Park Yu-ha, an academic at Sejong University in Seoul, is the darling of the Japanese right because of her alleged stance on the “comfort women” system. But their cherry-picking of her writings distorts her views and twists them into support for the revisionists’ vindicating and exonerating narrative.
Park presents a nuanced analysis of the comfort women system, one that challenges the prevailing consensus in South Korea, but she is also quite critical of the role Japan played.
Regarding the controversial issue of whether women were recruited through coercion, Park notes in an essay she sent to me that there is no evidence that this was official policy, but maintains that there was “structural coercion” due to colonial subjugation.
Via an additional email exchange in Korean, she adds that she wants Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to deliver an apology to the comfort women in his Aug. 15 speech on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II and Korea’s liberation. She is pessimistic that he will do so, however, and says this is partly Seoul’s fault.
Park agrees that Japanese reactionaries are invoking her name unscrupulously in conveying partial truths. For example, a recent article in The Japan Times suggested she believes that Japanese colonialism in Korea was moderate, but she says this is a misleading reading of her book “Teikoku no Ianfu” (“Comfort Women of the Empire”).
“If ‘moderate’ is used to imply colonization was not bad, I disagree,” she says, noting that during the colonial era “those who opposed Japan’s modern system and national policies — including the emperor system — were tortured and jailed.”
The history of the comfort women issue has become intensely politicized in South Korea, making it difficult for scholars to publish objective analysis that doesn’t conform to the master narrative of victimization. Park had her book pulled from the shelves by court order and was required to redact passages deemed unacceptable. Public discourse in South Korea elides the role of Korean collaborators who served as recruiters and focuses exclusively on Japanese responsibility. Park is vilified in South Korea as an apologist for Japan, even though she argues that the system was cruel and inhumane and has refused to exonerate Japan.
“Japan is not exempt from its responsibility for the comfort women, who were taken to ‘comfort stations’ against their will and experienced pain,” she noted in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun earlier this year.
In the unpublished essay we received (written in English), Park says there was no monolithic system and distinguishes between what she calls “comfort women” — meaning only Koreans and Japanese — and other Asian “women who were provided on battlefields and were forced to work in the form of semi-constant rape” and victims of one-time rape on the battlefields” that she says should not be referred to as comfort women.
“The foremost premise in discussing the comfort women issue,” she adds, “is to recognize that women made to engage in sex work were always the socially weak, that most of them were susceptible to disease and that they found themselves in a miserable plight in which they faced a constant risk of death.”
Park asserts that most Korean comfort women were from the lower classes and were not recruited under Japan’s school-level national mobilization program, known as teishintai, a point that has caused some confusion. The fact that they have insisted they were recruited through this program has been cited by Japanese revisionists to accuse them of lying and dismiss the comfort women’s testimony entirely. Park disagrees and says there are good reasons for this misunderstanding, stressing she doesn’t believe the comfort women were lying.
Koreans, she says, believed they were forcibly recruited because “recruiters in military uniforms (who acted as civilian employees of the military) deceived them into becoming comfort women by telling them that they were being taken to serve in the teishintai (forcibly, albeit as part of the national mobilization facilitated by the creation of laws, but ‘voluntary’ in form).”
Thus, she concludes that “women with such experiences perceived them as forcible recruitment. In other words, rather than former comfort women telling lies, it is highly likely that recruiters … had lied.”
And for Japanese deniers, she inconveniently points out that “it appears that recruiters were often pairs of Japanese and Korean men.”
Overall, Park blames these recruiters most for the misery endured by the women they treated like sex slaves, but she does not absolve the Japanese military.
“Some Korean comfort women, while traveling with troops on the front lines, underwent the inhumane experiences of being subjected to the insatiable carnal appetite of Japanese soldiers in the line of fire on battlefields and falling victim to gunfire and shelling,” she writes in the essay.
Based on Korean comfort women’s testimony, Park believes that recruitment was largely based on deception rather than coercion, but she believes the consequences for all these women were horrific; none were free to leave once recruited and all were subject to military discipline. The comfort stations were closely monitored by the Japanese military and the comfort women “had no freedom of movement, no freedom to get out of the business and no freedom even to defend their lives.”
In contrast, she writes that “for Dutch and Chinese women, the military was directly involved in the grouping and segregation of them for sexual labor, and the military’s actions literally represented forcible recruitment (for) the purpose of continuous rape of enemy women who were conquered.”
Park also takes issue with recent efforts by politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party to discredit the 1993 Kono statement, which acknowledges Japan’s responsibility for the comfort women system.
“The Kono statement noted that the process of being transferred was against their will and that sexual labor at comfort stations was not of their own choice, thus acknowledging the nature of structural coercion,” she writes. Thus, it “accurately acknowledged that the existence of Korean comfort women was the result of Japan’s colonial occupation, since the ‘involvement of the military authorities of the day’ in the establishment and management of comfort stations is a fact.” Therefore, she concludes, “there should be no need to review the Kono statement.”
In Park’s view, the Diet should go further and adopt a resolution of apology, but in the context of “Abenesia” and the self-righteous nationalism prevailing in the LDP today, such a mea culpa is unthinkable.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.