Written by George Hicks
Published by W. W. Norton & Company
The term “comfort women” is one that has been associated for so long with the atrocities committed by the Japanese imperial army during WWII that it would not be surprising if it automatically led the average person to think of the Japanese soldiers as the only villains. This book, by detailing the lives of several comfort women and the settings in which their suffering took place, provides a more complete picture that is more balanced, albeit complicated. Through the accounts of the personal experiences of comfort women from different countries, of people who had helped manage the brutal system, and of witnesses, the book sheds light on details that are often left unexplored by the media and offers insights that are more impartial.
Among the issues that are covered, the issue of women is the most important theme of this book. It should be noted in advance that many Japanese comfort women are believed to have become what they were of their own volition, which makes their being grouped with the women who were coerced a questionable decision. They are also believed to have received preferential treatment because of a racial hierarchy that favored Japanese women over Korean or darker-skinned women from Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the fact that they, too, were part of the system lends the reader a glimpse of how women in general were perceived during that time.
Yet, the problem cannot be reduced to simplistic dichotomies. It is not the Japanese against the Koreans and the Allies. The Japanese were not the sole perpetrators; many Koreans who were looking to make money by providing them with new recruits for their comfort stations actively preyed upon naïve young women with false promises of decent jobs. When the Allies emerged victorious and took over many of the territories previously occupied by Japan, many of the comfort women who survived had to continue their activities for the Occupation troops that felt they were either a fitting reward or revenge.
Neither is it necessarily about men against women, with men always being the victimizers of women. Some men—the fathers and the brothers of women and sympathizers—were against the system. Some women served as cogs in this system and helped it to function by deceiving other women into voluntarily becoming comfort women or acting as their managers.
By exploring diverse angles and conveying the facts of the events of the war, the book makes it possible for the reader to deduce that the problem lies in some of the misbeliefs shared not just among specific races, nationalities, or genders, but by a great proportion of humanity as a whole. There are many such disturbing yet timeless misbeliefs: the assumption that it is inevitable for women to become victims of brutal sex crimes during times of war, the view that men deserve to be “comforted” by them as a reward for all the sacrifices they make, the defeatist view that this is the way things have always been and always will be. Given that the author shows that these prevailed deep in the minds of people from all sorts of backgrounds, I came to realize that it is never going to be enough to simply punish particular parties with imprisonment or compensations. They might offer cathartic justice to the wronged, but when considered with a long-term outlook on history, the gains will be transient. What is needed, then, is taking the proactive measure of tackling such misbeliefs—the root of the problem—through education in order to prevent recurrences of such disaster.
Overall, Hicks’s work is an informative and thought-provoking read that I would recommend to any who are interested in war memories and women’s rights. The witness accounts and anecdotes are difficult to stomach at times, but they are indispensable to the broadening the reader’s perspective on the complex issue of comfort women.
Human Asia intern: Sohee Lee