|Reading of "Comfort Women" testimonies, SURC pit|
The Korean Association chartered a bus from Seattle, and we had many fascinating and moving conversations with community members as everyone milled around waiting for the events to start. Our History and Museum Studies students had worked closely with Bang-Soon and Chong Eun to create in the SURC pit a striking small exhibition about Comfort Women and their long-term Wednesday protests in Seoul.
I attended the first half hour of the revisionist session upstairs in the theater. Our colleague Mariko Okada-Collins (a Japanese language instructor in World Languages) initially spoke about how she come to invite the director, Junjiro Taniyama. I was struck that at one point she explained she was doing all of this in part to redeem and defend the memory of her grandfather who had died, perhaps of starvation, in combat operations in New Guinea during World War II. She held up his photograph as she spoke and noted that her family had never even gotten his bones; she feels called to defend him, in effect, from charges of rape—the implication that the Imperial Japanese military organized a wartime sexual slavery system. I was very moved and fascinated by this moment, and later reflected upon it in my remarks at the academic panel, summarized below.
I did get to hear some of Dr. Koichi Mera’s remarks; he’s particularly known for this role in the lawsuit seeking to block the Comfort Women statue in Glendale, CA. So far as I could tell, he followed the standard revisionist script, repeating the points that have been repeatedly rebutted in such sites as:
We then went downstairs for a screening of a film about the Comfort Women activists, “The Butterflies flying high with Hope,” in the SURC pit. I was gratified to see a substantial crowd, that swelled to about 140 for the readings of Comfort Women testimonies, organized by my colleague Jay Ball in Theater. Jay, in consultation with the rest of the organizing committee, was careful to incorporate testimonies by Korean, Chinese, Filippino and Chinese women; the team worked hard to complicate standard nationalist narratives by including different kinds of accounts from diverse sources. They also practiced in an aesthetic sense what Julian Bonder has termed an ‘ethics of deferral’; they strove to speak clearly and simply, not emoting or ‘acting’ out the testimonies but, as much as possible, serving only as channels for the testimonies themselves. (Inevitably, given the power of the material, some emotions did break through.) The readings were restrained and dignified, with haunting moments of silence along the way.
Brian Carroll of our History Department then read aloud the widely circulated letter by US historians of Japan, submitted to the AHA:
Brian noted that all members of the CWU History Department had added their names to the letter in solidarity.
We then moved upstairs to the ballroom for the academic panel. By our count, about 285 gathered in the room, and the great majority stayed for the whole two hour session. We’d agreed to keep ourselves to strict time limits, to allow for serious discussion with the audience, and we were grateful that Arts and Humanities Dean Stacey Robertson, our moderator, was able to keep us right on track, never easy with a group of scholars! We began with a keynote by political scientist Bang-Soon Yoon providing an overview of the state sponsored system of sexual slavery known euphemistically as the “Comfort Women” system, first developed by the Japanese Imperial Navy in Shanghai in 1932 and then adapted by the Imperial Army. She then reviewed some of the solidarity work done by the Comfort Women activists and their close allies. These groups have worked in support of victims of military rape in other contexts around the globe, from the Eastern Congo to (most recently) Vietnam. Later she was able to show us some of the paintings created by Comfort Women, in some cases in art therapy contexts; really fascinating images that call for close readings of the intertwined dynamics of violence and redemption.
Yukiko Shigeto of Whitman College took us in a quite different direction from the narrative historiography of the keynote, noting the challenges of any process of representing the pain of others, especially those, like the Comfort Women, whose voices have been so long effaced or erased. How do we begin to hear their voices, without, in performance or in written texts, unintentionally erasing them? She linked this challenge to the insidious dangers of the discourse of “multiple perspectives” within the normative American ideological framework of academic freedom and the the co equal marketplace of ideas. The revisionist film’s title, “Scottsboro Girls” implies that testimonies of the women are fabricated, inflicting in her view an epistemic violence that pushes their voices into oblivion. How, she asks, in the face of all of this do we learn to listen, “beyond our conventional hearing range”?
