The “comfort women”: a cumbersome colonial taboo and a weapon of geopolitical destabilization between South Korea and Japan
Written by Isaline MALLET
Translated by Aurélie BUGNARD
The Japanese military forcibly prostituted nearly 200,000 women, mostly Korean, during its occupation of the peninsula. This colonial past, although bilaterally recognized, has yet to be apologized by the Japanese government. Claims for reparation, revisionism and economic pressures now play a central role in the region’s chessboard. Linking the issues of colonialism, patriarchy, rape culture and peacebuilding, the case of “comfort women” questions the complex relationship between nationalism, geopolitics and gender and sexuality issues in South Korea and in Japan.
The Origin of “Comfort Women”: colonialism and sexual slavery
Due to its position as a geostrategic crossroads, South Korea has experienced numerous external attacks. It was notably colonized by Japan from 1905 to 1945. From 1931, and until the end of Japanese colonization, the Japanese army initially recruited (or bought) women in exchange for repayment of parental debts; deceiving them about the nature of their future function. Very quickly, mercenaries were expressly tasked with kidnapping young Korean girls, most of them minors. They were then forced into prostitution in “places of comfort” for soldiers, where they were reduced, among other things, to sexual slavery.
To speak of comfort women is an understatementIn this article, we use the phrase “comfort women” with quotation marks: it recognizes that this periphrasis is used the most while marking a critique with the ideology that may be … Continue reading ; which is also a powerful geopolitical tool for interpreting history from a Japanese perspective. In South Korea, some call them “grandmothers” to destigmatize them. However, this expression neutralizes their story. It presupposes that they may have been mothers and grandmothers when their status as former “comfort women” has generally deprived them of any claim to marriage.
The priority at the end of the war: rebuilding the country, to the detriment of repairing past damage. The policy of silence
At the end of the war, the survivors remained prisoners of their status as “comfort women”, even of this way of life. They had lost their virginity outside a recognized union and were therefore dishonored in the eyes of society, which maintained this taboo and participated in the widespread oblivion of this part of history. The various South Korean governmentsEight governments have succeeded in South Korea between the end of colonization and today. devoted themselves to building the country. The priority was economic and geostrategic, and the shameful stakes of “comfort women” a cumbersome grain of sand in the drive towards modernization.
This vision was also reinforced by the international scene, which also ignored the importance of this issue. During the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-1948)The “Tokyo Trial” was created by the eleven Allied Powers of the Pacific War to punish Japanese leaders who comitted crimes of war, against peace and crimes against humanity., the facts were known but were largely ignoredDue to the fact that sexual violence was not recognized as a war crime, but also mainly because the United States and Russia, which were fighting a war of influence in Asia, managed not to question … Continue reading.
In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet threat forced Washington to be accommodating to Tokyo. South Korea, for its part, was built on an extremely strong anti-Communist nationalism, in opposition to North Korea. The most obvious threat, it pushed the Republic of Korea to ally with Japan and the United States against this common threat. No demand for post-colonial reparation could take place without attacking this coalition, which was seen as vital.
The other major goal for South Korea was its economic development. The Korean War (1950-1953) shattered the reconstruction effort and led to a loss of more than 50% of industrial potential. The economy struggled to recover and shortages occurred frequently during the post-war period until the reconstruction agreement between the Korean government and the FAOFood and Agriculture Organization, UN. in 1953. The corollary of this plan is in particular to re-establish economic and commercial links with the United States. Japan. But this partnership only lasted two years. It was not until 1965 that, following a coup d’Etat, the pro-Japanese general Park Chung-hee took the power and signed a Japanese-South Korean treaty of economic partnership in 1965. In this context where blocks were fighting, this treaty excludes the North for the benefit of South Korea and sustainably revives its economy. In exchange for this economic support, General Park renounces that Japan recognizes its responsibility as colonizer, in particular regarding the “comfort women”. With a “development first” goal justifying all sacrificesThis vision has overstepped many human rights and fueled deep social injustices, making South Korea a dictatorial regime., Korea asserts itself in a policy of breaking up with the past.
Civil society takes up the issue of comfort women: free speech, feminism, activism and the role of justice
It is ultimately thanks to civil society that the issue of “comfort women” will reappear. In 1975, a Japanese journalist shares the testimony of a survivor: Bae Bong-gi. Her story remains unknown to South Koreans: this woman lives in Japan, she is accompanied by an association close to North Korea, and the dictatorial regime in the South is restrains any claims of victims.
