The "comfort women" aren't just political tools for the rest of Asia (see the political cartoon below, in which the North Korean (Chinese?) says, "Here are the witnesses for our side..." while the (Japanese) "New Right" asserts, "There was a lot of voluntary prostitution, too!"
Well, yeah, but the story of the so-called "comfort women" isn't so simple. As this issue swirls in the Korean press, which is intently watching this political show going on in the US, there is a lot of nationalist huffing and puffing going on, in terms of demanding apologies and talking about Japanese responsibility.
But you have to look closer, especially when talking about this issue being discussed in South Korea, where the issue of the "comfort women" has been reduced to a simplistic and convenient nationalist foil, as opposed to an issue that speaks to not just Japanese military crimes during WWII, but to the entire period of forced, compressed development at any cost, the lack of participatory democracy in the south under dictatorship, and the political uses of history in South Korean politics and society.
First of all, without mentioning any names, I had extensive and enlightening conversations with two researchers who worked with many of these women for nearly a year apiece, doing deep and meaningful work that considered the personal experiences these elder survivors as not just historical fodder for the proof of how horrible the Japanese were, but critically examined the historical and political discourse that had been created around them.
I used the passive tense on purpose there, because it accurately conveys the lack of agency and choice that goes into how the symbol of Korean comfort women is constructed – as constructed and used by everyone except for them.
The insider example I can give you is that of the criticisms that came out in discussions with a colleague of mine who was working with some of these women about the time when Korean society was buzzing about the fact that 4.1% of South Korea's economy was still made of prostitution as of 2002, and that high and low estimates counted as many as 1 million down to a "mere" 300,000 women working in the sex industry at any one time.
This was an issue I was wrestling with, and I put it to my colleague that I found it unfathomable that none of the comfort women made these connections between militarized sexualized slavery, the South Korean government's use of so-called "kisaeng diplomacy" to gather capital from American GI's and Japanese businessmen, and the continued protection of the system by the Korean government that not only protected and nurtured the system that had been formalized and expanded by the Japanese, but had actively suppressed the historical narratives and witnessing of these women for decades.
In fact, and ironically, it was a Japanese historian who first vaulted the story into the realm of historical fact in Japan, along with many Japanese journalists, at a time when the women in question had little more than their testimony, and the South Korean government had done everything in its power to publicly muzzle this historical narrative lest it interfere with Korean-Japanese relations. (reference and good concrete summary of the issue's evolution)
In fact, South Korean citizens and the rest of the world didn't even find out until 2005 that yes, indeedy, according to secret documents released that year, the South Korean government had taken compensation for individual victims of Japanese imperialism and wartime actions – down to the won for specific kinds of victimization – but had not offered that to a single victim.
That was part of the 1965 Normalization Treaty between the two countries that everyone knew about, but didn't catch wind of the specific, classified details until exactly 40 years later (see here and here and here and here).
During the normalization talks, the government hurried negotiations along in a bid to secure foreign capital needed for economic development, and it used the claims fund to push ahead with large-scale economic projects like the Seoul-Busan expressway and Pohang Iron and Steel. In other words, it sacrificed the compensation of individual victims on the altar of economic development.
Under the circumstances, that was unavoidable and for the benefit of the entire population. But now the government should endeavor to resolve the matter from a different perspective.
Japan meanwhile holds that its responsibility for compensation ceased with the settlement of negotiated claims, and our government has left a document acknowledging this. But the Japanese government, instead of insisting that, legally speaking, its responsibility toward Asian countries has evaporated, should reflect on its moral responsibility. That is what a lasting political solution must be based on. (source)
So if the Korean government didn't want – for 40 years – to look history and past actions squarely in the eye, for fear of the political and fiscal implications (without even getting the question of "moral responsibility," which most South Koreans "delink" into irrelevancy), how can it realistically expect the Japanese government to do the same, when Japan's justification for not offering the apologies demanded of them are based in the same document that makes the Korean government itself queasy with financial fear?
This issue is far more complex than just fishing around for a symbolic apology – which would be nice, but misses the point when it elides the question of why those women are sitting in those chairs, still feeling ignored by governments, still feeling used as political tools, all along with the fact that their voices are rarely the ones we hear speaking – it's usually people speaking about them, in their names.
Back to the discussion with my colleague, she pointed out that the "comfort women" in fact DID and DO make those connections, as many moved from being "liberated" from the Japanese to face being socially shunned, so many went into the new voluntary industry springing up around the new occupiers of the peninsula, the Americans, with the full encouragement of the South Korean government.
She said that when the big newspapers come to interview the women, along with the big TV stations, they always talk about "this issue is bigger than just an apology from Japan, but it is about the victimization of women regardless of nationality, as victims of a sex industry that continues from that system to this day" – my words here, but their points.
Funny thing is, the only thing that gets in the papers is, "Japan must apologize."
Well, it makes sense. It's the only part of the discourse that's really politically useful. Who wants to hear that yes, their own government sold actual paid compensations down the river, as well as suppressed this story for decades? Why isn't the South Korean press asking the harder questions around the fact that it is sure is funny that no one was talking about this in South Korea until the late 1980's? Or that a liberal "족발이" – a Jap – is the person that broke the story into the realm of accepted fact as opposed to rumor and hearsay, by linking evidence and eyewitnesses?
