It was a 67-year-old woman in a simple white top, adorned in a sash and set behind a table of microphones, in Seoul on August 14th, 1991 who uncovered for the world a historical tragedy and set a movement in motion. Kim Hak-sun spoke of how, as a teenager during the Second World War, the Japanese military forced her into sexual slavery at a comfort station. This was the first time a woman, a member of a group now known as “comfort women,” publicly told her story. Further testimony from others followed, which set the stage for a movement of recognition and compensation that has since been marked by activism in a range of national contexts.
On August 14, 2021, groups in South Korea, Japan, and the United States commemorated the 30th anniversary of her testimony as International Memorial Day for Japanese Military “Comfort Women.” But this event comes at a time of historical revision and nationalist revival in Asia, as elsewhere. Denial of the “comfort women,” a questioning of the women’s experiences, has become pervasive in Japan. And in recent months, J. Mark Ramseyer, a professor of contract law at Harvard Law School, incited controversy with the publication in the International Review of Law and Economics in March 2021 of “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War.” The article, which focuses on the “contractual dynamics” of comfort stations, has been criticized by academics for a misuse of sources and ideological undertones, which, as one scholar put it, “advocate a current Japanese political ideology.”
In Japan today, the story of “comfort women” is contentious, a site of debate, a memory denied and questioned by a range of individuals and groups often with political and social influence; these actors, primarily on the far right, also dispute other acts of Japanese wartime aggression. But there is another side to the discourse: Japanese activists who fight and struggle for the voices of survivors. To understand the “comfort women” debates and activism in Japan, and the recent Ramseyer controversy, I spoke with Eika Tai, a professor at North Carolina State University who researches multiethnic Japan and colonial Taiwan. She is the author of Comfort Women Activism: Critical Voices from the Perpetrator State, published in August 2020, and one of the first to concentrate on what she has called “comfort women activism in Japan.”
It is hard to set words to paper when writing on the “comfort women.” I grew up with stories of the Holocaust, but I did not learn of the “comfort women” until I was older. There is, I believe, a degree of trivialization and desensitization at work with the Holocaust for me, as an American-born Jewish person, and a ready-made vocabulary to understand and write on survivor testimony. I learned of the stories little by little: I listened to the testimony of a Holocaust survivor at an assembly in high school, watched Schindler’s List, and saw the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London. This is not true with the “comfort women,” a story that I only learned when I could realize the gravity of the trauma, which was as shocking as it was hard to comprehend.
SPENCER COHEN: Let’s start with a question on terminology, which is where you begin the book. When we use the term “comfort women,” to whom are we referring?
EIKA TAI: This is not a simple question, but opens up a question of the parameter of “comfort women” activism. The term ianfu, the original Japanese expression, refers to those women who were taken from a dozen countries to comfort stations operated by the Japanese military and exploited as sexual slaves for soldiers. Ianfu is a euphemism and activists in Japan use quotation marks to indicate it. Some activists prefer to use “sexual slaves,” which has been used by the United Nations and the international community. The activists as a whole have decided to use ianfu for the name of the nationwide association and for memorial days for victims because it was historically used. Some use the term in order to shed light on the cruel fact that while forcing women into slavery, the Japanese military labeled them as “comfort women.” I appreciate their stance on the term. I think this ironical effect of the use of the term is understood in the international community where people are aware that “comfort women” were sexual slaves. I use the term in this sense. In face-to-face communication with survivors, activists use the word grandma in each of their languages to express respect and affection. For example, they call Korean women halmoni and Chinese women from Shanxi Province daniang.
The “comfort women” movement is not just about victims who were called “comfort women,” but also about women victimized outside comfort stations. The official operation of comfort stations allowed soldiers to think it would be all right to build makeshift rape centers when finding no such station, and to rape women in streets and houses around the battlefield. That created the need to make more comfort stations. The rampant occurrences of sexual violence in warzones led to the creation of the “comfort women” system in the first place. There was a vicious circle of the forms of sexual violence. I would like to stress that the “comfort women issue” refers to all forms of sexual violence committed by the Japanese military, not just those that took place at comfort stations. This understanding of the term ianfu is important because it captures the extensiveness of the Japanese empire’s sexual violence, and also because it makes clear that the issue is directly relevant to sexual violence in warzones in today’s world. For these reasons, some activists insist on using the expression “victims of Japanese military sexual violence.” Yet, others say that ianfu should be kept to point to the particularity of the Japanese case.
Even with testimony by former “comfort women” and archival evidence, an array of far-right politicians, along with others, in Japan have advocated a view best recognized as historical denialism. They oppose the understanding of “comfort women” as “sexual slaves,” arguing that the women were volunteers, prostitutes who willfully chose such work; this view has become particularly fervent in the past two decades. Why do you believe there has been such pushback in Japan to the idea of these women as “sexual slaves”?
The question to ask is: what are they trying to protect or assert by denying the history of “comfort women”? It is their nationalism. Those politicians and others who deny the history must have diverse images of Japan, but they all seem to believe that, in the words of former prime minister Abe Shinzō, Japan is or should be a beautiful country. Most of them support the emperor system, a system of hetero-patriarchy, and many believe the Asia-Pacific War (1931–1945) was a just war against the encroachment of Western powers. Japanese soldiers who fought for the emperor, for Japan should be respected.
They deny all kinds of historical facts about atrocities committed by the Japanese military in Asia and beyond, but the term “sexual slaves” has been particularly problematic to them. For them, it is an insult, defamation, disrespect to the Japan they love and admire. They know slavery is a crime against humanity. Their Japan would not have committed such a crime. The sexual act is an essential constituent of ethnicity. The idea of sexually abusing women of other Asian countries is a threat to the respectability of Japanese ethnicity. Their argument that “comfort women” were prostitutes and therefore not victims reveals their contempt and disregard not only for “comfort women” victims but also for prostitutes and sex workers. More fundamentally, it points to their assumption that women should provide ian (comfort) for men, sexually or otherwise. This assumption is inherent in Japanese hetero-patriarchy.
