Saturday, December 19, 2015

"Comfort Women" and the Japanese State

Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and occupied it though the end of World War II. During the war tens to hundreds of thousands of women were forced into sex slavery for Japanese military personnel. They are euphemistically called "comfort women". It is a politically sensitive issue to this day and the details of what happened are in dispute. In 2013 a Korean Scholar, Park Yu-ha, published Comfort Women of the Empire, which has become quite controversial. Thus, writing in The New York Times, Cho Sang-Hung reports:
In February, a South Korean court ordered Ms. Park’s book, “Comfort Women of the Empire,” redacted in 34 sections where it found her guilty of defaming former comfort women with false facts. Ms. Park is also on trial on the criminal charge of defaming the aging women, widely accepted here as an inviolable symbol of Korea’s suffering under colonial rule by Japan and its need for historical justice, and she is being sued for defamation by some of the women themselves.
This interests me because the "comfort women" issue is one raised by Inkoo Kang – "the orchestration of mass rape" – in her condemnation of Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, though in a later interview she acknowledges that Miyazaki himself is an activist on the issue [2]. What particularly interests me about the controversy over Park's book is the role of the Japanese state:
As she researched her book, combing through a rich archive in South Korea and Japan and interviewing surviving comfort women, Ms. Park, 58, said she came to realize that such a sanitized, uniform image of Korean comfort women did not fully explain who they were and only deepened this most emotional of the many disputes between South Korea and Japan.

In trying to give what she calls a more comprehensive view of the women’s lives, she made claims that some found refreshing but many considered outrageous and, in some cases, traitorous.

In her book, she emphasized that it was profiteering Korean collaborators, as well as private Japanese recruiters, who forced or lured women into the “comfort stations,” where life included both rape and prostitution. There is no evidence, she wrote, that the Japanese government was officially involved in, and therefore legally responsible for, coercing Korean women. [...]

Ms. Park’s book, published in Japan last year, won awards there. Last month, 54 intellectuals from Japan and the United States issued a statement criticizing South Korean prosecutors for “suppressing the freedom of scholarship and press.” Among them was a former chief cabinet secretary in Japan, Yohei Kono, who issued a landmark apology in 1993 admitting coercion in the recruitment of comfort women.

Even then, however, Mr. Kono noted that the recruiting had been conducted mainly by private agents working at the request of the Japanese military, and by administrative and military personnel. For outraged South Koreans, the caveats rendered the apology useless.

This month, 190 South Korean scholars and cultural figures issued a statement supporting what Ms. Park had tried to do in her book, if not everything written in it. They called her indictment an “anachronistic” attempt to “keep public opinion on comfort women under state control.”
However, just this month "380 scholars and activists from South Korea, Japan and elsewhere accused Ms. Park of “exposing a serious neglect of legal understanding” and avoiding the “essence” of the issue: Japan’s state responsibility." That's centrally at issue in this controversy, the complicity and thus the responsibility of the Japanese state.

Later in the article:
Ms. Park said she had tried to broaden discussions by investigating the roles that patriarchal societies, statism and poverty played in the recruitment of comfort women. She said that unlike women rounded up as spoils of battle in conquered territories like China, those from the Korean colony had been taken to the comfort stations in much the same way poor women today enter prostitution.

She also compared the Korean comfort women to more recent Korean prostitutes who followed American soldiers into their winter field exercises in South Korea in the 1960s through ’80s. (The “blanket corps,” so called because the women often carried blankets under their arms, followed pimps searching for American troops through snowy hills or built field brothels with tents as the Americans lined up outside, according to former prostitutes for the United States military.)

“Korean comfort women were victims, but they were also collaborators as people from a colony,” Ms. Park wrote in one of the redacted sentences in her book.

But she added that even if the Japanese government did not directly order the women’s forced recruitment and some Korean women joined comfort stations voluntarily, the government should still be held responsible for the “sin” of creating the colonial structure that allowed it to happen.
I know little of this history so I'm not in a position to comment on whether or not Park's assertions and arguments are valid. I'm simply interested in the fact that one of the points at issue is not whether or not the events happened, but the exact nature of the Japanese government's involvement. 

For it seems to me that one of the things at issue in Miyazaki's The Wind Rises is Jiro Horikoshi's position vis-à-vis the Japanese state. He designed planes that were used in the war but was privately opposed to the war. There's no question that Japanese militarism was wrong. That's not the issue. Is there a distinction to be made between a passion for engineering excellence and the purposes to which that excellence is put? Is there a distinction to be made between the identity, if you will, of an individual and their citizenship in the state? How do we sort those things out? That's what Miyazaki's dealing with. 

When Park argues that the comfort women were trying to survive through collaboration, how does that compare with Miyazaki's depiction Horikoshi? Horikoshi, of course, wasn't doing work that was repugnant to him and he wasn't living under colonization, but was trying to survive – remember, he was hiding from the secret police. Miyazaki is trying to "extract" Horikoshi from overwhelming identification with the state. Park seems to be attempting something similar with the comfort women. "Collaborator" is not a nice label, but it affords the women some small degree of agency.

Addendum: Here's an interesting comment on the article by Melissa Soto-Schwartz:
As an American women's historian I can understand the complexities in this case. I think Professor Yu-ha has brought to light some fascinating, and clearly disturbing, truths. However, people do not always want to hear the "truth" and timing is everything. I am not suggesting Professor Yu-ha should not have come forward with her interesting findings, neither am I a supporter of government censorship. Rather, I am attempting to put the current "backlash" into context. The professor's scholarship appears to me (after reading solely this article) to be making a strong theoretical argument indicting a patriarchal system (in which women and girls are thrown away or sold callously), indicting local collaborators, and putting a distance between Korea and the traditional capital O oppressor Japan. Such a dramatic re-interpretation of Korea's wartime experience can be nothing but shocking for the local population. Usually, such theoretical understandings of the historical narrative are best accepted not decades after the event, but multiple generations after, maybe even 100 years or so. In the United States, the best scholarship on slavery has been done in the twenty-first century.

[1] Inkoo Kang. “The Trouble with The Wind Rises”. The Village Voice. December 11, 2013, URL:

[2] Bob Chipman. "As The Wind Rises Comes To The US, So Does The Controversy". The Escapist. February 21, 2014, URL:

No comments:

Post a Comment