Those are the questions no one's really thinking about, even after the 2005 revelations, because the present black-and-white discourse has all the momentum and subtlety of a steam train running down the steep slope of the masculine, nationalist ideology around "national rape" or "disgrace" that ends in 1945, when, if one were to simplistically think of the Korean nation as a woman's body, the only thing that has changed is the nationality of the customer and the type of shackles keeping her strapped to the bed.
Japan, victimizer. Korea, victimized. Simple, huh?
This debate is so idiotically reduced to mindless ravings of perceived national "dishonor" that it becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees. So let me try a new reduction of the issue, equally simplistic, but perhaps useful in its ability to illustrate the issue from another angle:
Men, absolved. Women, screwed (and continuing to be).
If you look at things from a gender perspective, it doesn't look too different as women who are/were working in a system of sexual labor created and/or protected by the state; from a certain perspective, the question of "voluntary" or not isn't as important as the fact that both the Japanese occupation and South Korean "liberation" governments aided, abetted, nurtured, created, protected – whatever verb you want to use – a system in which women had little (economic) to no (militarized) choice as to whether they were going to spread their legs for soldiers, whether they be Japanese, American, and – as they have been increasingly infamous for – Korean soldiers looking to lose their virginity.
I still remember a 1994~1996 story I read in the Chosun Ilbo that clearly stated that 90% of Korean men lost their virginity to prostitutes, many in the infamous and immense Cheongyrangni red light district. That reference was made in pre-web Korea, and I've never been able to find it again, but I am very certain about the 90% figure, because it was mind-boggling to me at the time I read it, and has stuck in my head ever since.
So, if a government is creating and cradling the conditions that preserve an industrialized system of sex slavery, especially in light of the fact that it was created and structurally linked to a previous system of militarized sex slavery – is the national moral indignation over this issue really something one can maintain with a straight face?
At least Japan had the excuse of having been an imperialist, racist empire invading other nations and setting up a system to enslave and fuck foreign women. As the economic and structural inheritors of this system, who did nothing to dismantle it, but rather chose to perpetuate it – what is "Korea's" excuse, if we're going to monolithically blame a singular "Japan?"
Well, we know what it was – economic development at any and all costs, damn the moral implications – full speed ahead!
The problem here is not mere historical amnesia – it's rather one of "historical delinkage." Embedded within the DNA of South Korean ideology itself is the historical/social/psychological inability to see that the economic gains of compressed (and coerced) development came at a huge moral price.
That may sound simple to say, but the extent to which people "delink" in order to not see the Matrix of South Korean ideology come crumbling down is very, very underestimated.
The same reason that Pak Chung Hee tops the charts as favorite president is the same reason that people don't like to look as far back as that period, or into the inception of the country itself, as the roots of any problems. It's just too complicated – it's easier to have a bad guy, and Japan is obvious first choice for the role of Darth Vader.
But the problem is, like when Luke Skywalker faced off when him in the underground cave in Yoda's lair, he won the duel and beheaded his would-be enemy, only to see his own twisted visage in the fragmented faceplate.
I hear Pak Chung Hee spoke some mean Japanese.
"I am your father," indeed.
It's not easy to face the past, nor the fact that one's enemy may in fact be partly oneself. Yeah, Darth Vader's an asshole; and while Japan may not be South Korea's daddy, the sins of many fathers – both Japanese and Korean – must be factored into the way we consider the decades-long silencing of the so-called "comfort women" and their continued sexual cum political exploitation over the several decades.
It's pretty scary to look your enemy in the eye and see yourself reflected back, so it's easier to just keep him hidden behind a scary black mask, in a state of historical obfuscation and simplistic formulations.
But if people want to really do the former "comfort women" any justice before they die, much more attention should be paid to not just the actual perpetrators of their symbolic "rape," but to the many who worked so hard to shield their victimizers from any political repercussions, lest they lost valuable grants and loans that could be used for national development.
And that's what it comes down to – a nation built upon a bed of exploited female labor – both in the bed and in the factory – with the help of military force to break up unions and keep costs down for the export-oriented economy, censorship to stifle dissent, being tortured or "disappeared" if you actually did, sent to Vietnam to fight another country's war for economic grant packages per unit dispatched, or just living under the general feeling of restriction and hardship.
Yes, the nation benefitted materially, but it sacrificed an immeasurable spiritual amount. Most laugh such material/moral equations off in the shadow of shining buildings and bridges, economic hopes and dreams – even when they come tumbling down. Who thinks about the immaterial when one can now buy Prada purses, comfortable cars, and flatscreen TV's? But there is a price.
Stress from the extreme competitiveness, corruption that comes from a modern culture of corner-cutting, or the overall unhappiness of a society that doesn't ask "why" before it says "do."
We shouldn't need Yoda to point this all all. But then again, since no one in the Korean press seems to be, I guess it's as good a start as any.