Undeniable: the Lived Experience of the “Comfort Women”
By Hijoo Son
Recently, there has been a firestorm regarding an article by J. Mark Ramseyer in the International Review of Law and Economics. Considering that I spent years working with former Korean “comfort women,” women and girls from former colonies of Japan coerced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military during WWII, I was sideswiped by his claim that the “comfort women” were sex workers and that their testimonies are a matter of “pure fiction.” He writes that “comfort women” contracted with private middlemen with sufficient incentives to work as prostitutes, knowingly. He presents the case of a ten-year-old girl who was offered money to go abroad and writes that “even at the age of 10, she knew what the job entailed.” When leading scholars of both Japan and Korea from Harvard and globally pinpointed a spate of errors in Ramseyer’s article, the journal raised “concern” on its online version.
Ramseyer admits to his colleague, “I haven’t been able to find it [a contract]. Certainly, you’re not going to find it.” Despite his own admission that no contracts actually exist, it is curious, in the era of #MeToo, that an article titled “Contracting for Sex during the Pacific War” was published at all with so many factual errors.
The controversy has reminded me that nothing changes unless those in power are willing to change. The timing of Ramseyer’s piece emerges in the middle of on-going legal disputes over not only comfort women but also forced labor during wartime between South Korea and Japan. And a legal journal publishing an article posing as an academically well-researched and credible examination, in fact, does matter because of its peer-reviewed platform and because of the law professor’s cultural capital validated by the Harvard name. The fact that a white, male professor’s viewpoint is receiving such attention sits in stark contrast to the glaring absence of the “comfort women,” their voice, their accounts, and their bodies in contestation against a Japanese government that just has difficulty facing its history of colonial violence. The power imbalance cannot be overlooked.
I first read about the “comfort women” in newspaper reports on Kim Hak-sun who was the first “comfort woman” to testify before the United Nations in 1991. And I met them in the mid-1990s when I returned after college to Seoul and Tokyo to study and work. After being silenced by shame, trauma, and a patriarchal social order for decades, the first “comfort woman’s” testimony emboldened others to come forward, in part supported by the growing feminist movement in Asia. Since January 8, 1992, the women and their support groups have never missed a Wednesday demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul which makes it the longest running weekly protest in history. In retrospect, I see Kim Hak-sun as the originator of the #MeToo movement for the “comfort women” who still demand that Japan apologize, compensate, and teach its history squarely.
Beyond the testimonies, the idea of young teenage girls engaging in a contractual sexual relationship for profit affronts the very core of many Koreans whose experience with Neo-Confucian discourse upheld chastity to the point of death. My grandmother (born 1922) was married off at age sixteen because her parents were afraid that she would be caught by “comfort woman” recruiters during the colonial period (1910–1945) and taken away. Chung-ok Yun, the co-founder of the non-governmental organization I volunteered for (The Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan), told me that she devoted her whole life and fortune to the cause of the “comfort women” because when she was a young girl in colonial Korea, her parents sent her off north to relatives in order to avoid being captured herself, and she spent her life feeling guilty for her privilege and also wondering what happened to all those girls. This system was part of a wider disciplining order of colonial coercion during “the total war mobilization” era (1937 to 1945). Such anecdotes and family stories have been handed down through generations and remain the vestiges of a patriarchal culture. No cavalier law professor from the hallowed halls of an Ivy League institution can deny this belief system.
While working for The Korean Council, I primarily translated the “comfort women’s” testimonies at international conferences including the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the International Labor Conference, Land Is Life Conference in Okinawa, and the Men, Women, and War Conference in Derry, Ireland. I remember how Chung Seo-woon’s testimony re-traumatized her each time she recounted the sterilization, the rapes, the suicide attempts, the longing for her Mom and Dad, the opium addiction, and the return home to find that her father had died in prison, and her mother was pushed to suicide, and what it felt like for me to translate those moments into English having to form those same words with my own mouth and tongue. As a Korean American woman who grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, the simultaneous translation of their accounts in front of international audiences in Geneva, Okinawa, and Derry was always an out-of-body experience, a dissociative effect of inhabiting two lives at once.
Ramseyer admits to not having read any Korean sources because he does not speak or read Korean. However, he should have come across these testimonies in English as I spent time translating them. Asianist scholar defenders describe his research as “formidable, exacting, and carefully marshaled,” but he has not even taken time to read the collective accounts of the women who were there.
The “comfort women’s” historical memory is resurrected each time through oral testimonies that are “doomed to remain disrupted narratives.” Lawrence Langer’s Holocaust Testimonies call the Holocaust survivors’ testimonies “disrupted narratives” that do not function like other stories, told and retold, as anecdotes to be remembered, or as tales with lessons. Langer writes “the losses they record raise few expectations of renewal…in the presence of their anguished memory, we are asked to share less what is recovered than the process of recall itself.” While Ramseyer dismisses the oral testimonies as unreliable, self-interested accounts, the “comfort women’s” lived experience resuscitates and reaffirms their collective voice even as they now face false accusations that dismiss the truth of their past.
I want to re-center the focus upon the demand for Japan to account for its history of colonial violence against these women’s bodies in light of the fervor deployed by apologists, nationalists, and anti-feminists. In my discomfited feelings, I think back to the process of recall through which these women bravely told and continue to tell their stories against the grain of political tide. Finally, I remind the readers of the “comfort women’s” voices, and that for this Korean American woman who shared meals, stories, airplane rides, hotel stays, and as someone who protested weekly with them on Wednesdays at noon, there is something to the retelling of their past atrocities, the presence of their physical scars and violated bodies, and their continued fight for justice and redress that remains undeniable.
Hijoo Son is an Instructor of History at Phillips Academy who received her B.A. from the University of Chicago, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from UCLA.