Refuting Revisionists’ Attempts to Whitewash Atrocities Committed Against “Comfort Women”

Hundreds of thousands of women were abducted and subjected to sexual violence by the Japanese military before and during WWII. This hatred, sexual violence and misogyny must not be repeated today.   

Refuting Revisionists' Attempts to Whitewash Atrocities Committed Against "Comfort Women"
A photo from a Comfort Women protest of a monument in Seoul near the Japanese Embassy. (Maina Kai / Flickr)

At the age of 16, Kim, Soon-duk was lured into becoming a “comfort woman” by a Korean recruiter promising a well-paying job overseas. The euphemistic phrase referencing “comfort women” dilutes the atrocities and repeated violence that was committed against these girls and women. I intentionally use this phrase here because of its historical and continuing whitewashing of their experiences. The reality is Kim, Soon-Duk was one of hundreds of thousands of young women from throughout the Asia Pacific region and other Japanese-occupied territories who were abducted and subjected to sexual violence by the Japanese military before and during World War II.

Recently, Harvard Law Professor J. Mark Ramseyer wrote that these women were not forcibly kidnaped as sex slaves but instead, were voluntary, contracted sex workers. His propaganda is about to be published by Sankei Shimbun, a nationalist Japanese newspaper, as reported by the Harvard Crimson. Other responses have expertly and thoroughly refuted Ramseyer’s piece. I write to share the story of Kim, Soon-duk and so many women like her, as she is no longer here to testify against revisionists’ claims of academic freedom—and it is her voice that matters and should be elevated.

I first met Kim, Soon-duk in Los Angeles in October 2000. Her artwork was part of an art exhibit by comfort women that toured internationally, and was then showing in Los Angeles. In Gwangju, an hour northwest of Seoul, some of the comfort women found sisterhood and support in the House of Sharing, a communal home for many of these now elderly women, many of whom had been abandoned by their families and ostracized by society.

Because most of the women had not had a formal education and were illiterate, the House of Sharing offered art therapy as an outlet and medium to document their experiences. Kim, Soon-duk produced some of the most memorable works, such as “Unblossomed Flower” and “Stolen Away.” In an interview, she shared:

“The process of painting also reminded me of that horrible past experience. It tormented me. I was going crazy again, possessed by nightmares about the past. I couldn’t sleep; sometimes I screamed and woke everybody up. Once I expressed my past, which I had kept inside for a long time, my wounds seemed to heal. My heart became soothed.”

While she was in Los Angeles for several weeks, I served as her guide and interpreter as she patiently recounted her story. There were warm, intimate moments that I remember fondly: As we drove her to various speaking events and media interviews, I would catch her through the rearview mirror pulling out pieces of candy to share with my one-and-half year-old daughter Jin, sitting next to her in the backseat. But there were other moments—such when she thought we were being kidnapped one night because the road we were on was dark and unlit—that revealed the deep trauma that never went away, even 60 years later.

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Kim, Soon-duk made several more trips to the U.S. In 2001, after 15 former comfort women from Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. district courts using the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1787, and the politically calculating Bush administration submitted a statement of interest calling for its dismissal. She sought to meet with the State Department to voice her opposition personally.

Again, Kim, Soon-duk made another long international trek to the United States in September to speak at a conference in San Francisco marking 50 years since the San Francisco Peace Treaty and Japan’s continued denial of wartime atrocities. She had fallen off the high hotel bed, and I remember helping to move her onto a wheelchair so she could participate in a protest outside the day after she spoke. She was 80 years old then, and I wondered how long she and others would have to repeat their story before Japan would admit to its war crimes, offer a formal apology and provide reparations. How much longer could her body continue?  That was her last overseas trip. I met her one more time in Korea at the House of Sharing to mark the New Year before she passed in 2004.

Refuting Revisionists' Attempts to Whitewash Atrocities Committed Against "Comfort Women"
Kim, Soon-duk (C), a former WWII comfort woman, Eun Sook Lee (L), from Young Koreans United of USA, and Buddhist nun Neung Kwang walk to the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2001, to deliver a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. The letter condemns the U.S. position on a class action law suit filed by former comfort women from Korea, China, Taiwan and the Philippines. (Young Koreans United of USA)

It has been over 30 years since the first woman testified publicly. Kim, Hak-Soon and hundreds more have graphically revealed their experiences. The stories of these women are the primary and most credible sources for this terrible chapter in history. Today, an estimated 12 comfort women survivors are alive but they, like 92-year-old Lee, Yong-soo, remain steadfast in making sure that the truth does not die with them.

There is no moral ambiguity in the depravity perpetrated by the Japanese government. The world knows this. That is why international condemnation has been swift from within Harvard itself such as the Korean Association of Harvard Law School to the House of Sharing that have issued demands that Ramseyer apologize to the women and reconsider his position, and are calling for rigorous peer review process and a withdrawing of the article.

I would add one more demand. In 2015, South Korea and Japan signed an agreement in which Prime Minister Abe expressed his “deepest remorse.” Japan contributed $8.3 million towards a fund to compensate comfort women; in exchange, the countries agreed to “refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community.” This negotiated settlement between South Korea and Japan reflected a diplomatic and business transaction, rather than a sincere effort to make amends for years of human rights atrocities and denials.

The agreement centers governments and the male priorities of diplomacy and political strategy instead of the women’s bodies and experiences. Japan repeatedly takes umbrage at the placement of statues honoring the women and seeks to remove any references in textbooks. Propagandists may believe that it is easier to erase their stories because the only witnesses are disappearing from this earth. But their voices will not die with them. The hatred, sexual violence, and misogyny that allowed the atrocities to be committed against these women then should not be repeated today.   

Harvard should join the international community in calling upon the Japanese government to talk directly to the remaining Korean survivors, ask what they want, and issue a heartfelt apology from the highest level of government. 

Our obligation is to make sure the story of these comfort women, and Japan’s leading role, becomes part of our history for generations. It is the only way to meaningfully come to terms with past wrongs and imagine a different future for women today.

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EunSook Lee is the Director of the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund. Prior to that she coordinated the 2012 National AAPI Civic Engagement Project for the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development. She also supported Unbound Philanthropy, the Four Freedoms Fund and other funders on initiatives related to administrative relief and the DACA program. She is the former senior deputy for Congressmember Karen Bass, executive director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC), executive director of Korean American Women In Need, and station manager of CKLN Public Radio in Toronto, Canada.