The most troubling aspect of the recent attention in the media, most especially the Korean media, on the “comfort women” issue is that it has been conflated with the Japan-Korea dispute over the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takeshima). The conflation of these two issues has created the appearance that what is at stake in both issues is the historical truth concerning Japan and Korea.
However, this conflation treats both issues as a means to nationalist ends. The dangerous assumption behind this is that the interests of the surviving “comfort women” are the same as that of the Korean national interests. This same logic was operative in the conditions that allowed for the military sexual slavery of these women, conditions which C. Sarah Soh in her book The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan shows to be developed from “both Japanese colonial economy and the centuries-old sexual cultures of Japanese and Korean patriarchy.”
It would be a grave mistake for the Korean government to speak on behalf of these women since it runs the risk of violating the stories of these women in the same way that their bodies have been violated. For in doing so, national interests become inherently embedded in shaping their stories. Yet, the ease with which the media has coupled the two issues in the past few weeks seems to hide more than just the Korean nationalist interest.
What is interesting about this grouping of the “comfort women” issue with the Liancourt Rocks as the grounds for the Japan-Korea dispute is that it hides from attention the issue over another island, the construction of a naval base in Jeju Island’s Gangjeong Village for the purposes of the U.S. Navy, despite protests from the local residents. Similarly, the presentation of the “comfort women” as a Japan-Korea dispute hides the American role in the production of the knowledge about the “comfort women” and its influence on how the story came to be told.
The Asian-American scholar Lisa Yoneyama wrote of how the legal language of human rights, the violation of it, and its redress concerning the “comfort women” issue has been “Americanized.”1 Such “Americanization” has become stronger considering the U.S. House Resolution 121 in 2007 and Hillary Clinton’s recent remark about the label “comfort women.” In addition, the need for an American intervention on this issue continues to be expressed in both the American and the Korean media.
The real narrative voice behind this Hollywood-style legal drama that currently frames the “comfort women” issue, in which a victimized party remains in silence, until a third-party legal advocate comes to break the silence, giving voice to and bringing reparation to the victims, may not be a Korean, nor a Japanese one, but an American voice.
The story of the “comfort women” is not merely composed of the testimonies of the surviving “comfort women.” It is rather framed by the discursive history of how their stories came to be known in the 90s. This discursive history reveals how the international human rights and feminist movements, nations, and even Asian-American artists and activists have knowingly or unknowingly framed the story of the “comfort women” from their own perspectives and with their own vested interests.
With this in mind, one must be vigilant about whether or not this Americanized framework of the story of the “comfort women” and the overshadowing of the Jeju Island conflict by the dispute over the Liancourt Rocks hides American interest. The real story behind what appears to be the dominance of the Japan-Korea dispute may indeed be the need for American intervention.
1. Lisa Yoneyama, “Traveling Memories, Contagious Justice, Americanization of Japanese War Crimes at the End of Post Cold-War Era.” Journal of Asian American Studies 6 (2003): 57-93.