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[Lee Kyong-hee] A piece of fiction can debunk denials of history

A Harvard University law professor’s recent article asserts that “comfort women” who served at Imperial Japan’s war-front brothels were “willing prostitutes” who worked under contracts and that their “sex slave narrative” is “pure fiction.”

“The claims about enslaved Korean comfort women are historically untrue. The Japanese army did not dragoon Korean women to work in its brothels,” wrote J. Mark Ramseyer in his Jan. 12 contribution to Japan Forward, an English-language news and opinion website of the Sankei Shimbun.

“To take these jobs, the Korean women demanded and received very high pay. They worked shorter terms -- typically two years. Until the last months of the war, they repaid advances and went home.”

Did they? How much money did they receive? How many returned to their families?

To date, Ramseyer has reportedly failed to provide evidence to validate his views in “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” his highly provocative article published online in December by the peer-reviewed International Review of Law and Economics. His subsequent op-ed piece on the conservative website echoes the same views. It has yet to be seen whether the Japanese corporate law specialist can garner enough proof to back his denial of internationally recognized human rights violations.

“One Left: A Novel” by Kim Soom is the first full-length novel solely devoted to the subject of comfort women. Although it is a creative work, the novel is peppered with over 300 endnotes, each attributed to real survivors of the comfort station system. Thus, the book, published in 2016, synthesizes acute personal memories with painful history, straddling the line between fact and fiction.

The result is a gut-wrenching narrative that makes the act of reading traumatic in itself. The author adopted no euphemism in her descriptions of the brutality, degradation and humiliation that routinely occurred.

The novel is set in the future. One of the two known surviving comfort women has just died, and the other one is about to follow, a TV broadcast reports. As she watches, the protagonist, a 93-year-old woman, mutters, “And then there’s me!” She and her cat live in a desolate neighborhood slated for redevelopment. People have no clue where she’s been or what she’s been subjected to. So, no one knows she’s on the verge of becoming the actual “one left.”

Referred to only as “she,” the protagonist has never gone public with her experiences. She couldn’t share with anyone -- even her own sisters -- the brutalities she endured during her seven years at a comfort station in Manchuria, when some 30,000 Japanese soldiers used her body. Knowing she will become the last survivor, she looks back over her life and questions whether she should continue to live in silence and fear or finally tell her story to the world.

The narrative seesaws between the present and the past. Everything that she sees or touches reminds her of the incidents and friends at the comfort station. Her memories are not mere flashbacks but often drift into associations; she relives her past on a daily basis, with the past being more vivid than the present.

“The moth looks like a uterus. Her uterus, the army of ants sinking their tiny teeth into it and holding on for dear life reminding her of the line of Japanese soldiers jostling one another while awaiting their turn with her. She begins to gag,” reads an excerpt from the novel. (An English edition, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, University of Washington Press, 2020)

She was 13 and was gathering marsh snails on the riverside for her starving family. She was grabbed by men -- four or five, she doesn’t remember, but all spoke Japanese -- who appeared from out of nowhere. She was thrown into a truck that sped away. The truck stopped somewhere to load more girls on its way to a rail station, where they were loaded onto a train that raced endlessly in what seemed to be a northerly direction.

On the train, she met other girls of similar age. All of them thought, claimed or imagined they were being taken to a nice place, where they could earn money to send home. It could be a textile or needle factory, a hospital, or just someplace wonderful.

From the day after their arrival, those girls, some even yet to experience their first menstruation like the protagonist, were to be raped 30 to 40 times a day. “Soldiers began flocking in at nine in the morning. The enlisted men came between nine and five, the NCOs from five to ten, and the officers from ten to midnight. Some of the officers came in the middle of the night.”

Her recollections continue: “The soldiers always showed up with a beige-colored ticket one fourth the size of a flower card. The soldiers bought these tickets from Haha (the woman who operated the comfort station). Each girl collected her tickets and took them to Haha. The girls never kept this form of payment from the soldiers coming and going from their bodies. And even if they had, why bother, to the girls they were nothing but scraps of paper.”

Many years later she would learn that there were some 200,000 women and girls like her, but only about 20,000 returned after Korea’s liberation from Japan. “That’s one tenth, or 1 out of 10 … Did I get that right? How could that be?” she wonders.

Recalling her life that ended before she turned 14, her body ruthlessly trampled, she doesn’t want to resent or feel hatred toward anyone in this world. But she cannot forgive what happened to her. (The statement is attributed to former comfort woman Lee Yong-soo.)

Denying and whitewashing history doesn’t benefit anyone. Japan should earnestly reckon with its wartime wrongdoings. This is necessary if it is to never again have its sons and grandsons queue up before cubicles of comfort stations, let alone abuse women and girls of other nations. 

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.