Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Comfort Women of WWII

Maija Rhee Devine, presented at the Royal Asiatic Society on "The Comfort Women of WWII". The write-up of her presentation follows:
"Who were they? Sex slaves, prostitutes, or kidnapped girls forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers? Since their stories jumped into the spotlight in the early 1990s—after over forty years of silence—controversies have embroiled the issue. Conflicting conjectures continue. How many comfort women were there? What were their lives like before, during, and after their time as comfort women? How should we teach future generations about this chapter of WWII history? 
Presenting the issues from multiple viewpoints, this lecture will provide images and testimonies of the women themselves as well as the historical, political, and societal context in which women and girls in Korea and other Asian countries became comfort women. What role did a Confucian patriarchal way of life and the political and socio-economic distress resulting from poverty, war, and Japanese colonial rule play in tens of thousands of women and girls being led away and coerced into providing sex to Japanese soldiers? 
What happened to the Korean, Chinese, Filippina and other Comfort Women after WWII ended? Their struggles to return home, the conflicted, less than warm reception of them by their families and societies, and efforts to strike out on their own will be evoked. Discussion of the controversies surrounding the Japanese apology and compensation issues will complete the lecture."
A Korean-born author, Maija Rhee Devine earned a B.A. from Sogang University in Seoul and received a Fulbright award to complete an M.A. at St. Louis University in Missouri. She taught English as a Second Language at numerous universities in the U.S.A. as well as Asian culture courses at University of Kansas. Her book, The Voices of Heaven, won four book awards in 2014, and her short stories and poems have appeared in anthologies and literary journals including Michigan Quarterly, The North American Review, and The Kenyon Review. Her current projects include authoring a novel and a non-fiction historical narrative about Korean Comfort Women of WWII. She teaches a course on Comfort Women through the Osher Institute at University of Kansas.


Notes from the lecture:

When Maija introduced her book, The Voices of Heaven, she referred to it as "절작",  which roughly translates as "piece of crap", 절 being "of low quality". To boast or speak pridefully of one's work or self is to bring bad luck, traditional Korean thinking, and so her popular written work is 절작. 

Not much good can be said of the Japanese institution of comfort stations, so in trying to find something that would break up the somber tone, Maija looked for humor. The only humor she found on the topic is, according to her long research, she found that in the 15th century the Japanese were very concerned about procreating or disease transmission or maybe both that they were the first to make condoms. They made them out of tortoise shell and deer horn. Ingenious but sounds painful, so she is thankful that the comfort women of WWII didn't have to use, wash out, and re-use those kinds of condoms.
  • Japan had comfort stations in 12 countries and territories controlled by them. Okinawa alone had 134 comfort stations.
  • Chastity knives were carried by women of the Joseon Dynasty, and often the knife was concealed as their hair pin. Women were expected to use these knives to prevent being defiled. "Women lived with the utmost responsibility to keep themselves chaste for men."
  • The number of Korean women who served as comfort women? The highest number is 200,000 and has been proposed by Japanese Professor Yoshimi Yoshiyaki. The lowest number is 20,000 proposed by Korean researchers. Ironic that Korean researchers in researching the insults of Japan to their country would so under-propose a figure to that of Japanese researchers who represent the offending country.
  • Not until August 1991 did the first comfort woman, 김학순, come out! Since that time a mere 238 former Korean comfort women have registered. Where are all these women? Why has only a tiny fraction of the tiny fraction who survived the war come out? So many reasons ...
  • In 1994, The House of Sharing for the former comfort women was first built in 1994, in the Daehakro area. It was not built by the Korean government.
  • Actually, 김학순 was not the first comfort woman to come out. 16 years earlier a Korean came out in Japan. The story was carried in Japanese newspapers, but Korea never picked up on the story.
  • In some Japanese records, the comfort stations were referred to as "Public Hygienic Bathrooms".
  • The YouTube clip, "Ridiculous to Deny", is of a former Japanese medic who became a reclusive priest (Buddhist? Shinto?) after the war. He came out after Professor Yoshiyaki found documents of the Japanese comfort women system.

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