Justin Jesty (University of Washington) then took us through the twists and turns of public discourse in Japan and the wider region of the Comfort Women issue across seventy years, noting that while there’s nothing new in the historical record as such (no new documents or substantial novelties in witness testimonies), the political valorizations of the narratives have dramatically altered over time. He gave particular attention to developments following the 2012 election of Prime Minister Abe’s government, including the often signaled desire by the current Cabinet to revisit the Kono statement and the increasingly toxic pressure placed on Japan’s print and broadcast media.
Davinder Bhowmik, also at the University of Washington, considered the various nationalist re-metaphorizations of the Comfort Women issue; as in other post colonial contexts, the image of the violated women’s body becomes useful for patriarchal nationalists in remasculinizing the postcolonial state; picking up on Yukiko’s points, she noted that this often happens in such a way as to undo the integrity of women’s experiences of suffering and subvert potential transnational solidarities among women. Art and literature she emphasized, are vital media for recovering those voices and productive potentialities, in the face of cynical nationalist deployments of the CW issue, across the political and geographical spectrum. To illustrate the point she read a selection from an Okinawan short story she has translated (soon to be published), “The Tree of the Butterflies,” set during the tumultuous battle of Okinawa in spring 1945. A group of women seek refuge in a cave, a deeply resonant trope in postwar Okinawa literature, redolent with the imagery of the many civilians killed by Imperial Japanese and Allied forces during the battle. If I understood Davinder’s reading, the cave in the story is simultaneously figured as a kind tomb and womb, a site of nearly unbearable loss as well as potential coming to consciousness. An Okinawan woman is “comforted” (a term replete with irony in these contexts) by a Korean “Comfort Woman,” who caresses her wounded back as they cower in silence. Later the Okinawan woman realizes she never even thought to ask the Korean women her name. The challenge of that silence, of the un-namedness, haunts us still as we struggle to trace the all-too-tenuous lines of connectedness among women in the Asia Pacific region, so easily fractured by multiple nationalist projects.
Chong Eun Ahn (an historian at Central) in turn picked up on themes in Davinder and Yukiko’s comments; she spoke to the complexities of colonial subjectivity, in occupied Korea and elsewhere. For all the simplistic efforts to reduce the Comfort Women histories to simplistic binaries (Korea vs. Japan, Conqueror vs Conquered, etc. the experience of colonial women in the system can’t be reduced to resistance or complicity; there is a complex intermediate space inhabited by colonial subjects, and most complexly by women coerced into sexual subjugations in wartime. Similarly, the categories of race and ethnicity in the discourse of the rightist revisionists, and of nationalists elsewhere in the region, need to be critiqued and rethought. How do we acknowledge the vast weight and numbing terror of oppressive systems of structural violence, while also recognizing subaltern agency and dignity, amidst all that which seeks to strip them of dignity? To do this she turns to DeCerteau’s distinction between strategies (generally available to the dominant) and tactics (generally available to the subaltern), Our challenge in alliance with the oppressed, past and present, might be conceived of as transforming tactics (of everyday survival and resistance) into strategies (of long term empowerment, dignity, solidarity,and nurturance) that cut across putative nationalist distinctions.
Anne Cubilié, another colleague at Central, who has written extensively on women’s wartime narratives of human rights atrocities in wartime, spoke to profound value of women’s first hand testimonies. Like others, she noted that for all the minor variations, there is a profound consistency to the deep patterns of the events described, a consistency that speaks to their great evidentiary value, which had been dismissed at the well known early post war tribunals. She emphasized the enormous courage it takes for women to tell of sexual violence and rape, of the need to respect meaningful silences, and of the necessity of art, fiction, poetry and other media that transcend conventional language to evoke, explore and redress the fundamental assaults on language, meaning and bodily integrity associated with rape in wartime.
