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Understanding the plight of the "comfort women"

March 18, 2009 -- The dark history of the women forced into prostitution during the Asia Pacific War and World War II came to light in the 1990s when South Korean activists defined the exploitation as a war crime. In a new book, Professor of Anthropology C. Sarah Soh suggests a more complex understanding of these "comfort women."

Cover image from 'The Comfort Women' which shows a woman's hand hanging in the air.

In "The Comfort Women," Soh illustrates how the prevailing, simplistic view of the phenomenon overlooks the diversity of the women's experiences, the influence of historical factors and the role that Koreans played in facilitating the Japanese comfort system. 

The comfort women were the tens of thousands of women, many of them Korean, who were pressed into sexual servitude by the Japanese military during World War II and the preceding conflicts in Asia. But as Soh explains, their experience was far from uniform. Some women left Korea to escape domestic violence, poverty or arranged marriage. Some were consenting prostitutes who received payment; others had no choice and were forced into sexual slavery.

"Prostitution is complex enough, but the comfort women issue is complicated by war and colonial rule," said Soh. Her book blends stories from former comfort women with historical context and examines the comfort women in light of Japan and Korea's sexual cultures and Japan's colonial relationship with Korea.

Soh also highlights how nationalism shapes the way the tragedy is remembered. "Korea's outcry over the use of comfort women is a nationalistic uproar," Soh said. "Korea doesn't show the same concern for human rights abuses against women within its borders today."

Following is an excerpt from the book:

Despite their historic contributions, the approach of South Korean activists and their supporters has obscured the continued ubiquity of grave human rights violations of women, especially those working in the sex industry in postcolonial South Korea. Although activists and their supporters have successfully publicized sexual violence and atrocities committed by the Japanese military, the way in which they have framed the story as exclusively a Japanese war crimes issue has diverted attention from the sociocultural and historical roots of women's victimization in Korea, which Japan colonized from 1910 to 1945.

-- C. Sarah Soh, "The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan" (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher.

-- Elaine Bible


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