The Paradigm that Supports the Korean Comfort Women Redress Movement
Associate Specialist, School of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Hawaii
Chizuko T. Allen
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 todayʼs 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 Japanesemilitary before and during World War II. De-spite 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 Philip- pines 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.