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Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 271-276

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The Comfort Women: Colonialism, War, and Sex. Special issue of Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 5 (spring 1997). Edited by Chungmoo Choi (guest editor). Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. Pp. xiv + 323. $12 (individual issue).

On a recent visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, I had a momentary struggle with memory as I read the title plaque beneath one of Titian's landmark paintings, Europa. I stared at the plaque to make sure I hadn't missed any words. This painting has always been referred to as "The Rape of Europa," I repeatedly reminded myself, and promptly inserted the mental vision of rape back into the canvas.

"From the perspective of the Korean woman, forcibly recruited, with no control over her body or her life but compelled to have intercourse on demand, what the Japanese soldier saw as customary was in fact one in a series of unpardonable rapes" (Hyunah Yang).

A picture may paint a thousand words, but the choice of words and the images, myths, legacies, histories, and identities that the words conjure up give life to the way people view, understand, and accept or [End Page 271] reject the portrayal of art, politics, sex, and violence. What kinds of words matter? How do the meanings of words change depending on who utters them? How do different audiences color speakers' choices of words and their intentions?

The Comfort Women: Colonialism, War, and Sex raises these and other questions in a collective struggle to make sense of the discourses, ideologies, governmental policies, archival documents, personal narratives, and unarticulated silences that helped construct the Japanese military system of sexual slavery during the war in the Pacific and continue to obstruct the honest accounting and resolution of the "comfort women issue." Contributors to this special issue of Positions, whose guest editor is Chungmoo Choi, include women and men, academics and activists, poets and artists, residing in South Korea, Japan, Germany, and the United States. Their entries vary from the historical documentation of the political economy of modern prostitution in Japan and Korea (Fujime, pp. 135-70; Song, pp. 171-217), to two survivors' visual representations of the horror and strange environments that confronted them (Kang and Kim, pp. 276-78), to theoretical discussions of the language of apology and reparation (Field, pp. 1-49) and the thorny history of Korean-Japanese relations (Oe and Kim, pp. 285-313). It is an eclectic and creative composite of contemporary perspectives on sexual slavery, artistic reimaginings, and emotional confusions around a violent practice that has long been a part of the near universal, received history of war: women as rape victims and sex workers.

Although the title refers to "comfort women," a term that includes those from many Asian countries and Europe, the contents focus solely on the Japan-Korea nexus of political, sexual, legal, and cultural relations from the nineteenth century to the present. Together, the entries highlight how racism, sexism, and classism, whether embodied formally in colonialism or informally in Korea's contemporary yen-dependent economy, have been at the core of the Japan-Korea relationship. Several entries point out that such dependence is at the root of the South Korean government's refusal to press the Japanese government for reparations on behalf of the survivors. If one accepts this view, Korea's current financial crisis, involving billions of dollars owed to Japanese banks, bodes ill for even a moderate reversal in the two governments' positions. Inequality of power between Japan and Korea and between Asia and the West, as well as the continued privileged status of governments and the West to define and narrate history, justice, and human rights, serves as the context in which the survivors' [End Page 272] own memories and stories remain buried and their current calls for justice remain largely unanswered.

One of the strengths of the collection is the reminder that international influences have significantly shaped the Japanese system of military sexual slavery and the contemporary movement for...