By Stephanie Yang
“Every country has ugly historical chapters. My aim tonight is simple — not to forget the experiences of women who have fallen victims to forced prostitution and sexual violence in times of war and peace.”
Professor Bonnie Oh of the Korean Studies department at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service spoke to Northwestern University on Wednesday about the history of World War II comfort women and their impact on East Asian relations. The event was organized by Northwestern University’s Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies.
While informing the audience about the historical background of comfort women, Oh said the term “comfort women” is a euphemism for sex slaves of the WWII Japanese military and its usage is too weak for the 200,000 women who were coerced into violence. She suggested the usage of “sex slaves” as done by the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her speech in 2012.
According to Oh, the system of comfort women began in the early 1930s after Japan’s militarist government experienced imperialist success in the late 19th and 20th century. She explained that while the lack of embedded prostitutes during the protracted war and the increased risks of venereal disease contributed to the system of comfort women, the most hidden theoretical reason lay in Japan’s “pseudoscientific race theory” that espoused a sense of superiority over its colonies and women in general.
Oh accompanied her presentation with photos of comfort women not only from Korea, but Taiwan, China and the Philippines as well. “History is indisputable,” she said while presenting a list of testimonies, documents and apologies as evidences of Japanese government’s involvement in the system.
“The degree of the abuses is incredible.” Oh said the military often used the phrase “public toilet” in reference to the comfort women, and said she believes “that way of thinking made it easier for them to treat women in sub-human ways, in considering them as supplies and ammunitions.”
Oh said that the patriarchal society and social stigma against violated women prevented the victims of sexual violence from openly talking about their abuses. It took 46 years after the end of war – “50 years of silence” – for the first Korean comfort woman, Hak-soon Kim, to “come out” after she was enraged by the Japanese government’s denial of its involvement in the affairs.
Public reaction to the issue was fierce. The movement to demand an official apology from the Japanese government gained the support of international organizations such as Amnesty International and the United Nations, and gained momentum through the passage of U.S. House Resolution 121 in 2007. Oh said the impact of the movements on Japanese society has been divided between those who are calling for formal acknowledgement of the system and the government that is continuing to question the veracity of testimonies.
Oh called for Japan to accept responsibility, even though she was not very optimistic about the future. “Japan is a world leader in every aspect,” she said, mentioning the country’s third biggest economy in the world and its 19 Nobel Prize winners. “Why can it not be a moral leader either? It could.”
“The comfort women issue is an unresolved historical human tragedy,” said Ms. Youngju Ji, the executive director of Korean American Women in Need (KAN-WIN). Ji said elements such as the patriarchal system remind people that violence against women is still happening. “We believe that philosophical connection and solidarity between academia and activists will be able to make a greater impact.”