It was in 1990 that for the first time a Korean intellectual published about “comfort women”. She then created The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. The latter intended to establish the truth, obtain recognition and official apologies from the Japanese government, write history correctly, compensate and rehabilitate victims, punish those responsible for war crimes and build a memorial as well as a museum.
A survivor filed the first lawsuit against Japan in 1991. It brought this issue to the attention of the general public, both South Korean and Japanese. In the 1990s, the emergence of democratic movements allowed an increase in testimonies and complaints. Feminist movements played a major role in this, especially in the international movement denouncing sexual violence. Including a cooperation of Korean and Japanese feminists was born. They are investigating jointly.
In 1992, a demonstration during the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to South Korea confronted Japan head-on with the demand for an official apology. A first recognition of the facts will come a year later, through the intermediary of the secretary generalYōhei Kōno, secretary general of the Japanese cabinet from 1994 to 1995.
who admitted that the Japanese army was more or less involved in the mobilization of “comfort women”. But this cautious recognition is extremely contested: many Japanese people refuse it when Koreans demand an official apology.
In response to Japanese nationalist tensions and massive revisionist campaigns, Korean activists are creating an Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal to try those responsible in the Japanese military. Held in Tokyo in 2000, it recognizes the slavery of “comfort women” as a war crime and the responsibility of the Japanese military and government. This recognition is made possible in particular thanks to the testimony of “comfort women” of other nationalities: extracted solely from Japanese-South Korean geopolitical issues, it is analyzed through the prism of colonial and patriarchal issues.
While the court ruled on Japan’s responsibility, its official apology is still awaited by Koreans. In 2011, Koreans anchored their claim at the foot of the Japanese
embassy in Seoul with a so-called “peace” statue. However, on the contrary, it fueled tensions : the statue represents a young “comfort woman” staring at the embassy. Staying on its nationalist positions, Tokyo denounces an attack on dignity and calls on the Korean government to withdraw the statue immediately.
Japanese tensions between ambiguous recognition and maintaining its economic ascendancy
The colonization of Korea lasted 40 years and was a key element of the national identity of generations of Japanese people. Coming out of the war, Japan experienced a deep identity crisis, in particular stemming from a “postcolonial superiority complexNaoki Sakai, “Le genre, enjeu politique et langage du nationalisme postcolonial japonais”, Cahiers du Genre, 2011/1 (n° 50), pages 41 to 64.”.
It is fueled by economic stagnation and the reshuffling of international roles and powers of the Cold War and then of the post-Soviet period. Japan takes refuge in its domination of Korea, its feeling of superiority as a constant thread of its nationality. To apologize is unimaginable.
The “Lost Decade” – the period between 1991 and 2000 when Japan suffered a major economic downturn along with soaring unemployment – resulted in a sharp shift to the right. Mainstream opinion advocates Japanese pride and the protection of the nation against any outrage.
This exacerbated nationalism is accompanied by a strong androcentrism as well as a cult of virility. Nationalism and the cult of masculinity generally go hand in hand, and this phenomenon is even more obvious regarding “comfort women” and colonialism in general. Indeed, colonization plays with gender and sexuality relations according to a double registerIbid..
Like the patriarchal domination of men over women, the military domination of men by other men assimilates the vanquished with the feminine, with sub-men. Sexually dominating the women of the latter affects the property, but also the honor of the vanquished. On the other hand, playing on the ambiguity of sex work as forced or voluntary leads to the idea that these “comfort women” were venal and impure – allegories of their country.
Proud to be associated with the liberal democratic world at the end of the war, its identity as a pacifist nation was particularly disappointing during the Gulf War: Japan participated financially alongside the West but received no recognition from it. With a political and social shift towards a radical and viçàrile right, its interest in security and militarism resurfaced. Japan got gradually concerned for its national security.
From this perspective, Japanese nationalism is expressed by a collective rejection of colonial guilt. This is accompanied by the denial of many historical facts, even their rewriting. The majority ideology is very Manichean – in its colonial history, Japan presents itself as an enlightened and superior modernizer – and participates in the self-shaping of Japanese national identity. This revisionist movement is expressed in new textbooks where history is being rewritten. Other movements recognize certain facts which they trivialize as violence among others in the register of war, and not war crimes.
