Contestations of Memory: Comfort Women and East Asian Politics

“To ignore violative conduct is to invite its repetition and sustain a culture of impunity.”[1]

If survivors from a tragic event do not step forward to share their experiences, how will historians and the public know the truth about what happened? A lack of personal testimonials may invite suppression of memory or rewriting of history. It took nearly fifty years for women who survived the Pacific War ‘comfort stations’ of the Japanese military to reveal their maltreatment and forced experiences as ‘comfort women.’ As opposed to redress initiated by the state, a shift in academia from the 1980s led by several female academic researchers helped open a space for survivors to bring grievances against the Japanese state for crimes against humanity (including rape and sexual slavery) and South Korean state for support. Japan and Korea’s sanitization of their official histories of the Pacific War, denial of evidence of Japan’s state coordination of enslaving comfort women and stigmatization of former comfort women amounted to a re-interpretation of history and denial of the women’s memory; with the atomic bombing of Japan and the desire for the US to have a strong non-communist ally in the region after the war, Japan was able to shed its image as an aggressor relatively quickly and in its textbooks told the story of the Pacific War through its prism as a victim. The history of comfort women, and particularly the responsibility of the Japanese state, is still disputed; this debate has led to a damaging divide between experiencers and mythologizers of history.

In discussing the history of ‘comfort women,’ there are multiple angles from which to approach their experiences as well as the constructed memory in the ‘official histories’ of Japan and South Korea. Christine Chinkin (2001) in “Women’s International Tribunal of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery” addresses the importance of tribunals–official and unofficial–and community involvement so that states cannot “ignore or forgive crimes against humanity.”[2] Chunghee Sarah Soh (1996) in “The Korean ‘Comfort Women’: Movement for Redress” focuses on the inability of former comfort women to reconcile their past due in part to cultural legacies and the institutionalization of sexual slavery based on class, gender, ethnicity, and nationality; although, changes in national and international structures since the Cold War have helped translate the problem into a universal women’s issue. Shuko Ogawa’s (2000) “The Difficulty of Apology: Japan’s Struggle with Memory and Guilt” and Bonnie B.C. Oh’s (2001) chapter “The Japanese Imperial System and the Korean Comfort Women of WWII” attempt to explain the Japanese state’s perspective. Oh accepts the uniqueness of Japan’s situation while finding underlying cultural issues that impacted the role of the government; Ogawa advocates the importance of Japan coming clean on its history of comfort women in order to save face. In “History & Memory: Comfort Women Controversy” Hyun Sook Kim (1997) compares official Japanese and South Korean textbooks with testimonials of survivors and similarly identifies cultural reasons for both states to selectively ignore, repress and sanitize experiences of comfort women. This contestation of memory entails mythmaking and a division between official narrative of ‘lack of evidence’ and narratives of testimonials from those that experienced history.

By reiterating tales of female exploitation, historical roles of Japanese and Korean governments, and the states’ claim of a ‘lack of evidence’ these texts elucidate the difficulties that former comfort women, as those that ‘experienced the history’ have faced in reconciling their past and attempting to educate future generations. Because of the official treatment of their history the women feel as if the mythologizers of the past (i.e. Japanese government) are “uninterested in knowing the past as its makers have experienced it.”[3] Women have been unable or unwilling to tell their experienced history because of the stigmatization within the families, communities and society, particularly in Korea, from the time of their return. A government study in 1993 led to the Kono statement where Japan officially recognized its role in establishing comfort stations, coercing women into sex with the military; however, controversy still ensued as the government claimed reparations should be made through private rather than public funds meaning the state would not pay for–and so would remain separate from–the harm it caused. Moreover, the states’ alternative histories are positioned from different historical data; survivor testimonials have become “reified as ‘information’ and ‘data,’ and they are treated as hard facts and the truth about the past – ‘facts’ that must be verified.”[4] According to Kim, for decades personal narratives have been withheld or ignored due to “patriarchal and national cultural arrangements.”[5] Oh meanwhile explains that comfort women were seen as “gifts from the Emperor,” pointing to the underlying issue of “contempt with which women have been held in Japanese society and exploitation of their sexuality.”[6] Decades on, financial compensation has been sought (and some achieved), but more than that is the desire for Japan to accede full responsibility for their terrible experiences; from this full apology the women seek acceptance from communities and the state to prevent this situation from occurring again.

