Friday, August 19, 2016

Comfort Women, nationalism, and the inculcation of anti-Japanese feeling

[Note: There are some disturbing images below.]


The image above was posted on Facebook along with a message in Korean asking for support for this to be the new 100,000 won bill; it received 31,000 likes last I looked at it (awhile ago now, admittedly). For me, the movie title 'How to lose friends and alienate people' comes to mind. Well, it's not the first time a "ruthless political terrorist" has been suggested for the 100,000 won bill (the difference being that the above An Jung-geun bill hasn't been officially suggested). Should something like this come to pass, however, it would be amusing if Japan issued a bill with Hideyoshi Toyotomi and the 'ear mound' that stands in Kyoto on it.

On a similar topic was this column by 'foolsdie' in the Korea Times, titled 'Are we still allies?' which complained about Donald Trump's comments on the US-ROK alliance before turning in another direction:
Then, Obama's recent visit to Hiroshima acted as a wedge. It's laudable for him to try to free the world of the fetters of nuclear weapons. But here, memories of Japan's brutal occupation remain fresh even after the passage of 70 years. Obama was perhaps too engrossed in the heat of the moment to say out loud that the nuclear attacks were the result of Japan's aggression and those killed and maimed were the victims of its failed leadership. Ironically, his visit has freed ultranationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ilk from the atrocities it had committed. Human rights are one of two pillars of U.S. foreign policy, with nonproliferation being the other. For sure, Obama's visit didn't help much on human rights.
Regarding "memories of Japan's brutal occupation remain fresh even after the passage of 70 years" (and I wonder why that is?), perhaps it's worth noting that most countries don't dedicate their education system and media to instilling historical bitterness quite like the Koreas, and thus not everyone believes that any given Japan-related news item is an occasion to dredge up memories of suffering. But I'll concede that it's a great way to keep people's minds off more important things. The Korean government itself apparently had no such complaints; a foreign ministry official said, "In such a historic speech, it is meaningful that he clearly mentioned Koreans, putting them on par with American and Japanese victims." Which might suggest that confirming victim status is a diplomatic victory. The problem is that it seems like aspiring to victim status is part of the Korean national identity, and thus there are some who would insist that Koreans' suffering should be elevated above everyone else's.

Michael Breen touched on the topic of Korea-Japan relations when he wondered if the comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese Embassy should be moved to the exit of Gangnam Station near where a woman was murdered because of her gender in May by a man who had been rejected by women. (Of course, he was mentally ill. It's interesting how when someone commits a crime that could be construed as sexist or racist (like murdering a foreign English teacher or a military doctor) they're often described as 'mentally unstable' or 'deranged'.) Breen describes
an interview with a prominent expert on prostitution. When I asked what she thought of the comfort women issue, she asked me to put my pen down so that she could rant politically incorrectly off-the-record.

"It's a joke," she said. "Pure hypocrisy."

We all know Japan was guilty of terrible things up to 1945, but, she said, this chauvinistic focus on justice for a historical matter is popular with Koreans because it conveniently distracts us from the real issue and our own continued guilt.

The real issue is the attitude in Korea of men towards women and human trafficking in the sex industry that operates on the scale it does as a consequence of that attitude.

That explained for me the odd fact that the comfort women story did not surface until 40 years after the war. People in 1945 were of course angry about the Japanese occupation but the comfort women did not appear important­ then, few even knew about it ­because male attitudes toward women and the trafficking of young women to service them hadn't changed with national liberation.
In a Korea Times column, Maija Rhee Devine (who will give a lecture for the RAS in September on the comfort women) asks "Are comfort women lying?" Her ultimate answer is no, but she points to criticism of the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, who are suspected of having "coached" the comfort women in some of their testimony.

