Recently I attended a session on the “comfort women” issue at a Kyushu University symposium on war-related heritage in East Asia. I was surprised by the diversity in views among the Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Australian presenters at the session.

An Australian researcher questioned assumptions linking the experience of comfort women exclusively with militaristic violence, arguing that there were continuities between the comfort women system and patriarchal practices of prostitution in countries like Japan and South Korea today.

A Japanese researcher criticized the “model victim” dimension to the sex slavery narrative, and stated that the experiences of women in Japan’s wartime military brothel system had been marginalized. During the question-and-answer session one audience member vented her irritation over the supposed anti-Japanese biases of the speakers.

Such robust, open discussion over the comfort women issue has not always been the norm, and sometimes it still isn’t. In post-World War II South Korea and Japan, the comfort women were considered best forgotten; they were lower class and tainted by their “shameful” profession.

But from the late 1980s, South Korea’s democratization enabled more critical media discussion of the Japanese colonial era and feminist campaigns for women’s rights. The fate of Korean comfort women sparked public interest, survivors began coming forward to testify to their experiences, and Japanese journalists and feminists also began to investigate and campaign for them.

As feminists and human rights activists helped make the Korean comfort women’s suffering a global issue in the 1990s, the Japanese government came under increasing pressure to investigate and atone in appropriate fashion, eventually sparking a backlash from Japanese nationalists.

In the ongoing controversies over the comfort women issue between the Japanese and South Korean governments, much has been written about how Japanese nationalists have distorted the comfort women story with their historical revisionism. They have seized upon a shortage of official documentary evidence (most of which was conveniently destroyed at the end of the war), apparent inconsistencies in elderly survivors’ testimony and upon evidence of relatively open contractual employment conditions for Korean women in some wartime urban facilities to argue that the comfort women system was licensed prostitution, managed largely by civilian contractors.

In this story, the comfort women system was no different from prostitution systems elsewhere in the world, and enslavement, coercion and rape were rare exceptions rather than being endemic to it. These nationalists have fiercely denounced Japanese scholars, journalists and activists for supporting human rights perspectives on the comfort women, and for bringing international condemnation upon Japan.

Less well-known is how South Korean nationalism has co-opted the comfort women issue. What Korean American scholar Sarah Soh has described as a post-Cold War, transnational “feminist humanitarian perspective” on comfort women has been shoehorned into a government-supported discourse of Korean national victimhood under Japanese rule.

The violation and suffering of Korean comfort women is one of its most potent symbols. This nationalist orthodoxy is enforced more severely through criminal defamation laws than any revisionist nationalism in Japan. Historian Park Yu-ha was recently prosecuted and fined and another professor jailed for dissenting from it.

Now that disputes over South Korea’s colonial history are once again driving a legal and diplomatic rift between Japan and South Korea, the underlying motivations for the Korean nationalist appropriation of the comfort women story merit closer scrutiny.

Recent research by political scientists Joseph Yi, Joe Phillips and Wondong Lee has explained the domestic context for this nationalism. It emerged from a decadeslong culture war between South Korea’s right- and left-wing factions, waged over the contentious legacies of Japanese colonial rule, civil war and autocratic postwar industrialization.

Under South Korea’s postwar autocracies, right-wing nationalism focused more on North Korea than on Japan as South Korea’s main enemy. Progressive South Korean activists and political leaders were denounced as North Korean allies and persecuted. Since the democratization of South Korea, progressives have successfully pushed back against rightists’ more propagandist representations of North Korea, and against their anti-communist slurs.

Yet according to Yi and his co-researchers, South Korean progressive activists, intellectuals and political parties evolved their own populist, anti-right wing nationalism. Central to it is a “Manichaean” representation of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea as equal in its oppressions and cruelty to Nazis wartime rule over Europe. The populist aspect to this nationalism is its denunciation of key historical figures in the Korean right as elite, pro-Japanese collaborators during the colonial era, enriching themselves and their families through craven clientelism, enthusiastically joining the Imperial Japanese Army, and trafficking working-class Koreans into slavery under the Japanese.

There is some truth in this populism. South Korea’s postwar dictator and modernizer Park Chung-hee had served as an officer in Japan’s wartime army. Many colonial era Koreans who became administrators, entrepreneurs, military officers and scholars under Japanese patronage went on to comprise South Korea’s commercial, academic and political elites during its postwar industrialization. Korean labor brokers, pimps, businessmen, teachers, officials and police helped recruit poorer Koreans into sexual and industrial servitude for the Japanese empire.

This anti-Japanese nationalism, now spread through school history textbooks as well as the mass media, is currently upheld by President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party government. But it has proven electorally attractive enough for conservative political parties and governments to exploit as well, though with far less enthusiasm for denouncing the collaboration of former colonial elites. Its narrative of national victimhood under Japanese colonial domination papers over Japan’s role in Korean modernization, and nowadays it increasingly elides the colonial class system that allowed some Koreans to prosper more than others under Japanese rule.

Sarah Soh argues that the nationalist and even human rights perspectives have also flattened out the comfort women’s experiences into a uniform sexual slavery narrative, overlooking the complexity of an evolving empire-wide system incorporating both “licensed prostitution and indentured sexual labor … and battlefield abduction into sexual slavery.”

Japanese historian Akane Onozawa has pinpointed the origins of the comfort women system in prewar, state-licensed debt-bondage prostitution in Japan, which expanded in the 1920s to colonial Korea before being adapted to service the sexual demands of Japan’s armed forces in China, amid concerns about soldiers raping local women.

This system employed mostly poor, working class Japanese and Korean women sold to brokers by their parents, or often deceitfully recruited with promises of jobs in factories or in hospitals. These women were all vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, but in keeping with the empire’s ethnic hierarchy, Japanese comfort women generally received better pay and treatment.

Surviving Japanese military records analyzed by Chinese scholar Su Zhiliang demonstrate that expanded wartime operations and rising military demand for comfort women in China in 1938 generated a recruitment crisis in the licensed comfort women system. Increasing resort was made to using Chinese women for growing comfort women facilities, now managed under closer state and military supervision, or set up informally beyond official supervision. This pattern of using local women was replicated in other wartime occupied territories, including the Philippines, Indonesia and Timor Leste.

Though some were forcibly recruited with the assistance of local collaborators, others were kidnapped or captured in counter-insurgency operations, and — unlike Japanese or Korean comfort women — were far more likely to be repeatedly raped, tortured or murdered. However, as Japan’s military capabilities and economy collapsed in 1944-1945, Japanese and Korean comfort women trapped in war zones with other civilians also faced increased risks of starvation, disease and violent death.

The international research summarized above, based on careful analysis of incomplete documentary evidence and the testimony of aged survivors and witnesses, undermines the dogmatic certitudes of Japanese and Korean nationalists — and of some comfort women supporters. There are many lessons to draw from it. Feminists should be wary of a Korean nationalism that draws from a deep well of masculine humiliation over Japanese abuses of Korean women’s innocence, and reassert more transnational perspectives on the comfort women issue.

Yet South Koreans also should ask themselves whether an intolerant, divisive, anti-Japanese nationalism is compatible with their own hard-won liberal democracy. Though its prospects seem unlikely, a liberal nationalism emphasizing South Korea’s rich cultural history, successful modernization and democratic values would be the better alternative; and if anti-Japanese animus can be defused and defamation law reformed, there would be greater freedom for scholars and activists to discuss the comfort women problem.

Such a nationalism would also be more conducive to building better relations with Japan, and to working out more collaborative approaches to investigating historical injustices.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University.

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