At different points the governments of Japan and South Korea modified their positions on comfort women yet internal and external cultural and political factors led them to maintain control on history. But what did the states have to gain from their (mis)treatment of these women? Initially the Korean government ignored issues of the ‘Chongsindae’ women; there was a “lack of documentary evidence” because Japan destroyed records, and the 1965 Normalization Treaty “foreclosed the Korean government from making any further claims for reparations for damages incurred during the colonial period.”[7] Soh indicates that the state’s treatment of the plight of comfort women fits with South Korea’s tradition of sexual and physical exploitation of women for tourism and labor industries. Both cultures maintain a reverence for ancestors which enables construction of memory; in Japan specifically, “ideological wars have been fought over the wording of history textbooks, commemoration of the war dead, and personal compensation demands from foreigners” victimized by the Japanese.[8] Conservatives in Japan then do not want to teach a history which they believe will prevent students from retaining pride in their country.

While Japan eventually admitted that comfort women were coerced and recognized that “it had violated international humanitarian laws by persecuting Korean women,”[9] this contestation of memory is far from reconciled. Disputes over compensation to victims have put pressure on Japan-Korea relations, while “ethno-nationalistic sentiments have given rise to a renewed sense of historically rooted mutual hostility and contempt.”[10] Korean and Japanese heads of state have prioritized and publicized the dispute over memory of the comfort women at different levels. Current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently stated he would accept the 1993 Kono Statement while still enabling a review on how the apology was constructed.[11] Critics such as Ogawa claim that Japan will not be able to gain full acceptance in international institutions until it recognizes its past injustices with comfort women, who have been unable to receive closure with their past.

Contemporary politics reinforces Japan’s mythologization of its Pacific War experiences as a victim rather than the aggressor.  Recent high-level, bilateral summits between South Korea and Japan discussing security, development and now potentially the comfort women issue are a positive sign and represent a significant diplomatic concession by Japan. Events such as the fallout from Trans-Pacific Partnership discussions and the North Korea program have added to US concern over the behavior of its allies and its inability to control actors in the Asia-Pacific. Japan’s historical hesitation to confront nationalist tendencies has negatively impacted relationships with its neighbors and more importantly, has marginalized memories that can instill humility and prevent the event’s repetition.

[1] Chinkin, Christine. “Women’s International Tribunal of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery.” The American Journal of International Law. 95.2. April (2001).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cohen, Paul A. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), xiv.

[4] Kim, Hyun Sook. “History & Memory: Comfort Women Controversy.” Positions. 5:1. Spring (1997): 95.

[5] Ibid, 101.

[6] Oh, Bonnie B.C. “The Japanese Imperial System and the Korean Comfort Women of WW2” In Legacies of the Comfort Women. Edited by Margaret Stetz and Bonnie B.C. Oh. (New York: M. E. Sharpe Inc., 2001), 5, 9.

[7] Soh, Chunghee Sarah. “The Korean ‘Comfort Women’: Movement for Redress.” Asian Survey. Vol. 36, No. 12, Dec. (1996): 1230. 

[8] Ogawa, Shuko. “The Difficulty of Apology: Japan’s Struggle with Memory and Guilt.” Harvard International Review. Fall (2000).

[9] Soh, “The Korean ‘Comfort Women,’” 1236.

[10] Ibid, 1239.

[11] Akihiko Kaise. “Abe Administration Maintains Delicate Balancing Act over Kono Statement.” The Asahi Shimbun. (3/15/14) [http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/politics/AJ201403150044]

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