A few minutes before the start of our first international webinar last July, “‘Comfort Women’: The Struggle for Justice,” Grandma Lee Yongsoo entered our Zoom room. Grandma made a little bow with her head and waved excitedly to the camera with both hands.
“This story is not just about Korea. It’s a story the world must know, and must be taught. So, despite the embarrassment, I want to tell you what happened.”
In those two hours, we heard Grandma Lee tell her story. We heard about how “comfort women” survivors were abused by the Japanese imperial army and have not received justice. We saw her pause to gather her composure as she broke down. But we also witnessed her courage.
At 92, Grandma Lee has fought a long battle, yet she continues to believe that she can change denialists’ minds with patience and education. “Even now, I am not sure to what extent they know or do not know about the issue, but many still say that we are lying, that our stories are fake. But even though we might be inclined to think that they are bad people, I think they do this only because they don’t know accurate history.”
Less than seven months after Grandma Lee talked with us, Harvard Law School’s Mitsubishi professor of Japanese law J. Mark Ramseyer’s paper “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” and his recent op-ed in Japan Forward, claimed that “comfort women” were not sex slaves, but voluntary indentured servants. He refers to the “comfort women” issue as a “bizarrely unending story” and calls it “pure fiction.” He accuses “modern hyper-nationalists in Korea” of homogenizing the “comfort women” issue by insisting on a sex slave narrative of universal victimization, thus “[robbing] many comfort women of their past.”
Ramseyer is not wrong to oppose the obvious dangers of a single story. Indeed, when nationalistic impulses treat survivors as “totemic victims,” they also fail to treat the women as autonomous individuals. Yet in pushing a single story of his own and denying the women’s agency, Ramseyer makes the irony glaringly obvious.
Ramseyer’s aspersions might just have been dismissed as another right-wing opinion. But it was all the more shocking and disappointing because of the authority that he — and other academics from reputable institutions — possess. Academic researchers have an ethical obligation to understand that their findings will easily be deployed by right-wing groups to deny “comfort women” testimonies. The journals that publish these works should carefully fact-check before creating a traumatic experience for these survivors.
Reconciliation remains a challenge: There is no real conversation between advocates of two deeply polarized versions of “historical truth.” Moving the conversation forward requires reframing it from one of heritage and commemoration to one of human rights. To counter denialists who accuse the redress movement of being “anti-Japan” or “deceptive,” we offer the following evidence.
In 1991, the first “comfort woman” survivor to stand up and speak out was Kim Hak-soon. Following her precedent, other courageous testimonies began to emerge in other countries. It became apparent that Kim’s suffering was shared by scores of women in China, the Philippines and Southeast Asia, as well as many others in Japan and Japanese-occupied territories.
That the independent, disparate accounts of women across the region voiced the same reality demonstrates the historical credibility and authority of their claims that the Japanese imperial military sex slave regime was widespread and systematic. More importantly, the transnational nature of the problem suggests that it is not any one country that is vindicated or vilified in the process of acknowledging the women’s experiences. Rather, this process is a repudiation of war and sexual violence as fundamental human and women’s rights issues. The “comfort women” issue does not exist in a historical vacuum: Its resolution has deep implications for the problems of violence, misogyny and racism that we continue to struggle with today.
When considering the suggestion that the victims lied about their experiences, one ought to recognize that “comfort women” survivors had everything to lose when they stepped forward. Many continued to experience societal shame and self-blame, risking alienation and rejection by their loved ones. The fraction of women who shared their testimonies ensured that the truth would not die with them.
The trauma of “comfort women” survivors continues to be surfaced, debated, doubted, discredited and relived even today. Positivist approaches aggressively demand proof of survivors’ victimhood. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remarked in 2007 that “There is no evidence to prove there was coercion, nothing to support it.” In 2012, denialists forced the cancellation of South Korean photographer Ahn Se-Hong’s exhibition on “comfort women” survivors. Just last year, diplomatic barbs were traded when Japanese government officials called for the removal of a “Statue of Peace” erected in Berlin.
Disturbingly, the victim-blaming culture remains very much in our midst and deeply embedded in the ways we perceive and treat survivors’ accounts. The controversy with Ramseyer, therefore, in Grandma Lee’s words, is a “wake-up call” for one important reason: Victims still struggle with silence and humiliation in the 21st century.
It is important for us to recognize that the power relations that silenced the “comfort women” survivors for decades are the same ones privileging the voices of academics, the Global North, powerful institutions, politicians and college students like us. In the last month, academics, politicians, activists and student groups have voiced their criticism. We, too, have the responsibility to speak up — but moving forward requires educating ourselves. In this regard, we’ve kept close to heart what Grandma Lee told us last July:
“Someday, they will learn as well. Please make an effort until that day to teach Japan and others. Please try to learn this history of the enormous “comfort women” system. It should never happen again. War should never happen again. We need to make sure there is no war ever again. I don’t think the time will wait for me. There are many things I want to do, but not enough time.”
SHARMAINE KOH ‘22 and KIMBERLY CRUZ ‘21 are in Silliman college and Pierson college, respectively. They are board members of STAND at Yale, an organization that aims to raise awareness about the “Comfort Women” issue. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: STAND has put together a set of accessible resources for anyone who would like to find out more about the “comfort women” issue. They will also be hosting a half-hour open chat room on Zoom on March 25 at 7:00 p.m. EST. A copy of their Educational Statement on the Ramseyer Controversy can be viewed here on their website.