CONCEPT NOTE

ICWRP 2022

CONCETP NOTE

What sort of social knowledge has emerged from the societal campaign on behalf of the “comfort women” over the past three decades, or indeed from the 77-year history of those victims of military sexual slavery, which dates back to 1945? Has the knowledge we have gained made the world a better place?

Today, the issue of women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military is no longer restricted to Asia; it has become an international symbol of wartime sexual violence and violations of women’s human rights. Despite this, the “comfort women” remain a “problem” for South Korea’s relations with Japan. What is being problematized here? Whose “problem” is it?

The term “comfort women,” which originates in official Japanese military and police documents from the 1930s, is surrounded by quotation marks that indicate a certain hesitancy. It rests upon a discriminatory notion of gender roles, where women are viewed as beings who “comfort” men, and it represents a euphemism that renders invisible the violence perpetrated by imperial Japanese authorities who “distributed” women’s sexuality like so much war materiel. If we are to remove the scare quotes from the comfort women title now, what other name should we apply?

When the concept of wartime sexual slavery is phrased in terms of “comfort women,” it takes on elements of the issue of gender-based violence structured by the biopolitics of the modern state. Indeed, it may be seen as more akin to “necropolitics,” in the sense that the women sent to the battlefield by this system were low-status colonial subjects who were not even recorded as “citizens,” with no records even kept as to whether they survived or died. In war, the explosions of bombs are based on a system of meticulous planning, production, transportation, and execution; likewise, the suffering of the “comfort women” victims was a product of everyday violence inflicted upon women’s bodies by a militarist and patriarchal system.

In the “liberated” space of post-colonial Korea, victims long remained in the shadows, faced with the threat of patriarchal stigma. Moreover, recent events show that even after the comfort women issue entered public discourse in the 1990s, the victims have remained objectified and unable to speak for themselves as the issue has become politicized within South Korea-Japan relations and nationalist “camps” have taken shape.

In that sense, contemporary “problematization” of the comfort women issue must be directed at the fact that the victims have been forced to remain preemptively deprived of the opportunity to speak. Whenever victims of structured sexual violence show their faces and speak, there are also other faces looking back at them. We are not “viewers” looking upon those faces with a voyeuristic gaze. If the survivors’ speech represents a “coming out,” then the listeners bear the responsibility of “becoming out”—of gaining knowledge through their testimony.

By situating the comfort women “issue” in the present tense and reflecting on it from a post-colonial perspective, the International Conference on Women’s Rights and Peace 2022 seeks to explore an ethics of co-existence to counter misogyny and historical revisionism.