- The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan
In this thought-provoking book, Sarah Soh takes on a difficult task of re-reading the history of "comfort women" against the "paradigmatic narrative" of Korean female victimization and Japanese masculine violence. Tracing the comfort women debates in the past two decades, she identifies the two strands of discourses—"feminist humanitarianism" and "Korean ethnic nationalism"—that have driven much of the domestic and international redress movements and defined the contour and content of the debates among historians, politicians, and feminist and nationalist activists in Korea and Japan. The paradigmatic narrative tells stories of poor young women who were forcibly abducted and violently thrust into sexual enslavement to Japanese soldiers. As powerful as the paradigmatic narrative of sexual slavery has been, Soh argues, Korean women's experiences and memories of Japanese colonial rule are far more complex and diverse and thus require nuanced and multifaceted analysis with careful attention to heterogeneous voices and perspectives among the women.
Culling information from her own interviews with former comfort women as well as Japanese and Korean publications since the 1970s, Soh presents diverse tales of comfort women and their memories. The picture [End Page 147] that emerges from her research is indeed rich and complex. For some comfort women, it was patriarchal abuse by their own fathers or mothers—not forcible abduction—that initially drove them away from home and eventually led them to comfort stations. Japanese played a conspicuous role in procurement of comfort women, but Koreans also profited by participating in human trafficking. Women's experiences as comfort women varied significantly depending on the type of comfort stations they were assigned to. Equally varied are women's memories. For some, war years are recalled with a sense of nostalgia and even affection toward individual Japanese soldiers with whom they became acquainted and in some cases even developed a personal relationship. In contrast, postwar years are frequently remembered with much bitterness and anger as they have experienced severe social ostracism from fellow Koreans, including their own husbands and other family members. By providing these stories, Soh does not intend to minimize the horrors of Japanese colonial rule or its consequences for women in Korea. Rather she insists that in order to gain a fuller and more accurate understanding of the comfort women, one must attend to the voices and perspectives that deviate from the paradigmatic narrative.
Analytically, Soh makes painstaking efforts to situate comfort women's diverse voices, experiences, and perspectives within the larger context of "gendered structural violence." By defining the comfort women system as a historic space where Japan's long-standing practices of institutional exploitation of female sexuality converged with those of Korea, Soh illuminates its similarities to and continuities with other state-sanctioned sexual exploitations, most notably Japan's Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA) and Korea's camptown prostitution, both of which are instances of institutionalized oppression of indigenous female sexuality under the postwar American occupation. What emerges from her cross-historical and cross-cultural observations is a nuanced understanding of imperialism and violence where domestic forces—indigenous institutions, local patriarchal mores and practices, and individual men—repeatedly participate in and collaborate with foreign military masculine forces to prey on local women's bodies. Yet, far from universalizing the pattern of patriarchal violence, she insists on delineating historical specificities of the comfort women system and other instances of state-sanctioned sexual violence and examining diverse forms of women's agency and each locality's unique political economic conditions.
Given the exceptionally politicized nature of the comfort women debates, Soh's attempt to recover "truth(s)" never goes uncontested. As she relates toward the end of her book, her research has provoked muchire [End Page 148] from the advocates of the redress movement whose arguments have been disciplined by the paradigmatic narrative of the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, the umbrella organization of advocates that...