C. Sarah Soh explains how the comfort women system emerged from the nexus of patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism and militarism, placing it in an ongoing continuum of women’s subjugation and exploitation. Controversially, she asserts that it is inaccurate to depict the comfort women as sex slaves and the system as a war crime.

THE COMFORT WOMEN: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, by C. Sarah Soh. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 384 pp., $25 (paper)

Soh’s main target is the Korean Council, an umbrella organization of activist groups involved in the redress movement, arguing that it has sensationalized the story, imposing a misleading narrative of victimization while brooking no dissent. She contends that “the canonized story of police or the military forcibly dragging them away from loving parents” is a shibboleth and accuses the redress movement of employing “strategic exaggerations that have effectively impeded deeper understanding of the comfort women issue and any real progress toward its resolution.” In her view, the onus is on Korean society to repudiate victimization, admit its complicity in the comfort women’s trauma, and accept that the entire system was not criminal.

Soh accuses the Korean Council of making life difficult for those comfort women who chose to accept compensation from the Japanese government under the auspices of the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF). Unwilling to let the Japanese off the hook of history, the Korean Council pressured former comfort women to renounce the AWF’s gesture of contrition while the Korean government offered them compensation provided they refused the Japanese money. Those who accepted faced a traumatic ostracism. One suspects that Soh faces a similar fate for bravely challenging the cult of victimization and spreading responsibility.

“The Comfort Women” argues that the dominant narrative is misleading because it makes sweeping generalizations that don’t tally with the wide variations in recruitment and conditions reported by former comfort women and incorrectly conflates comfort women’s recruitment with the “volunteer corps,” a separate system for mobilizing women’s labor introduced during wartime. In addition, by vilifying, the Koreans avert their gaze from their own collaboration. She maintains that compatriots recruited a majority of the Korean comfort women and some were sold to traffickers by indigent parents. Moreover, after the war Korean society stigmatized these women, compounding their tragedy.

Soh laments that Korean nationalism has tainted the redress movement, one that shades the truth while demanding justice. She admits, however, that, “There can be no denial of the tragic victimization of forcibly recruited women who suffered slavery-like conditions.” Yet, she quibbles a great deal about this very issue.

For Japan’s quartermasters, we learn, comfort women and condoms were essential supplies for the imperial troops. Chaste teenage virgins, mostly from destitute families, were seen as desirable, morale-boosting “gifts” to the warriors, ones symbolically “wrapped” with assigned Japanese names. Soh further acknowledges that official documents implicate the Japanese government in the establishment and maintenance of the comfort women system.

Oddly, Soh takes redress advocates to task far more than conservative Japanese who deny or minimize what happened. She concurs with Japanese apologists that the comfort women system was akin to the existing system of licensed prostitution, but then admits it was not typical because non-Japanese comfort women were much more likely to suffer physical violence. She also argues that it is misleading to refer to the military brothels as “rape centers,” but is the term “comfort stations” any less misleading?

Soh often veers so close to the views of conservative Japanese apologists that she warns them against appropriating her arguments. She is far harsher on Korean redress activists than Japanese minimizers because her agenda is to indict patriarchy and force Koreans to acknowledge their complicity and indifference. In her view, the prevailing victim’s narrative impedes this self-reflection.

There were very different types of comfort facilities, what Soh terms the “concessionary, the paramilitary and the criminal.” Respectively, these are the facilities run by private entrepreneurs for profit, those run by the military as “not-for-profit recreational centers” and those improvised by soldiers on the battlefield involving sexual enslavement. This criminal type she calls an anomaly quite distinct from the “state-endorsed and regulated” facilities. One wonders why official sanction rendered them any less criminal and to what degree this endorsement consoled the young women.

While Soh’s analysis is compelling in many respects, her strategic equivocations detract from the book. If, as Soh writes, the comfort women were sex objects and working in slavelike conditions, why reject calling them sex slaves? Anticipating criticism, she portrays herself as a target of raving ethno-nationalists and guardians of politically correct views, but her analysis does suffer from some logical lapses.

Overall, this is a brave and impressive book that usefully complicates and adds layers to our understanding of a sordid system. Alas, it offers little hope for reconciliation.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

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