Teaching "Comfort Women" Issues in Women's Studies Courses

Article excerpt

Over the past ten years, Asian and Western feminists and human rights activists have created transnational coalitions to support the demands for redress by survivors of the Japanese military's "comfort system" of WWII. For nearly fifty years, the stories of these survivors--Asian women who were forced or coerced into brothels and sexually assaulted by thirty to forty soldiers a day over a period of months or years--were omitted from the history of the War; now the details of this systematic sexual abuse are being published everywhere, if not always in textbooks in Japan. But the survivors are no closer today to receiving official apologies or compensation from the government of Japan for their wartime sexual exploitation than they were a decade ago. Since the survivors came forward in the early 1990s, small bands of rightwing nationalists in Japan have loudly denied the truth of their accounts. Meanwhile, Japanese and Western judges alike have continued to dismiss their legal claims for reparations for the wa r crimes to which they were subjected. The former "comfort women (or "military sex slaves," as some prefer to be known) are now women in their seventies and eighties, who will probably never live to see justice done. Those who represent them in courts in Asia and the U. S., or who rake their cause to the global political stage--whether to the U. N., to the Hague Tribunals, or to the U. S. Congress, where two different pro-"comfort women" resolutions have been introduced and have languished--are unlikely to experience victory either.

On the other hand, those who have been and still are attempting to "represent" them in other ways--especially by creating, producing, and disseminating scholarly, or literary, or visual texts about their stories--have already been tremendously successful in making known both their past sufferings and their current political struggles. There is now a large body of material available in English, in a variety of media: documentary films, catalogues of multi-media installations and photo exhibitions, novels, nonfiction works combining historical data and analysis, and reproductions of drawings and paintings all focused on what the "comfort women" endured in the 1930s and 1940s and on how the few hundred remaining survivors live now. The oral testimonials and the written memoirs of many former "comfort women" themselves have begun to be translated and published in the U. S. (1) In addition, there are growing numbers of essays and, as in the case of my own 2001 volume, Legacies of the Comfort Women of WWII, co-edit ed with Bonnie B. C. Oh, books that now focus on recording and studying the phenomenon of feminist activism with and around the "comfort women." Such books tell the story of women and also of men building coalitions in the numerous countries throughout Asia--including Korea, the Philippines, Burma, China, Indonesia, Taiwan--from which the "comfort women were seized by the Japanese and joining not only with Australians and Americans of Asian and non-Asian descent, but with the numerous Japanese feminists who endorse the "comfort women's" claims.

I would like to argue for the importance of bringing this interdisciplinary, multi-racial, transnational material into Women's Studies courses, whether those on global feminist movements, women and war, Asian and Western feminisms, women and violence, women in the arts, women and politics, women's history; or in the introduction to Women's Studies as a field. My reasons for making this argument include those you may already expect. Certainly, teaching the story of the "comfort women" and of the organizing efforts that have grown up around them can help to express solidarity with women who deserve support; having a new generation of academics take their experiences of sexual violence seriously is the least that these women deserve as their due. Such teaching can have the side benefit, too, of demonstrating that (contrary to the standard anti-feminist line) feminist concerns are not primarily white, middle-class, or exclusively American. …


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