The Paradigm that Supports the Korean Comfort Women Redress Movement

Chizuko T. Allen

Associate Specialist, School of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Hawaii

Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Vol.68, April 2016.

The Paradigmatic Story of Assailants vs. Victims

Sexual exploitation of women occurs in many parts of the world today, and the Korean Peninsula is no exception. We hear of victims of sex trafficking, such as Southeast Asian brides and workers in dire conditions in South Korea, South Korean women sex workers sent abroad, and North Korean women refugees exploited in China, just to name a few examples. Rather than addressing ongoing exploitation to rescue today’s victims, many Korean and Western activists vociferously speak of the human rights violations suffered by former comfort women who provided sexual labor for the Imperial  Japanese military before and during World War II. Despite recent agreements reached between the South Korean and the Japanese governments, the Korean comfort women redress movement continues to demand further apology and restitution from Japan.

What is at the core of this issue? And what are the fundamental notions underlying the redress movement for comfort women survivors particularly in South Korea? The monument that commemorates comfort women, erected in the city of Palisades Park in New Jersey in 2010, was followed by similar monuments and statues across the United States. The inscription of the monument reads:

In memory of more than 200,000 women and girls who were abducted by the armed forces of the government of Imperial Japan, 1930s-1945, known as “comfort women.” They endured human rights violations that no peoples should leave unrecognized. Let us never forget the horrors of crimes against humanity.

It thus declares that the comfort women were kidnapped and victimized by the Imperial Japanese military that committed human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

The world history textbook Traditions & Encounters, authored by history professors at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is widely used in high schools and colleges across the United States. In the chapter on WWII, it relates:

The Japanese army forcibly recruited, conscripted, and dragooned as many as two hundred thousand women aged fourteen to twenty to serve in the military brothels, called “comfort houses” or “consolation centers.” The army presented the women to the troops as a gift from the emperor, and the women came from Japanese colonies such as Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria and from occupied territories in the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The textbook goes on to say, with no source materials listed, that the women in fact came mostly from Korea and China and catered to between twenty and thirty men every day in treacherous war zones. It concludes that Japanese soldiers not only killed the women who attempted to escape or contracted venereal diseases but massacred many more to cover up the operation at the end of the war. The authors imply, through their mention of the emperor, that the gross disregard for human rights was promoted at the highest echelon  of the then Japanese Empire.

What is presented here is a dichotomous paradigm of the brutally immoral Japanese military and young women from helpless colonies and occupied regions of Asia. The portrayal  of horrendous exploitation of innocent victims naturally dismays readers, just as many legendary stories about good and evil would. But, is this story of comfort women a true reflection of historical facts? Why does the story juxtapose the military against women, and not mention any other party that was undeniably involved?  In the following, I address these questions by referring to recent Korean scholars’ works that challenge the  dominant paradigm of the Japanese military vs. comfort women.

The Conflation between Comfort Women and the Women’s Volunteer Corps

The dominant paradigmatic story has beensupported by false notions, and one of them  is that comfort women were recruited in the name of the wartime Women’s Volunteer Corps. There should be no direct link between the two because the Volunteer Corps were comprised of female students who worked in war industry factories in Japan proper and Korea while comfort women  were engaged in sex labor at comfort stations in Japan’s newly occupied regions. Nevertheless, Korean comfort women survivors who came forward from 1991 have been called “Volunteer Corps grandmothers” (chŏngsindae halmŏni) in South Korea. This   stems from the fact that the South Korean activists of the comfort women redress movement chose to call their umbrella organization “Korean council for the Volunteer Corps issues” (Han’guk chŏngsindae munje taech’aek hyŏbŭihoe) in 1990, although in English they named it the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan. Prof. C. Sarah Soh at San Francisco State  University suspects that this was a politically strategic decision because the term comfort women (wianbu) in South Korea generally meant prostitutes catering to American service men since the Korean War, while the term Volunteer Corps referred to school girls called by the Japanese authorities to work in factories. The conflation of comfort women with the Volunteer Corps helped establish the story that young Korean women were drafted by Japanese authorities and turned into comfort women.

