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Reviewed by:
  • Traffic in Asian Women by Laura Hyun Yi Kang
  • Nicolyn Woodcock
TRAFFIC IN ASIAN WOMEN. By Laura Hyun Yi Kang. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.

Laura Hyun Yi Kang’s Traffic in Asian Women centers the “comfort women issue,” working from its ascendance to international prominence in the early 1990s to trace backwards and illustrate the ways “Asian women” have been enfigured –– and effaced –– within the 20th century’s evolving ideological movements surrounding “women’s rights as human rights.”1 Taking the “comfort women issue” as exemplary of the complexities of inter-Asian geopolitics both past and present, Kang proposes “thinking ‘Asian women’ as method” (Ch. 1)––as analytic rather than hapless object of study subject to “empathetic identification with those bodies in pain” (35). Such method, rather, “think[s] and think[s] again through ‘Asian women’ as bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing” (35). Performing this methodical work, Kang connects disparate records in archives of “global governance” such as the League of Nations, United Nations, and Allied military intelligence organizations with literature, testimony, news media, and other cultural productions, demonstrating how the “comfort women issue” falls through so “many cracks in the shifting international edifice of investigating and monitoring” sexual and gendered violence across the 20th century (104)––from “traffic in women” between the World Wars (Ch. 2) through Cold War anxiety over “sexual slavery” (Ch. 3). Tracking these through their transformation to the capacious category “violence against women,” Kang charts the coinciding transnational conditions of possibility which have made the issue hypervisible from the 1990s into our present (Ch. 4). For instance, Kang’s close archival review shows that the early-20th century linguistic turn to “traffic in women” as “inclusive” corrective to the late-19th century use of “white slavery” as synonym for prostitution persistently retained the former’s racial hierarchy. And, although “sexual slavery” is now the definitive concept for understanding the “comfort system,” Kang’s [End Page 112] study reveals the issue was ignored in UN discourses that initially focused on the years after WWII, an oversight designating it an unremarkable wartime exception.

In the latter half, Traffic presents now familiar subtopics in the “comfort women issue,” such as truth, reparation, and memorials for our re-consideration. Kang prompts us to dwell on photographs and military intelligence reports “unearthed” from the US archives in the early-1990s, for example, which have circulated as “irrefutable proof” of Japanese war crimes, re-reading them, first, as incriminating proof of U.S. knowledge about and complicity in making the “comfort system” unvisible; and second, as a discomforting record of imperial contact between Asian American servicemen and Asian women (Ch. 5). Next, she challenges notions of “just compensation” through re-examination of the Asian Women’s Fund, situating it as one of several rhetorical calculations of the economic cost of “violence against women” which reduce women’s bodies, labors, and traumas to measures of capitalist (un)productivity (Ch. 6).2 Finally, Kang considers the rhetorical effects of digital memorials, an unexpected pivot away from the “controversies” over physical memorials in recent years (Ch. 7). Specifically, she analyzes the digital museum of the AWF, an enduring memorial not for honoring the “comfort women” but to remember this Japanese effort at “correcting” the past.

Traffic in Asian Women is a generative text for scholars of the comfort system and its legacies, Asian Studies, transnational American and Asian American Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies, among others. Kang critically rethinks “comfort women” in order to dislodge the term from identifying only persons affected by a fixed temporal event.3 Effectively “zooming out” from this example, Kang demonstrates the value of continuously learning from those possessing intimate knowledge about experiences of racial and gendered violence and living their effects. In the “comfort women” case, specifically, survivors’ situated knowledges do not uphold the comfort system as just one egregious instance but collectively and repeatedly use it to point to patterns of violence and injustice––particularly toward Asian and other marginalized women––that are deeply rooted, intersecting, and ongoing.

Nicolyn Woodcock
Clark University


1. “Comfort women” is a euphemistic nomenclature that refers to the women and girls victimized by the Japanese...


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pp. 112-113
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