The Unfinished Story
More than 70 years have passed since the issue of the Japanese military's sexual slavery was publicized, and approximately 10 years have passed since the issue was proactively discussed within Korean society. Until recently, the survivors lived their lives in crippling shame, and then were revealed as victims while at the same time being placed at the forefront of activism. This process of facing and overcoming their pain as a way of survival also helped heal their wounds.
So how exactly are Japan and Korea assisting the survival efforts of the comfort women? Are they giving the women the proper attention they deserve? The survivors speak of the remaining, or even the newly-added, regrets while lamenting the few remaining years of their lives. They speak of the reparations they have yet to receive, the strained relationships with their families and neighbors, and the new pains resulting from the indifference that society has shown them. Is this due to the muted echoes of their pain that has continued for the past 10 years? Perhaps this is the way that Japanese and Korean societies have distorted or turned away from the voices of the survivors.
March 17, 2004, marked the 600th comfort women demonstration held every Wednesday in front of the Embassy of Japan in Korea. On every anniversary of the demonstrations, the attendees hope that the “next anniversary” does not come. That would be after the Japanese government provides an official apology and just reparations for the victims. However, the Japanese government refuses to acknowledge the issue. In addition, the Japanese government appears to be leaning towards a revival of militarism, and continues to distort history by deleting references to comfort women in history textbooks. To rationalize the comfort women system, Japan has reduced comfort women to “prostitutes” and continues to assert that none of the victims were forced into sexual slavery. These sentiments show that Japan has not yet felt the pangs of guilt about their past crimes.
However, confined segments of nationalists have been counterproductive and slow to resolve the issues. Nationalists in Korean society played a key role in quickly disseminating the comfort women issue throughout the country. In the early 1990s, Korean society attributed the comfort women problem to the country’s inability to defend itself from Japanese invasion that resulted in the loss of its women to sexual enslavement. Korea approached the issue from one of restoring national pride. Although this nationalist perspective faced derision from feminists in the mid-1990s who claimed that the nationalist patriarchy prohibited the contradiction entangled in the comfort women issue from being acknowledged, it was not able to transform existing sentiments. The duality of male-centered sexual culture and ethics emphasizing the chastity of women in a male-dominated Korean society to this day prevents the contradictions in the comfort women issue from being properly recognized. Korean society has diminished the comfort women issue by limiting the scope of discourse to that of nationalism by stating that comfort women were innocent victims who were forced into sexual slavery in response to Japan’s claims.
In truth, whether comfort women were in fact prostitutes or forced into sexual slavery are not at the core of the comfort women issue. Even people who claim that the women were prostitutes prior to becoming comfort women for the Japanese military express their surprise at the sub-human conditions in the comfort stations. They speak of their ignorance of the confined spaces that prohibited escape, the sexual abuse committed by the Japanese military, and the amount of suffering the women had to endure. Can we as people say that there were no perpetrators in the women’s suffering even while discounting the comfort women model of the Japanese military? Let us remember that the content and the nature of the facts were revealed as the victims recalled details of their abuse. The core of the comfort women issue is the fact that the victims suffered unspeakable human rights violations in the comfort stations installed by the Japanese military for the purpose of conducting effective military campaigns. The comfort women issue must be based upon the experiences of the survivors, not the defensive reasoning for Japan’s claims. Unless the patriarchal nationalists and contradictions regarding sexuality dominating Korean society are corrected, no one will heed the suffering voices of the survivors. A fundamental solution to the comfort women issue will be challenging as long as people view it as a shameful failure by Korean men, in a patriarchal society, to protect their women, treat only women who were able to keep their chastity as women, or force the victims of sexual assault to prove their chastity or involuntary enslavement.
The “comfort women photo shoot” controversy (a nude photo shoot in which the subject of comfort women was used as a concept for entertainment purposes) in February 2004 only reignited the need to reflect upon the comfort women issue in Korean society. The comfort women system was fundamentally sexual assault approved on a national level. But how exactly does Korean society view the atrocities? The attitudes toward the comfort women issue are no different than those for typical rape cases. That is, rather than focusing on a victim’s suffering, society has generally highlighted the crimes as sexual in nature in a display of curiosity toward the situation and then reproduced in detail to meet personal sexual fantasies. Commercial media has, under the guise of a news event, shown only their own interests in profiting from such cases by using stimulating expressions to meet the expectations of the public. The way media deals with the comfort women issue is no different. Mass media has displayed no consideration for the state of the survivors by concentrating only on how brutally the comfort women were treated within the system, how many soldiers the women “received” in a day, or what type of violence they were exposed to, all under the guise of a news story that deals with the pain of a nation. Media has made a farce of the events by focusing on the stories they want to hear rather than listening to what the victims have to say. We must ask ourselves whether we are being stimulated by the “shocking details” provided by commercial media. Perhaps the idea for the “comfort women photo shoot” was only conceived because the producers were able to penetrate the insensitivity present in our society. We, as a society, are currently at a point that demands serious reflection and critique of the way sexual assaults toward women are commercialized and enjoyed on a clandestine level.
How far have we come in resolving the comfort women issue? The stories of survivors have developed in various ways over the past ten years. Although new issues have been raised in that time, little has changed in terms of social recognition. The stubborn nationalist perspective and hypocritical, contradictory ethics toward sexuality instilled by the patriarchal society in Korea continues to filter the message into what people want to hear rather than what needs to be said. As long as our society is unable to transcend these limits, the stories of the comfort women survivors will continue to echo hollowly. We hope that this sixth book will broaden the horizons of perception and reflection.
May 10, 2004
War and Women’s Human Rights Center Research Team