Prof. Soh reports that back in the late 1930s and early 1940s there was a rumor, circulating around Korean parents, that the colonial authorities might require them to offer their daughters for sex labor, and this fear was possibly  linked  to  the  Women’s Volunteer Corps, initiated in Korea in 1944 following the success of its counterpart in Japan. Such rumors may have resulted from the fact that Korean brokers had lured young women to brothels with the pretense of factory jobs, as discussed below. The conflation of comfort women with the Volunteer Corps returned in the late 1960s, when the memories of the Pacific War were becoming distant, in the form of a novel depicting a woman drafted to the Volunteer Corps and forced to work at comfort stations abroad. In 1970, the South Korean newspaper Seoul sinmun wrote,“Out of 200,000 Volunteer Corps members including 50,000 to 70,000 Korean women, many were turned into comfort women.”Though the assertion was groundless, it captured the imagination of many Korean and Japanese writers who began spreading the postulation of “200,000 comfort women.”Emeritus Prof. Yi Yŏng-hun at Seoul National University has done much research on the history of conflations and inaccuracies surrounding the identity of comfort women. Beginning in 1979, South Korea’s history school textbooks gradually incorporated the idea of “young women’s sacrifice for war efforts,” and by 1997, they narrated, “In the name of the Volunteer Corps, Korean women were taken and sacrificed as comfort women for the Japanese military.” Thanks to Yi and others’ studies, the South Korean media now distinguish comfort women from the Volunteer Corps, but the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan has not changed its Korean name, nor did it apologize for its erroneous equation between comfort women and the Volunteer Corps.

Comfort Women and Victims of Wartime Sexual Violence

Another false notion strengthening the paradigmatic story of the Japanese military and comfort women concerns the origins and criteria of comfort women. The prevalent knowledge of the wartime comfort women for the Japanese military was formulated in the 1990s, when a limited number of books and reports were available on the subject in English. The first monograph that drew the  international community’s attention to the subject was The Comfort Women (1995), written by George Hicks, an Australian journalist residing in Hong Kong and Singapore. For his sources, Hicks relied on Japanese publications, including Tennō no guntai to ianfu (Emperor’s military and comfort women) authored by Korean writer Kim Il-myŏn in 1976, selected and translated into English by Japanese-speaking Korean assistants. Though treated by Hicks as an important source, Kim’s book resulted simply from his Korean  nationalist  interpretation  of books and articles available in Japan, such as former reporter of the Japanese daily paper Mainichi shinbun Senda Kakō’s books based on interviews conducted in Japan and South Korea in the early 1970s. In 1996, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, heavily relied on Hicks’ book and even referred to Yoshida Seiji’s 1983 book Watashi  no sensō hanzai (My war crimes), a “confessionary” account of his wartime crime as a Japanese military appointed sex slave hunter in Cheju island, Korea, despite the fact that multiple scholars had proven Yoshida to be a total fraud. In addition to obvious factual errors, Hicks and  Coomaraswamy  failed  to differentiate Japanese and Korean comfort women accompanying the Japanese military from local Asian women violated by Japanese soldiers. Their writings assumed that the types of violence inflicted on local Asian women by the Japanese troops were meted out to Korean comfort women as well. The same mistake was made by Japanese scholars in the same period. Prof. Yoshimi Yoshiaki at Chūō University had his 1995 book Jūgun ianfu translated and published in English as Comfort Women in 2000, and Prof. Tanaka Toshiyuki at Hiroshima City University published his book Hidden Horrors in English in 1996. Highly critical of the crimes committed by the Japanese troops in the Pacific War, they made the error of aligning all Asian women as comfort women regardless of their nationalities, locations, and relations to the Japanese empire.

To help address women’s divergent  experiences, Prof. Pak Yu-ha, an expert in Japanese literature at Sejong University, South Korea, asks fundamental questions concerning the origins and roles of comfort women in her books Comfort Women of the Empire published in Korean (Cheguk ŭi wianbu) in 2013 and in Japanese (Teikoku no ianfu) in 2014. According to Prof. Pak, comfort women did not suddenly appear in the 1930s, but their prototype, “Karayuki-san,” young Japanese women sold by their families in impoverished rural villages in Kyushu, were already serving Japanese merchants, officials, and soldiers who were dispatched abroad by the expanding Japanese empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Working as prostitutes in China, Southeast Asia, and even Russia, many of the women remained patriotic and made financial and other contributions to Japan during the Sino-Japanese (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese Wars (1904-1905). When Taiwan and Korea were annexed to Japan in 1895 and 1910 respectively, their women were incorporated into this system of support for the empire. In the 1920s, many Korean women migrated to China and worked in brothels catering to Japanese and Korean men stationed there. When Japan’s war with China began in the late 1930s, some of the existing brothels in China were designated as comfort stations for the Japanese military, and thus their workers became comfort women.