In 2015, South Korea and Japan signed a diplomatic agreement. Japan recognizes the existence of “comfort women” and undertakes to pay compensation to the survivors. The deal is explicitly called “final and irreversible” on the issue of “comfort women.”
But Koreans are very critical of this deal. When President Park Geun-hye, who signed it, was impeached in 2017, it was quickly challenged by her successor. He denounces the fact that only the Japanese version has been taken into account; which recognizes the enlistment of the victims but denies any legal responsibility of the Japanese military and government. He also deplores the absence of any apology.
For Japan, the 1965 treaty where Korea had to renounced this recognition prevails. The new 2015 agreement arouses a lot of anger among its citizens. Refusing the past is also a way of not examining its own. The speeches of nationalist pride thus make it possible to elucidate, for example, the ethical stakes of the filiation of the Prime Minister of Japan Shinzō Abe – his maternal grandfather was imprisoned as a suspect of a class A war crime, then released without trial.
Japan seeks to forget and make people forget. It is focused on its economic recovery and its international influence thanks to soft power. From 2012 the AbenomicsPortmanteau word: Prime Minister Abe + economics
plan was launched to revive the economy. In 2019, Japan hosted the Rugby World Cup. The Olympics were scheduled in in 2020.
A Korean economic boom allowing more geopolitical freedom
Facing this reaffirmation of power, South Korea is increasingly seeking to gain autonomy, even to compete with its former colonizer. While Japan insists on keeping hold over the southern peninsula, Seoul is turning towards new emerging actors. The second half of the 20th century marked the Korean identity with an economic and political miracle: in half a century, a prosperous economy and an active democracy built strong national confidence. When South Korea turned to China in the 2000s, it managed to significantly increase its exports. Trade is becoming a real geopolitical weapon that allows Korea to gain independence from Japan, but also to compete directly with the latter on the Chinese market.
Historical disputes, turned into an economic rivalry, are no longer the first factor of tension between Japan and South Korea at the end of the twentieth century. However, for Korea, Japan’s value declined sharply in the balance of its economy over the next century and is now intransigent towards Japan. The issue of “comfort women” is finding new life.
This strong South Korea-China partnership constitutes a geopolitical threat for Japan, which must face a shift in the balance of power. Beijing, which poses a military threat to Tokyo, does not hesitate to use historical controversies to weaken Japan’s image and hold the adversary back in the Pacific leadership race. Victim of Japanese colonization itself, China has counted many “comfort women” among its population. Without being an official will of the Chinese government to obtain truth and redress, the issue of these women is nevertheless used as a powerful tool of destabilization, mixed with Korean claims against Japan.
Korean society today enjoys economic and geostrategic independence detached from Japanese influence. Through its generational change, the anchoring of its socio-cultural openness to the West and the democratization of its political system, South Korea strongly rejects the legacy of the dictatorial government of Park Chung-hee. The 1965 agreement is seen as unfair and insufficient, as well as all subsequent agreements regarding “comfort women.”
Civil society has been reinvested for several years in the mission of obtaining repair for “comfort women”.
In South Korea, but also in many countries under the impulse of the diasporas, several other commemorative statues have been placed (in the United States, Germany, Canada, etc.) In 2017, commemorative statues were placed on buses in Seoul, and a museum in their memory was built.
The government is now also the bearer of this reparation demand and supports it both nationally and internationally. Since his election in 2017, President Moon Jae-in has denounced the 2015 agreement and said he wants to end the “comfort women” controversy. This denunciation was followed in 2018 by the authorization of a South Korean court to seek compensation from Japanese companies that subjected Koreans to forced labor during the war.
A love/hate relationship: “I love you, me neither.”
The fact that these agreements were questioned mobilized historical tensions inflamed again the situation between the two ne
ighbors. Japan complains of breach of confidence. In response, it imposes controls on major Korean exports in July. In August, it struck South Korea off its list of trusted partners. These sudden constraints were a blow to the Korean economy and even have disrupted international supply chains. In 2019, Japan threatened to end intelligence sharing with South KoreaJapan reversed this decision in November 2019 under pressure from Washington..
