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  • Embodied Reckonings: "Comfort Women," Performance, and Transpacific Redress by Elizabeth W. Son
  • Jungmin Song
EMBODIED RECKONINGS: "COMFORT WOMEN," PERFORMANCE, AND TRANSPACIFIC REDRESS. By Elizabeth W. Son. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018. 267 pp. Paperback: $34.95.

During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army set up "comfort stations" where young women from Japan and occupied territories were drafted to serve in them as military sex slaves. Those women are commonly known as "comfort women." With the number of women estimated at two hundred thousand, this is the biggest institutionalised sexual violence in history. Most of them were from Korea, then Japan's colony. Survivors kept silent for decades as being victims of sexual violence was viewed as shameful. In the early 1990s survivors began to testify, and, together with activists, they have been tirelessly rallying for the Japanese government's formal apology and compensation. In recent years, as public attention to the issue has grown in Korea and worldwide, reparation has become a thorny political and diplomatic matter between South Korea and Japan.

In Embodied Reckonings: "Comfort Women," Performance, and Transpacific Redress, Elizabeth W. Son details the street demonstrations, legal proceedings, theatrical productions, and memorials by survivors, activists, and artists. Son gives a vivid and detailed account of the Wednesday Demonstration that has been held weekly in front of Japanese embassy in Seoul since 1992. She closely analyzes the proceedings and efficacies of The Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery held in Tokyo in December 2000, where survivors from various countries gave testimony on sexual violence committed by Imperial Japanese Army. She also looks into four theatre productions that deal with "comfort women" stories and examines benefits and limitations of artistic iteration. Lastly she looks at "comfort women" memorials in Korea and the US. She narrates the stories behind their foundation and reactions they brought out.

Son argues that the power of performance is derived from bodies of the survivors that embody memory and trauma. In the Wednesday Demonstrations, the presence of bodies of survivors participating in the protests, who are well over 80 years old, emphasizes the passage of time. Viewers witnessing them must reconcile their aged bodies with those of the young innocent girls who were enslaved. In the tribunal, the survivors' trauma was performed not only through verbal testimony but also by showing their scars, their laboured walk, and fainting at the height of emotion. Son sees possibility of redress in performances of survivors. She defines "redressive acts as embodied [End Page 496] practices that involve multiple audiences in actively reengaging with traumatic pasts to work toward social, political, cultural, and epistemological change" (p. 3). Her performance-centered approach opens the ways to see the survivors not just as victims of past crimes whose recovery can be achieved through compensation from institutions but as active agents who bring about changes in themselves and their surroundings through their recuperative acts.

Son's identity as a Korean-American is reflected in the transgenerational and transpacific approach to her subject. Her research and analysis are not bounded by a binary discourse of Japan as perpetrator and Korea as innocent victim. Rather she re-contextualises issues in the history of sexual violence against women in global context. She connects violence against Korean women to the testimony of an Okinawan woman who was raped by American soldiers in 1984. This testimony was given during the Public Hearing on Crimes against Women in Recent Wars and Conflicts that followed shortly after the 2000 tribunal. In the public hearing, women from thirteen regions testified about the sexual violence they experienced during armed conflicts since World War II.

Transgenerational and transpacific perspectives are seen in the selection of theatre productions Son introduces in this volume. Comfort Women (2004) written by Korean-American Chungmi Kim tells the story of a survivor and her granddaughter who live in the US. It was written in English and translated into Korean and retitled Nabi (Butterfly, 2005) when it was produced in South Korea. An adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy, The Trojan Women: An Asian Story (2007), was directed by a Bosnian director, Aida Karic, and travelled to Europe...


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pp. 496-498
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