‘I think those who should feel ashamed are not us’

I spent a morning at the former ‘comfort women’s’ weekly demonstration outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul one Wednesday during the northern summer of 2008, and have never been sure how to write about the experience. The women gathered under the banner ‘The Wednesday Demonstration for Resolving the Issue of Comfort Women Enslaved for the Japanese Military’, and, flanked by supporters from trade unions, women’s groups, and international solidarity campaigns, reiterate a series of very simple demands. An apology, a proper one. Decent compensation. Acknowledgement. Reparation.

The event combined, in the way that this sort of politics must, eventually, the most disturbing and hurtful with the most pedestrian and routine; the details of extended slavery, brutality and repeated rape the ‘comfort women’ suffered are appalling, even by the Pacific War’s extravagant standards for cruelty, and yet, as always, survival and repetition normalise. You can find out about the demonstration in tourist guide books; the women are used to turning up; life did go on. A long struggle – and the ‘comfort women’s’ campaign has lasted many decades now – enforces its own rhythms. These are women used to being insulted and ignored; but only death will take them from their corner now.

Osaka Mayor, and ultra-nationalist heavy, Hashimoto Toru has been in the news these last days for his attacks on the ‘comfort women’, attacks in keeping with right-wing resentments of long standing. (Hashimoto’s remarks, tweeted to his million or so followers, of course phrase their attack in terms of kind words and regrettable actions. This is the standard rhetorical procedure for today’s far Right. The only people who deny the Holocaust are those who would like to see it happen again.)

The historical legacy of the Pacific War, while it stayed a regular part of family discussions and popular, collective memory, acted as one of the great breaks on Japanese nationalism. Whatever pressures from the US to re-arm and revise the Constitution, Japanese nationalism foundered, often, in the decades following the end of the war, to overcome a deep and lasting pacifist sentiment amongst workers and the poor. A lot of this was channeled into selective remembering, certainly – the abuse of a certain Hiroshima industry – but much also involved returned servicemen, former colonists and others speaking, and writing about their involvement in imperial crimes and abuses.

So the Right has never forgiven their colonial victims for being victims, and thus exposing the violent foundations of the ‘beautiful country’. This is an example of what Paul Gilroy calls ‘postcolonial melancholia’, the inability of the imperial state to mourn its loss, and the sickness and symptoms of melancholia that come from that block. The ‘comfort women’ are read according to the ‘kettle logic’ described in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams: that there was no rape and subjugation, only willing participation by prostitutes; that the women involved were degraded anyway; that none of this ever took place. The incoherence of the right-wing position – shifting from anxious disavowal to relativist claims that this sort of thing happens everywhere anyway – indicate how important this resentment is to nationalist energies and organising.

A glance through the thousands of web pages and internet detritus dedicated to ‘exposing’ the lies of the survivors reminds us of a dispiritingly familiar misogynist logic: the rapes never happened, and, besides, the women deserved it. Hashimoto is sometimes called a ‘populist’ in English-language reports, but his politics have a much harder right-wing edge than this. He mobilises popular frustrations and resentments, certainly, but for clearly ultra-nationalist ends. His party evokes Japan’s ‘restoration’: national greatness will be rediscovered, via attacks on public sector unions and the bullying of Korean school children, by the public degradation of the victims of war.

Hashimoto’s comments build, then, on familiar tropes and territories. The women and their supporters are used to this: the now rather shop-worn lines of Kundera’s about the struggle of memory against forgetting feel rather fresher when one considers the political work of documentation and counter-narrative that this struggle involves, from allies in the citizens’ museum movement in Japan through to the relentless, and obviously exhausting, of public exposure carried out by the women themselves.

This struggle’s history reveals difficulties in our own side, too, and shows some of the ways shared logics of gender and sexuality can undo oppositional politics at the very moment they set out to overcome an injustice. The story of the ‘comfort women’ was suppressed for decades following the war not by Japanese government forces but by nationalist politics in Korea itself; the idea that so many women could have been ‘damaged’ in this way sat uncomfortably with nationalist ideas of national purity and renewal. The use of the language of sexual violence for metaphorical purposes, widespread still, indicates some of the pressures at work here. Revisionist histories in Japan have focused on the issue of compulsion, as if this is at all calculable in the conditions of war; whether all the women were abducted or not (many undoubtedly were), the conditions they were kept in, and the expectations of what life would involve, involved systematic abuse and mistreatment, for the ‘voluntary’ as much the abducted. Discussions of sex work that analyse the sex but skim over the work miss this dynamic of exploitation and abuse.

The incoherence of the rightist stance – it never happened; who cares if it happened; they were just Koreans; they did alright out of it; everyone engages in abuses – serves a purpose. The Right have, since Abe’s election, been growing in confidence and aggression, and each gesture serves to remind minorities, organised workers, Koreans in Japan, how they are perceived, what is in store for them, how the mood will be shaped ‘towards a beautiful country’. A Zainichi friend of mine wrote on Facebook earlier that Hashimoto’s comments made her feel still more beleaguered and isolated from Japanese society. It’s little wonder.

Maki Kimura, writing in The Guardian, puts this ‘problematic’ stance down to ignorance and urges feminist education as a political strategy, arguing that ‘gender awareness training’ is long overdue amongst Japan’s political class. But this stance – much like the anti-anti-intellectualism Jeff Sparrow recently dissected in the Australian context – misses the political context to Hashimoto’s provocations. He’s not an ignorant man, nor is he a fool: this is a calculated, carefully considered rhetorical strategy, aimed at extending the limits of the ‘sayable’, to introduce more rhetorical violence and misogynist racism into public life. He knows what he’s doing; it’s important we learn to know that he knows.

What are cultural or symbolic politics? The ‘comfort women’s’ struggle shows, for me anyway, why it’s so difficult – and, I think, so unhelpful – to separate out the cultural from the socially transformative. Theirs is a movement for both recognition and redistribution, or redistribution in recognition. Forcing a genuine historical accounting from Japan’s conservatives will represent not just a moment of satisfying symbolism, although it will offer that; such an accounting would demand, alongside it, if it were to work at all, a whole-scale rethinking and re-ordering of Japanese-Korean relations – relations internal to the Japanese archipelago as much as international – and a re-ordering of nationalist assumptions and loyalties on the part of the ‘public’ at large. Hashimoto, a canny politician with a view to today’s war, isn’t motivated by historiographical concern. This is an insult for current use.

In the same sense, though, the battle of the comfort women is a battle for the future. It has been outrages of sexual violence in Okinawa and the south of Korea that have spurred citizens’ movements to protest US bases and imperial domination. Hashimoto’s comparison of Japanese and US services’ needs was uncomfortably accurate and so provoked official rebukes. The continuities are there to be seen, however: sexual violence and degradation are a part of the life of war and imperial domination, from the Pacific War to the ‘pivot to Asia’.

Kil Won-Ok was at the nine-hundredth demonstration outside the Japanese embassy, in 2010. Her comments capture something of the women’s determination and show the persistence and dignity of their protest. ‘I believe that justice will prevail,’ she told the Hankyoreh newspaper. ‘Ignoring the victims and the refusing to voice an apology will not help the government atone for their sins. I think those who should feel shamed are not us, but the Japanese and South Korean governments.’

Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

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