With the outbreak of the Pacific War and Japan’s invasion of Southeast Asia in 1941, comfort stations of various types appeared throughout Japan’s conquered regions, and diverse women came in contact with Japanese soldiers in varying circumstances. On the one hand, women from the Japanese empire, such as Korean women, accompanied the troops to provide both physical and mental consolations to conscripts fighting the desolate war, just as their families would have at home. On the other hand, local women of China and Southeast Asia, being briefly occupied by the Japanese forces, were subjected to sexual violence, including repeated rapes at illegal comfort stations. Some local women worked at comfort stations for dire economic needs, but they were not comfort women in the original sense, and generally had a lower status. The violence inflicted on women of Southeast Asia is well represented by the prominent 1944 case of Jan RuffO’Herne, a Dutch citizen in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). She was forcibly taken to a makeshift comfort station and underwent repeated rapes by Japanese soldiers until a higher commanding officer came and disbanded the operation. Many authors refer to her experience as evidence of forcible recruitment of comfort women, but this is incorrect because she was not a comfort woman but a victim of wartime sexual violence. Her assailants were punished as war criminals after the war ended.

Equating experiences of women in the two separate categories bolsters the paradigmatic story of military assailants vs. victimized women, but prevents us from seeing historical facts. Prof. Pak thinks that regarding all victims as comfort women has unnecessarily complicated the issue and prolonged the path to reconciliation.

Additional Parties and the Relationship between Soldiers and Comfort Women

The paradigmatic story contains no participants other than the Japanese military and comfort women. In reality, there were important additional parties who kept the comfort women system rolling, and the most important were profit-seeking brokers (procurers)  and  proprietors  (owners and

managers). Profs. Pak, Soh, and Yi as well as Prof. Yun Myŏng-suk at Ch’ungnam  Univer-

sity, South Korea, and Prof. Song Youn-ok at Aoyama Gakuin University, Japan, have done much research in this area. Labor brokers, a legitimate occupation in colonial Korea, introduced potential workers to jobs and received commissions from employers. According to Song, by the middle of the 1920s, as many as five or six thousand procurers, or brokers specializing in jobs in brothels and similar establishments, operated in Seoul alone, and the majority of them were Koreans who had linguistic advantage when recruiting Korean women. In search for maximum profit, procurers not only charged high fees but sometimes resorted to deception and even abduction to take young women to brothels. It was these procurers who handed over young women to comfort station proprietors from the 1930s to 1945.

Most military comfort stations were run by private-sector proprietors and managers, and many of them were Koreans, as demonstrated by the diary written by a Korean manager of comfort stations in Burma, translated and published by Emeritus Prof. An Pyŏng-jik at Seoul National University and his team in 2013. Comfort station proprietors employed

women and were called women’s “masters.”

As Prof. Pak points out, it was the proprietors who confined women, forced them to work even when they were sick, took them to doctors for abortions, used violence at times, and fled and left women behind when the war ended. Prof. Pak believes that procurers and proprietors should be held legally responsible for the plight of Korean comfort women survivors.

Another key group of people who helped maintain the comfort women system  were

the women’s families and neighbors. Owing

to Confucian legacies from the dynastic era, Korea’s patriarchal hierarchy placed girls at the bottom, often did not allow them to attend school, and abandoned them when there was not enough food to go around. Young women were sold, or leased out for a fixed number of years, by their fathers, brothers, and even husbands to brothel proprietors via procurers. The procurers’ search for young women was often assisted by village heads and villagers who knew every household in their village.

The final piece that alters the dominant paradigm concerns the relationship between comfort women and soldiers. Many writers in the past depicted the relationship between the two as a hierarchy, emphasizing soldiers’ violence and Korean comfort women’s low status when compared to Japanese comfort women. Prof. Soh, however, refers to romantic exchanges and marriage proposals made by Japanese soldiers to Korean comfort women. Prof. Pak highlights their camaraderie and mutual respect despite the bleak environment of war. This is not to say that soldiers and women were equals in every way,  as the Japanese military was in charge after all. At the human level, however, their relationship is better described as that of partners, rather than enemies. When the war ended with Japanese defeat, the memory of their partnership became the object of shame and resentment. Few Koreans today would admit that it ever existed.

Since last year, Prof. Pak has been under inordinate pressure to relent. A South Korean court ordered her to redact thirty-four passages from her 2013 book and pay restitution for defamation to comfort women survivors. In addition, prosecutors indicted her for a criminal case of defamation in November. These attacks only suggest that her articulate voice of dissent has posed a serious challenge to the old paradigmatic story that has already been shaken by recent scholastic research and inquiries. It is high time to let go of the faulty paradigm that has only brought strife, and face historical realities as they were.



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