The questions that frame C. Sarah Soh’s bold monograph on the “wartime comfort women” (J. jūgun ianfu, K. chonggun wianbu) are fundamental: Who were these women? How did they end up laboring in a military comfort station? And, how are they to be remembered? Were they, as many South Korean (but not North Korean) groups assert, girls recruited for Japan’s “Volunteer Corps” (J. teishintai, K. chǒngsindae) during the Pacific War years (1941–45)? Were they professional prostitutes who, as Japan’s neonationalist groups insist, transferred their profession to the war front? Or were they innocent, young girls torn from their parents’ arms to be sent to “rape centers” by the Japanese military, as progressive scholars and human rights activists claim? Soh argues that they were all of the above, and more. Limiting our focus to a single characterization provides a misleading, and often politicized, depiction of these women. To fully understand the phenomenon of comfort women, she explains,
requires that we move beyond the facile explanations of the phenomenon that have been dominant in the past. To do so, we must probe the competing ideologies to get at the multifarious categorical terms that various people—primarily people other than the women themselves—have deployed to symbolically represent Japan’s wartime comfort women.(p. 31)
Employing politically charged terms such as “‘sexual slavery,’ rather than ‘prostitution’ as a shibboleth” may be appropriate in some cases, but by no means every case. Doing so “denies—however unintentionally—the marked human agency enacted by some former comfort women against gendered oppression” (p. 33).
Soh’s broad treatment of the comfort women issue potentially opens itself to both criticism and exploitation. Many no doubt will feel that her plural histories of the women might dampen their victimization. Her arguments also lend themselves to exploitation by neonationalists who claim there is no conclusive evidence to support the image of comfort women as “sex slaves.” They claim the image is a figment of the Japan bashers’ imaginations. Soh, however, insists that evidence does exist. The Japanese government and military violated the women in ways that can only be interpreted as criminal. However, she is equally opposed to an alternative portrayal that molds the women’s experiences into a single paradigmatic story. To the contrary, [End Page 163] their tragedy was entrenched deep in fundamental sociocultural norms. She sees it as a product of the “everyday gender violence tolerated in patriarchal homes and enacted in the public sphere . . . steeped in what I call ‘masculinist sexual culture’ in colonial Korea and imperial Japan” (p. 3).
Soh is clearly more interested in tackling the rather ambitious task of contesting the paradigmatic story than in correcting irresponsible claims by neonationalists. She begins by analyzing the ianjo (comfort station) and the commercial relationship between proprietor (pimp), the laborers (comfort women), and the women’s clients (soldiers). Here she introduces three types of ianjo differentiated by the station’s motives. At one extreme were the “criminal ianjo” that consisted of makeshift shelters erected in the lingering years of the war. Those who labored at these “impromptu rape centers,” as one Filipina woman termed them (p. 131), match many of the circumstances generally associated with the comfort women: the women were typically kidnapped by Japanese soldiers, raped, and then forced to “comfort” a large number of soldiers who lined up for their turn at the “benjo” (literally “toilet” but here a crude euphemism for vagina). At the other end of the scale were the “concessionary ianjo.” At these civilian-managed for-profit comfort stations, women (many who were prostitutes) were paid by soldiers for a wide range of services that included sex-related favors but also dancing, dining, and drinking. Japanese neonationalist groups generally focus on these stations to argue the “criminal ianjo” as fiction. In between fell the nonprofit “paramilitary ianjo,” stations run by the military and staffed by women who performed a variety of chores that included providing sex but...