I closed with some reflections on how the problem of the un-mourned Dead is interpolated into these crises of historical interpretation. I had been so struck at the revisionist event, that Ms. Okada Collins began her remarks by holding the photograph of her dead grandfather, killed in war in an unknown place, his remains denied to his loved ones. I found myself think of Roland Barthes’ famous observation that in the era of photography, we all die two deaths; a physical death and the second death when our face in the photograph is no longer recognized. Photographs of the under-recognized dead are also held in Seoul in the weekly "Comfort Women" Wednesday protests by survivors and their allies. For all the bitter arguments that divide us, how striking that all turn to these familiar everyday icon of modernity, the family photograph, to express the un-expressable pain of loss. How do we make sense of the ways in which the unsettled Dead weigh upon the minds and hearts of so many in the wider Asia Pacific region? (John Dower, in Embracing Defeat encapsulates a fundamental cultural challenge of the Occupation era to Japanese psyches in his pithy phrase: what do you tell the Dean when you lose? There are a multitude of other voices of the unrecognized dead in the devastated lands of the war’s ostensible victors.) How do these un-mourned souls enter into our undertakings at this moment, in the adjacent room of the revisionists and among us pondering this scholarly panel tonight?
In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry notes that a primary function of torture is to erase the voice of the tortured. This is true from Treblinka to Guantanamo, and surely there was an aspect to that dynamic in the “Comfort Women” brothels and encampments, a silencing, erasure and shattering of language intertwined with the most intimate forms of violence against bodily integrity. Against that history, cruelly echoed by postwar structures of shame and overt repression, how do we heed Yukiko’s call for learning to listen beyond our own hearing range? Art, as others have noted, is more than solace; it is a vital point of departure and return for the reconstruction of narrative coherence. Davinder’s commentary on the Okinawan short story, “The Tree of Butterflies” is exemplary: the space of the cave, a space of terror where names disappear in the darkness, is paradoxically also a place of potential rebirth, where in the caressing touch between women new bonds of connectedness just might, against all odds, come into being.
That image of the lost name, the name never asked for in the darkness, puts me in mind of Shoshanna Feldman’s re-reading in The Judicial Unconscious of the famous incident discussed in Hannah Arendt’s Eichman in Jerusalem, in which a witness, a former inmate at Auschwitz, is asked his name by the Prosecutor. Here in Planet Auschwitz we have no names, the names are somewhere else, on the planet of the living. He begins, in panic to hear the voices of the unnamed Dead. He tries to escape from the voices summoned up by the trial by leaving the witness box and is ordered back in by a magistrate. In terror, he collapses.
For Arendt, such moments demonstrate the futility of public tribunals predicated on survivor testimony, on what she views as unseemly spectacle, in contrast to the gravitas of Nuremberg in which evidence of was grounded in the written documents of the perpetrators. For Feldman, in contrast, the witness’ collapse, the embodied performance of ellipsis, is the most eloquent responses to the unspeakable terror and violation of the Shoah.
Theater, dance, fiction, poetry, visual art are all highly mediated engagements with those kinds of eloquent performances (even involuntary ones) but the wounded, by the primary witnesses of terror. As illustrated by the readings Jay organized earlier in the evening, they often seem most effective when they are guided by an ethics of deferral that doesn’t claim direct mimesis but rather calls attention to its own devisedness, its necessary artifice and limitation, forging a space of distance in which, paradoxically, we the living may sense remarkable intimacy with the voices and traces of violated dead.
Those voices in the cave, in the dark, are not the monopoly of any given nation or people. During the war, the national radio broadcasts of the Yasukuni Shrine enshrinement rites were unexpectedly punctuated by the cries of mothers and sisters, who found not solace in the Shinto state’s claim that the military war dead were being apotheosized as national divinities. We need to hear those cries of those bereaved women of Japan as well as the cries of those coerced in sexual slavery as “Comfort Women.” Not because they are all the same, or can can all be considered without regards to measures of complicity. But because they all demand our sustained attention if we have any hope of escaping the cycles of revenge and mutual recrimination, that still seem to plague the Asia-Pacific seven decades after the war’s end. We still need to learn to hear the voices of the Dead and those who mourn, and rediscover amidst those echoes the possibilities of our common humanity.
