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‘Comfort women’ issue is far from black and white

The 'comfort women' issue is far more complicated than most acknowledge

by Hiroaki Sato

The dubious status some South Koreans have sought overseas for what Sally McGrane fashionably calls “brutal state-run rape camps” has now won academic approbation in the United States, according to her report, “An Important Statue for ‘Comfort Women’ in San Francisco” (The New Yorker, Oct. 12). McGrane quotes Harvard professor Dara Kay Cohen and University of California, Berkeley professor Elaine Kim to emphasize her point. But she doesn’t even mention Sejong professor Park Yu-ha, who holds a contrasting, more considered view.

Park has cast doubt on her South Korean compatriots’ campaign to sell the world the idea that the “comfort women” violated “the universal women’s rights” as an expression of “moral arrogance.” She explains why in her book, “Comfort Women of the Empire” (Korean 2013, Japanese 2014).

“Colonization inevitably spawns a schism among the colonized people,” she writes. But “Korea has lived by erasing the memory of its collaboration with and subjugation to the sovereign nation,” Japan, since its “liberation” from the country in 1945 — by refusing to see “the other face of Korea.” In the process, those engaged in propagating the notion that comfort women embodied the evil that was Imperialist Japan have lost the ability to talk about “why so many of the comfort women were Korean,” even as they argued that “most comfort women were Korean.”

To write her book, Park first focused on interviews with surviving Korean comfort women. (There were more Japanese comfort women.) As a result, she confirmed that practically all those who “duped” or “forced” them into prostitution, as well as those who managed the “comfort stations,” were Korean, not the Japanese military. In some cases, their parents sold them to middlemen out of dire poverty. That was common in Japan, too, during its economic difficulties before World War II.

There were also “voluntary” comfort women, a la “sex workers” today.

As important, the recent South Korean depiction that all Korean comfort women were “victims” of the incomparable tyranny of the Japanese military ignore what they actually said, Park found.

Some women sympathized with Japanese soldiers going to battle to “die” as they were told. Some fell in love with them, as some soldiers fell in love with them. Some soldiers were kind, some came to spend time with them, not for sex, but for their company only. Some regularly passed them some of the special food meant for their officers. Some gave them money, pitying their fate, without touching them.

Some soldiers were coarse, of course, but most of them were not brutes as recent imaginations project them to be. Some took the women for horse rides or car drives. Horses were abundant in the Japanese military, but not the cars. One woman remembered a woman almost wrecking a car, but the Japanese officers simply enjoyed the spectacle.

The Japanese military was also the protector of the women. One surprise in the interviews Park cites may be the Kempei, the Military Police. Contrary to their usual image, they acted as guardians of comfort women. They were tough on the soldiers who behaved badly toward the women.

“Comfort women were not necessarily people that resisted the Japanese military as Koreans burning with nationalist awareness,” wrote Inuhiko Yomota in an essay. An international intellectual at large, Yomota has taught in South Korea and a dozen other countries.

Think of it: When another powerful country takes over your country and treats you, however superficially, as its own citizen long enough, you will begin to think yourself as part of the country, however unconsciously — unless you are a dedicated nationalist. This must have been true especially when only a certain stratum of society strongly thought of national identity.

Or suppose the U.S. Occupation of Japan lasted for 20 or 30 years, rather than seven. Even without a much longer occupation, the American influence on Japan was incalculable. Or recall the influence of Western culture on Japan since the 19th century. Park, known for her translations of the novelists Soseki Natsume and Kenzaburo Oe as well as the philosopher and critic Kojin Karatani, received her Ph.D. in “Modern Japanese Literature and National Identity.”

In fact, as the subtitle of Park’s book, “Struggle with the Colonial Rule and Its Memory,” says, her main purpose to write the book was to fill some of the willful lacunas in recent South Korean accounts of Japan’s rule, in particular, as regards “comfort women.” And that put her in trouble. She may have quoted too many “testimonies” of comfort women that put the Japanese in a less than condemnable light.

Her book was favorably received at first. But not long afterward, a libel lawsuit in the name of former comfort women was brought against her. After several steps, the Seoul Eastern District Court dismissed the indictment by the District Prosecutor’s Office last January. The prosecutors appealed, and that’s where the matter stands now.

“For a Dialogue,” a collection of the arguments by 12 scholars, was put together and published in an effort to help ameliorate this legal impasse. Yomota is one of the 12.

Park also addresses a larger issue. ” ‘Comfort women’ did not exist in wartime Japan alone,” she points out. “They have existed since the ages going far back, and they exist now. The women [who do similar work] in the military bases all over the world are basically ‘comfort women,’ even if they are not conscious as such.”

Limiting ourselves to U.S. bases overseas, there are 900 of them. Of the countries that have them but not at war, Japan provides the “most valuable real estate” to maintain 39,000 U.S. troops — in Okinawa, Sasebo, Iwakuni, Yokosuka, Misawa, etc. — while South Korea offers “the fourth most valuable real estate” to keep 23,500 U.S. troops — in Seoul, Busan, Daegu, etc. How do you suppose those American soldiers take care of their sexual needs?

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist based in New York.