This interweaving of demands for reparation and trade war is strongly supported by the populations of the two rival countries. The question of “comfort women” thus occupies a central place in their internal policies. The Korean and Japanese governments juggle between promoting partnership and using popular resentment to maximize their own political interests.
Although there are only a few “comfort women” still alive in South Korea, demands for reparation are still at the heart of bi-national agenda. On August 15, 2020, during the commemoration of the end of the occupation and the Second World War, Moon Jae-in recalled that South Korea was open to discussions with Japan regarding the compensation for victims of colonization, in particular “comfort women”.
Japan’s foreign policy is largely based on its international image and soft power. Japan is particularly heavily involved financially in the reconstruction of post-conflict countriesBoth on the African continent, in the Middle East and Asia.. In order to spread the image of a contributor to peace at the international level, Tokyo needs Seoul not to make its claims too loud or legitimate. Japan therefore has every interest in maintaining their diplomatic relations at all levels.
Japan and South Korea share similar political, economic and social values and experience similar regional constraints. But their inability to cooperate on their memorial work impacts all fields of their geopolitical life to the point of creating a genuine Japanese-Korean commercial and diplomatic confrontation.
The fight for obtaining apologies and a reparation for the crimes against the “comfort women” crystallizes such tensions due to its high ideological capital. Colonial stories particularly appeal to the domination of bodies and symbolic power. In a current Japan crystallized in a virilist nationalism, being forced by a formerly colonized people to get back to committed mistreatment, above all on women is an outrage. The Korean society is strongly attached to democracy and feminist demands have guided the movement to demand reparations, now also supported by the government. The refusal to go back over history and the very instrumentalisation of its rewriting is a geopolitical weapon in its own, in order to conclude treaties in exchange for oblivion as in 1965 and 2015 or as a tool of destabilization and self-affirmation.
Only a few surviving “comfort women” remain as we celebrate 75 years of the end of World War II and the liberation of Korea. The issue goes beyond their personal compensation; it corresponds to a process of truth and reconciliation claimed by a part of the population. The issue of “comfort women” is also at the heart of feminist claims, which today continue their combat for women’s rights. While they are proud that the Korean government is supporting them in their fight for the reparation of crimes against the “comfort women”, some strongly criticize the latter after the discovery of a superposition of old “places of comfort” of the Japanese army with sex tourism places in Korea.((Christine Lévy, in “Japon/Corée : après la colonisation, ré-écrire l’histoire”, Cultures monde, presented by Florian Delorme, France culture, 2016.).
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Delorme, Florian, “Japon/Corée : après la colonisation, ré-écrire l’histoire”, Cultures monde, France culture, 2016. Available on: https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/culturesmonde/la-mecanique-du-pardon-24-japoncoree-apres-la-colonisation-re-ecrire
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To cite this article: Isaline MALLET, “The “comfort women”: a cumbersome colonial taboo and a weapon of geopolitical destabilization between South Korea and Japan”, 12.02.2020, Gender in Geopolitics Institute
|↑1||In this article, we use the phrase “comfort women” with quotation marks: it recognizes that this periphrasis is used the most while marking a critique with the ideology that may be associated with it.|
|↑2||Eight governments have succeeded in South Korea between the end of colonization and today.|
|↑3||The “Tokyo Trial” was created by the eleven Allied Powers of the Pacific War to punish Japanese leaders who comitted crimes of war, against peace and crimes against humanity.|
|↑4||Due to the fact that sexual violence was not recognized as a war crime, but also mainly because the United States and Russia, which were fighting a war of influence in Asia, managed not to question the responsibility of Japan in the war crimes. The West also had many colonizing powers, reluctant to judge Japan for its colonial “excesses”.|
|↑5||Food and Agriculture Organization, UN.|
|↑6||This vision has overstepped many human rights and fueled deep social injustices, making South Korea a dictatorial regime.|
|↑7||Yōhei Kōno, secretary general of the Japanese cabinet from 1994 to 1995.|
|↑8||Naoki Sakai, “Le genre, enjeu politique et langage du nationalisme postcolonial japonais”, Cahiers du Genre, 2011/1 (n° 50), pages 41 to 64.|
|↑10||Portmanteau word: Prime Minister Abe + economics|
|↑11||Japan reversed this decision in November 2019 under pressure from Washington.|
|↑12||Both on the African continent, in the Middle East and Asia.|