- Embodied Reckonings: “Comfort Women,” Performance, and Transpacific Redress by Elizabeth W. Son
Before and during World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy forced approximately 200,000 “comfort women”— girls and young women, mostly of Korean descent — into the unthinkable suffering of sexual slavery. It would be many years before these atrocities faced concentrated public scrutiny; but in the 1990s, those who survived their sexual servitude, along with their supporters, initiated a movement that, to this day, seeks justice for those victimized by state-imposed sexual violence. In Embodied Reckonings: “Comfort Women,” Performance, and Transpacific Redress, Elizabeth W. Son argues that performance has played a leading role in this movement. Son writes about such performance as a collection of “redressive acts,” or “embodied practices that involve multiple audiences in actively reengaging traumatic pasts to work toward social, political, cultural, and epistemological change” (3). Redress, Son argues, is not limited to what the Japanese state can provide (but hasn’t and likely won’t) in apologetic response to its own perpetration of sexual violence. Redress is also that which performative action provides for survivors of sexual violence in the form of “the restoration of their social status, affirmation of ownership over self-narratives, production of knowledge, community formation, and commemoration of the women’s history” (3). Gathered together, the redressive acts Son describes amount to “a transpacific redressive repertoire”— a new and capacious critical category that invokes the work of Diana Taylor, frequently cited in this book for her writing on the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo, redressive actors very similar to those that interest Son (4). By bringing a thinker like Taylor into contact with scholars of the transpacific such as Lisa Yoneyama and Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Embodied Reckonings stages a much-needed encounter between the field of theatre and performance studies and that of a transnational Asian American studies, an encounter of urgent relevance to artists, activists, and academics alike.
Son’s first two chapters lead readers through the performatic strategies that survivors and activists have employed in their quest for reparation from the Japanese government. Chapter 1 focuses on the Wednesday Demonstrations, weekly protests staged outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul since 1992. Drawing on archival documentation, interviews, and her own participant observation as a fellow protester, Son details the ways that survivors have utilized dress, signage, and their own elderly bodies to produce “somatic disruptions” powerful enough to induce the possibility of redress (48). Chapter 2 analyzes the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery as performance. The tribunal gathered 64 survivors in Tokyo during the winter of 2000 to testify against the Japanese government. In this chapter, Son shows how survivors have utilized performance as a means of “challenging legal protocol and asserting their personhood” (101). In doing so, she contributes to a growing body of scholarship at the intersection of the law and performance — we can think here of work by Catherine Cole (2009) and Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson (2013).
While the entire book is nimbly conversant with the theoretical contributions of theatre studies, chapter 3 is the only chapter in which Son takes up specific stage plays and productions. Those four works are Chungmi Kim’s Comfort Women (2004); that play’s Korean translation, Nabi (2005–2009); director Aida Karic’s The Trojan Women: An Asian Story (2007); and Bongseonhwa (2013, 2014) by the Korean playwright Yoon Jung-mo. Across her analyses of these productions, Son attends to the relationship between theatre and activism. The plays, Son convincingly demonstrates, thicken the narratives surrounding the “comfort women” by bringing attention to the ways that the gendered trauma attached to sexual slavery is lived not only by survivors, but by those intimately connected to them. For example, through careful close reading of Kim’s Comfort [End Page 175] Women, the context of its production, and its reception — a methodology common to Son’s treatment of each of the plays — Son shows how...