Joshua D. Pilzer’s Hearts of Pine, a continuation and refinement of his dissertation (University of Chicago, 2006), follows the story of three victims of Japanese sexual slavery, as well as that of Pilzer as he undertakes fieldwork spanning a decade. He develops relationships with three survivors of the “comfort women” system: Pak Duri, Mun Pilgi, and Bae Chunhui. Pilzer places himself within the story and shows how his perspective is, at times, advantageous and somewhat limited. Through the voice of these three women, he explores their position between the public expectations of the “comfort woman grandmother” and their own voices as individuals with a range of life experiences and perspectives. Pilzer’s own experience as a researcher, slowly gaining the trust of his informants over time, clearly exemplifies this dichotomy between these public and private roles. His book aims at giving voice to these women, who are held in time by the social expectation of the “preservation of the wound” whereby they are “asked for infinite encores of the performance of suffering” (p. 59). Therefore, the song, privately an act of healing, entails a constant reopening of the wound in public.
“Comfort women” under the Japanese imperial system do not constitute a new area of study, nor is the description of such women’s lives without precedent. Other researchers such as Howard and Kim-Gibson (Keith Howard, True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women: Testimonies [London: Cassell, 1995]; Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women [Parkers burg, IA: Mid-Prairie Books, 1999]) tell the stories within the system of sexual slavery or life during this period. Sarah Soh goes beyond life in “comfort stations” to explain how women heal, using snippets of different women’s experiences (C. Sarah Soh, The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Post-colonial Memory in Korean and Japan [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008]). Pilzer’s book looks at the lives of three women as a whole, showing the process of healing within the scope of a life-span. Hearts of Pine, when combined with the companion Web site (http://www.oup.com/us/companion.websites/9780199759576/, accessed 15 March 2013), gives an individual voice to women often depersonalized and desexualized as symbols of the national suffering. Hearing the voices of these women in combination with photos reveals them as far more than their role as “comfort women grandmothers.”
There are understandably questions of perspective between the researcher, a young American male, and the subjects, elderly Korean women, when undertaking this kind of research project. Pilzer shows great sensitivity, humility, and intelligence towards this complex issue; however, this same sensitivity seems overly cautious and almost defensive at points. His language is almost poetic and shows great respect for the women. His relationship with each of them shows them to be complete women rather than victims, which seems to be the purpose of his work.
Hearts of Pine looks at how song functions in the lives of the three women. While the three sections do give information about each woman’s life and, in various degrees of detail, her time as a “comfort woman,” the primary focus seems to be on the present moment in company with Pilzer at the House of Sharing, a rest home for victims of Japanese sexual slavery. He focuses on how these women have come to be as they are late in life. In the first section on Pak Duri, he explores how she uses song and wit, often changing words to traditional and popular songs, to sexualize herself to reclaim the part of her that is assumed to have been destroyed through sexual violence. This section also talks about Pak Duri’s role in the weekly protests outside of the Japanese embassy as well as her struggle between the public face of the movement and her private, personal expression.
Similarly, the second section on Mun Pilgi shows Pilzer’s effort...