We then turned to discussion with the audience. John Treat (Yale, emeritus) noted the Second World War is, in a sense, still not over in East Asia: Russia and Japan have not signed a peace treaty, the Korean peninsula remains divided. Do the Comfort Women stands in for the absence of resolution to the war?
We found this question fascinating. Davinder brought up Yoshikuni Igarashi’s Bodies of Memory as she pondered why the image of the body of Comfort Women seems so endlessly productive across all the regions caught up in the Asia Pacific conflict. For Chong Eun, an important legacy of the war are long terms patterns of poverty and economic inequality. Surviving CW were problematic in part because they were low income, belying mythologies of postwar economic miracles in Korea and elsewhere.
Others discussed the challenges of vocabulary. Former CW in the early days struggled over how to characterize themselves, given that no other term than prostitute existed in their mother tongues when they returned home.
A older gentleman who had come out from Seattle shared stories from his own youth in occupied North Korea, of young women fearful of going out on the street, of being taken away from colleges in forced CW recruitment. We were moved that as he spoke he noted that the suffering of Korean women, as terrible as it was, was not unique; that we had to remain mindful of all women raped in war, including German women at the war’s end, as the Red Army advanced.
In similar vein, others noted that the CW case should never be used to excuse other perpetrators of injustice, including the United States. We need to concentrate at certain moments on specific cases, to be sure, but we should do this, ultimately in the interest of refining of comparative understandings of global gender injustice and militarism throughout the globe. Dean Robertson picked up on this theme in her call for a year of dialogue on campus, emerging for this panel, on enduring cycles of gendered violence, sexual slavery and trafficking. My colleague in American Indian Studies, Marna Carroll, picked up questions about the pedagogic challenges of historical self-critique: we critically examine histories of Native American genocide, she often reminds her students, not because we hate America because we love America, because we wish to help live up its inspiring founding promises. Similarly, to critically examine Japan’s histories of wartime atrocity is not to engage in “Japan bashing” but to be attentive to dialectics of oppression and liberation that exist in a vast number of historical contexts.
One student asked about the challenges faced in educating and empowering youth to engage with these historical narratives, whether about the Holocaust or slavery or Comfort Women, when there has been a profound rupture in generational transmission. The question struck us as especially salient in the wake of Baltimore’s response to Freddie Gray’s death, as young protestors decry not only decades of police brutality but also the failures of older generations’ leadership. What new kinds of media, from Slam Poetry to Spoken Word to Hip Hop, are needed as global youth take up the challenge of recovering histories of suffering and recasting them in ways to extended the bonds of human community?
I don’t feel I’ve done justice to the subtlety of the various commentaries and questions, but I hope plan to put up some video from the panel on line. In the meantime, the following post, in Korean, shares some photographs from the revisionist forum, from our reading of testimonies, and from the academic panel:
Afterwards, a number of students told me how much they enjoyed watching their professors argue among themselves on the panel (without being disagreeable) and that they appreciated that while there were profound critiques of the narratives being promulgated next door in the revisionist forum, there was never a trace of personal hostility or ad hominen attack expressed by the panelists. We had been hoping to model for our students rigorous and mature scholarly discourse, not holding back from expressing our significant disagreements with one another. At the same time, we tried to make clear our shared, fundamental commitment to the principle that there is, at the end of the day, such a thing as “evidence” — that can be rationally and responsibly assessed in our never-ending search for deeper understandings of history and of the potential pathways forward.
So many people, near and far, provided invaluable resources and sounding boards as Chong-Eun and I organized the panel, re-immersed ourselves in the salient literature, and pondered how to hit the right tone—resisting pressures towards silence or simplistic reductionism while also avoiding pettiness or personal rancor. Among these were Norma Field, Tomomi Yamaguchi, Ellen Schattschneider, Tani Barlow, Angela Zito, Andy Gordon, Chris Nelson, Jordan Sand, and Emi Koyama. We can’t adequately express our gratitude towards these colleagues and many others, including those who drove out from the University of Washington in Seattle to stand with us in collegial solidarity during this most unexpected evening. Thank you all.