On History and the “Comfort Women” Debate

As illuminated by recent anniversaries and commemorations, history is both a malleable plaything and an obsessive object of dispute for states in Northeast Asia. In Tokyo, Abe Shinzo and his Liberal Democratic Party rework histories of colonial expansion into halcyon inspiration for an enslaved Asia, seeking to move firmly beyond the bonds imposed by Douglas MacArthur and the postwar occupation. In Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party has absorbed the Nanking Massacre victim narrative in toto, and takes thunderous credit for a 1945 victory in which it had not legally been allowed to participate.

With such inherent conflict within and between these two national master narratives, it is little wonder that individual historical atrocities or incidents each remains a battlefield in its own right. It is also unsurprising that individual voices which do not accord fully with the nation’s emphasis on victimhood or right to postwar justice are shunted aside.

As a dispute that often arrives precisely at the support or denial of individual voices, the “comfort women” dispute (慰安婦問題 / ianfu mondai) between Japan and its South Korean neighbor is therefore not unique in its ferocity and its ability to inspire emotion. But its entanglement with issues of gender and power, collaboration and biopolitics, and developmental dictatorship and repression of memory mean that it has taken on a certain toxicity as historical phenomenon.

Little wonder that scholars would often rather focus on history issues –such as how they are poisoning the bilateral Japan-ROK relationship, or perceptions history is being “weaponized” — rather than the history itself, since the narrative is so tangled, unpleasant, and at times dependent on individual testimonies.

Mary Finch, a young historian at the University of Leeds, arrives at the task with a certain fearlessness of purpose, and a wide-angle look at the historiography. History is therefore at the center of the inquiry, a bracing quest for the roots of the “comfort women” system.

Image: Kwon Yeon-deok’s artwork, via Blouin Art Info. 

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