So, then the “comfort women” issue is about the recognition of not only historical atrocities but also the rights of women. In Japan, how has this shaped activism and the movement in support of former “comfort women”?
I heard activists in Japan talking about two major perspectives for the “comfort women” issue: to see it as a redress issue for Japan’s past and as an issue about sexual violence and discrimination against women. At the beginning, activists and supporters often held one of the perspectives. As the movement evolved, they came to comprehend the issue from a multifaceted point of view, including the two perspectives. The transnational movement has revolved around two problems: the violation of women’s human rights, especially in warzones, and Japan’s historical responsibility. In the international context, the gender perspective presented by activists in Japan is not only universal but particular, for the crimes were committed by Japan.
That said, I want to note when encountering Kim Hak-sun and other survivors, many women in Japan heard the victims’ voices through their own experiences of gender-based discrimination permeated in their country. They saw the concatenation of what happened to the victims and what has been happening to themselves. For them, the encounter was deeply emotional. They hold themselves responsible for what Japan did to other Asian women as its citizens. This recognition is somewhat abstract. I think that their emotional attachments to the issue have been a driving force for them to continue fighting for three decades.
In the book, you write about how activists in Japan “have a perpetrator consciousness (kagaisha ishiki)” and identify as citizens of a perpetrator nation, which they see as responsible for wartime atrocities and aggression. Can you elaborate on how activists have reconciled with what appears a duality of self-identification: as both perpetrators of historical violence and victims of contemporary gender-based discrimination?
Such a duality materialized and troubled those who tried to tackle the Korean “comfort women” issue at the site of the women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s. Because of their self-perception as victims of gendered discrimination within Japan, they could not fully develop a sense of perpetrators’ responsibility to take action on behalf of Korean victims. In the 1990s, women in Japan encountered victims face-to-face. I cannot stress enough how important that was. They were deeply moved by the victims’ courage to publicly tell the stories of sexual violence. They built interpersonal relationships with the victims, inviting them to Japan, visiting them in their home countries, and listening to their stories closely often in intimate contexts. Over time, the Japanese women witnessed many victim-turned-survivors becoming activists themselves. They learned from the survivors a spirit of fighting gendered discrimination. For them, there is little duality or contradiction between two positions: they fight as citizens of the perpetrator state for taking historical responsibility and as women discriminated against for eliminating sexual violence in contemporary Japan and beyond. They see themselves as fighters rather than as victims, like those survivors.
How do activists in Korea, for example, or elsewhere in Asia, view activists in Japan? Is there any animosity?
Over three decades, Japanese activists have built and maintained solidarity with activists in victimized countries such as South Korea. They have been able to gain trust from other activists because they have never forgotten that they are citizens of the perpetrator state Japan and because they have dedicated their lives to survivors.
That said, Japanese activists themselves do not think that they have worked hard enough because they have not succeeded in making the Japanese government apologize to victims sincerely with state compensation. Activists in other countries appreciate their dedication, as well as, I think, their humbleness. I remember the scene where a resident Korean praised Japanese activists’ efforts in front of other activists. As a resident Taiwanese, I shared her view. A Japanese woman standing next to me whispered she could never accept such a compliment.
That is an incredible and enlightening anecdote, which really reveals how activists in Japan understand and view their position within the movement. To conclude, let’s bring the discussion to the US, particularly to the most recent controversy surrounding remembrance of “comfort women.” How should we understand the article written by Ramseyer and his views?
Activists in Japan first learned about Ramseyer’s article from the January 28, 2021 issue of Sankei Shimbun, a rightwing Japanese newspaper. They did not immediately take action, seeing it as yet another instance of the historical revisionist campaign. Witnessing concerted efforts in South Korea and the US to expose the problematic nature of the article and get it retracted, they became more involved. On March 10, historical associations issued a statement against the article. On March 14, Fight for Justice, an activist group, held in collaboration with other groups an online seminar, “Sick and Tired of Hearing “Comfort Women were not Sexual Slaves,” inviting leading historians and reestablishing historical facts. The international movement against Ramseyer has also encouraged concerned citizens in Japan to publicly criticize him for having presented distorted views on Okinawa, resident Koreans, and Burakumin (people historically discriminated against). Ramseyer’s article has generated these critical responses. Yet, the left-leaning media in Japan has barely reported on it, limiting a social impact.
It has promoted the revisionist campaign. Sankei Shimbun, a newspaper which had been orchestrating “history wars” to spread revisionist views in the US, covered it several times. On April 24, Nadeshiko Action, a women’s rightwing group, held a symposium, where Ramseyer, speaking in Japanese, called for freedom of speech in the academia and reiterated his arguments in the article. Revisionist politicians have grabbed the opportunity to reassert the need to revise the 1993 Kōno Statement, internationally recognized as Japan’s official position on the issue, rebuking it for admitting the use of coercion in treating women and thereby allowing for the criticisms of Ramseyer. Given that he is the Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies and was awarded in 2018 the “Order of the Rising Sun” by the Japanese government for his contributions to Japanese studies, one could argue that the revisionist campaign had paved the way for his publication of the article.
The reactions to the article in Japan shed light on how deeply Japan as a whole is isolated from the rest of the international community on the history of “comfort women.” Activists in Japan have been struggling with this situation for three decades. I must say that they are committed not only to spreading historical truths that have been documented but also to keeping alive survivors’ individual histories they heard in person. Ultimately, it is the memories of survivors that have given them energy to continue fighting.