefully taken”, the main steam researchers and activists just insisted on the forceful nature of the comfort women. However, the obsession with forcefulness or young girl excludes those women who “voluntarily” went to sacrifice themselves in the context of parental persuasion, or the those who were already involved in prostitution before they became comfort women. The effect of this position, by discriminating and excluding those who had the experience of prostitution is to join those who have argued that comfort women were simply prostitutes, thus there is no comfort women problem. However, the responsibility for the terrible experience can be pursued without emphasising the forcefulness of recruitment.
In spite of this, the fact they find my academic approach foreign is the reason also for my hardship. They have reacted negatively to the point that the main agent that did not protect the Korean women was the community that was Korea, also to the fact that someone raised an objection to the (their) mainstream approach to research and activism.
These negative reactions have led to strong personal criticism toward me. Their “academic” criticism moved on to “criminalisation” of my writing activity. At a time when my academic view was regarded as a “crime”, even the academics joined the accusation.
Nevertheless, rather than denigrating the comfort women, my book was written on their side. My book tried to stand on the side of the comfort women by guarding against the instrumentalization of women which continues even today. With the resolve that their honour must be kept, it tried to recreate the voice of the comfort women who had been ignored. However, neither the prosecutor nor the court in Korea was willing to listen to my counter argument.
In 2015, there was a court order to remove certain part of the book. To follow the court order, in the new edition of the book, the designated section removed. But there was an objection to the republication of the book even in the censured form. There was also a ruling of a civil case to pay compensation (to a number of the comfort women) to which I made an appeal. The criminal court case has also been in progress already fifth time.
The power block consisting of the activists and researchers who inherit the Korean nationalist movement blocked the sides of class-based and gender-based discriminations to be seen. For this reason, the extremists from both Korea and Japan stand in confrontation, and even other people from both countries stand in disharmony due to the exposure to partial information from two opposite sides.
Not only does this kind of attitude that buries the fact that the comfort women issue is in reality also very much that of social class and gender sustains the conflict in East Asia. The conflict is also acute enough realistically to lead to a crisis.
Therefore, there is a need for more people to be interested in this issue. I hope to see expression of interest especially from people who are interested in gender and colonialism issues. That is because only this kind of approach will lead the comfort women issue as well as other issue of conflict to harmony and reconciliation – and make the friendship and peace in East Asia possible.
I would like to thank Professor Chakrabati for allowing me this opportunity to offer my message. I hope our conversation continues in another opportunity.
- Original transcript was written and sent to Professor Chakrabati in April 7th, 2016.
- English translation by Sejin Park, September 24th, 2016