In the spring of 2014 I visited the Museum of Korean Modern Literature in Incheon and came across a large exhibit on the first floor about the comfort women. There were many comic books presented with each page as a poster affixed in order along the walls. One, below, was titled '70-year-long nightmare':













As always (as I've noted before regarding films here, and here, and here) it all begins with an overly simplistic tale of happy-go-lucky innocent children picking flowers (hell, even Peppermint Candy 'begins' this way) before history (or an evil invader) bowls them over.

Another was titled "Where are we going?" - I've posted a few pages below:






One has to admire the design of this work, though I couldn't help starting to feel that perhaps the artists were depicting the women's suffering a little too enthusiastically. And then I saw this comic:



What follows (I chose not to photograph it) is an incredibly graphic depiction of the rape of a child. That she was a child was made clear by the size of her breasts and lack of pubic hair - it was actually that graphic - and I was appalled that something like that was on display for people of all ages to view at the museum. That said, I wasn't particularly surprised by it, considering the apparent approval there is for such depictions of suffering, as well as the lack of concern there has been regarding raising the low age of consent in Korea. It also brought to mind this photo (of a foreign woman) posted in public as a photo contest entry at the Boryeong Mud Festival in 2011, at least in terms of female nudity being thoughtlessly allowed in a public forum. Also worth remembering is a blog post by Oranckay back in 2004 when the Korean government went out of its way to block its citizens from seeing videos of the beheading of Kim Sun-il in Iraq. In that post he referenced a Korean feminist website (perhaps Ilda) which criticized the government for trying to hide images of the death of a Korean male from the citizenry while letting images of the bodies of prostitute Yun Geum-i (killed by a G.I. in 1992) and the two girls run over by a U.S. bridge-layer (in 2002) proliferate without comment. These images were used to mobilize resistance to the U.S. presence in Korea, and in thinking of this - and of depictions of the comfort women - I'm reminded of a passage in Sheila Miyoshi Jager's 2003 book Narratives of Nation Building in Korea : A Genealogy of Patriotism which, while it refers to anti-USFK campaigns, is also applicable in some ways to the comfort women issue (and is very applicable to Anti-English Spectrum):
Like Sin [Ch'ae-ho], chuch'eron [the (supposedly) North Korean-influenced anti-imperialist 'philosophy' of leftist South Korean students popular from the mid-1980s to the 1990s] sees the entire history of the Korean people as an epic struggle to overcome foreign domination and feudal oppression. The historian's task, in other words, entails the examination of the experience and legacy of the Korean people's struggle to preserve their "core" identity. [...] Perceived as a significant threat to this core identity, miscegenation became associated with a whole host of related themes about the defense of the social body - the retrieval of a superior "core" Korean identity in the name of a phantasmic Korean essence. The ability of the foreign male to penetrate (literally) the inner and inviolable sanctum of Korean women and to establish conjugal alliances with them was perceived not only as a threat to the viability of the family, but as an act that undermined the fundamental cohesion and identity of the Korean nation. Thus we find in Korea that those women who formed marriage alliances across racial lines were popularly perceived as being women of "loose" morals: prostitutes, bar hostesses, or entertainers. In fact the were represented as the polemical inversion of the idealized virtuous female associated with Korea's traditional romance narratives. By allowing themselves to be appropriated by the West, these women were simultaneously perceived as being victims of Western imperialism and faithless profiteers of American capitalism. Both pitied and despised, the whore thus became the symbol of the nation's shame as well as the rallying point for national resistance. (Pages 71-72)
One can't help but notice the role women other than the comfort women play in depictions of the colonial era. Years ago I posted excerpts of children's books depicting the colonial era, which depict certain events the publishers thought were important, such as the murder of Queen Min by Japanese assassins;


The torture of Yu Gwan-sun by Japanese police;


The suppression of the Samil protests by Japanese police;


The assassination of D.W. Stevens in 1908;



The assassination of Ito Hirobumi in 1909;




Also included was Yun Bong-gil's bomb attack in Shanghai in 1932. What we see there, of course, is that the (passive) women serve as victims to motivate the (active) men to carry out acts of terrorism justifiable revenge. Likewise, images like these posted in a public space seem to promote or justify a continued antipathy towards Japan:



Having been reading about Canada's participation in World War I lately (in Marching As to War: Canada's Turbulent Years, 1899-1953 by Pierre Berton) I couldn't help but remember the final stanza of "In Flanders Fields":

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

As is noted in the poem's Wikipedia entry,
[Paul] Fussell criticized the poem in his work The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). He noted the distinction between the pastoral tone of the first nine lines and the "recruiting-poster rhetoric" of the third stanza. Describing it as "vicious" and "stupid", Fussell called the final lines a "propaganda argument against a negotiated peace".
Is the propagation of such images as those above (especially in a manner meant to communicate to the young) not, in its own way, similar propaganda? This is not to say Korea is the only side at fault, of course - political realities in both Japan and Korea militate against solving the Comfort Women and Dokdo issues, and Japan's apologies (listed here - to 2005 - by Konrad Lawson) have often fell short of the mark (though a cultural tendency towards indirectness plays a part in this). Another elephant in the room is the effect on Japanese attitudes towards the war of the U.S. occupation of Japan and the American decision to preserve the imperial institution and protect the Emperor from prosecution during the Tokyo trials; as John Dower has put it, if the Emperor, in whose name the war was fought, wasn't going to be held responsible, why should anyone else feel guilty? One can only hope that, much like an ascendant Germany pushed the UK and France into an alliance before WWI, China's rise will have a similar effect at some point in the future. But as long as the Korean Gordian Knot - its division - remains in place, other problems related to mid-20th century history will be difficult to solve. An insistence in Korea on allowing displays (and popular culture) to portray Korea as a historical victim to inculcate historical bitterness in order to distract the populace and/or encourage a nationalist belief in Korea's moral superiority strikes me as something that will be counterproductive in the long run - even if it has its uses in the short term.

2 comments:

Pursuit of Truth Institute said...

>"memories of Japan's brutal occupation"

Those who experienced Japan's annexation tend to have different recollection of that period from what is being taught at Korean schools these days.

http://scholarsinenglish.blogspot.com/2014/10/i-am-91-years-old-and-i-want-to-tell.html

http://scholarsinenglish.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-new-korea-by-alleyne-ireland.html

Pi. Suranaree Yamoo said...

The article is very good on one account: Exposing the agendas and real motivations behind some of the Comfort Women mythologizing. But it fell short of exploring many of the other sides. Similar to the British vacilating over condemning fascism in Germany in the 1930s because of Germany's use of "victimhood" from the Great War perpetuated a kind of protective shield to it's otherwise outlandish behavior, South Korea has the same nationalistic, fasctic, and racist behavior as Germany. Hiding it behind a cloak (and more importantly, outside observers who ALLOW this to go unchallenged) of "victimhood" from previous generations only exacerbates the potential for future violence, as we saw sadly in Germany against the Jews who "victimized" them in the Great War and early interwar years.

Korea has created a myth, that many in the West help perpetuate by their lack of understanding. In Taiwan the experience of memory is quite different, despite the effort of the Kuomintang fascists to do similar education. It was not important for a nationalist identity like Korea.

The Comfort Women myth, is just that. A myth. There were many Comfort Women and at the time the records are clear that they were highly paid contract prostitutes. Only after a change in strategy to attack Japan vs. the US by many extremist groups in Korea was undertaken, did Chon Dae Hyop begin to attempt to unify the people around the "Jew" of Asia: Japan as bogeyman vs. America.

It is as much racist supremacy by the Koreans, combined with fascist tendency to create a racial "other" that propels the Korean Comfort Women myths as political deprivation of women. Both have combined together to make a powerful force for hatred and evil that will plague the region with violence in the coming years as those young Koreans who grew up watching those pictures, become the leaders with their fingers on the triggers pointed at Japanese, just like the Hitler Youth who grew up with images of the "Jews" grew up to pull the triggers so tragicly easy in World War II.