Photo by

Collective Student Response to Recent Developments in “Comfort Women” Historiography

Skyler Ewing, Pauline Huff, Ari Forsyth, Allen Sellers, Tessa Schreiber


We are undergraduate students enrolled in the class “How Historians Think.” We watched Shusenjo our first week of class, and we staged a discussion to try to understand the complex discourses that take place in the film relative to the role of historians and historiography in truth-telling and the elevation of select conceptions of the past. Across our reflections, we identified several themes. First, contemporary contexts and attitudes affect how historical conflicts are resolved, yet they vary in importance for different stakeholders. For example, the 2015 joint announcement made by the Japanese and Korean foreign ministers was grounded in a present desire to soothe diplomatic tensions. Yet surviving “comfort women” sought solutions and an apology independent of political expediency. Second, power frames whose opinion is validated, what evidence is favored, and what motivates people to debate over “comfort women.” Dichotomies of power and influence—between Japan and Korea, men and women, scholars and politicians, fact and opinion, and ultimately subjects and objects—pervade the issue. Our responses follow, employing these themes.

Contested Definitions

A fundamental conflict between opposing historical narratives of the “comfort women” issue is the lack of shared definitions and interpretations for important terms such as “coercion” and “slavery.” This general challenge is compounded first by the historical multi-locality of the issue. “Comfort stations” could be found all over East and Southeast Asia and the varying local contexts for work complicate ideas of agency. Further, and perhaps more importantly, the “comfort women” issue is multilingual. Language has explicit consequences for matters of legality. For instance, in J. Mark Ramseyer’s contested article, legal contracts provide the bulk of his primary source evidence. Beyond the complex evidentiary problems in that article, a more basic issue emerges: how could anyone, transplanted by force or by choice beyond the reach of their mother tongue, give consent by signing a legal document written in another language? More broadly, translation is far from an objective exercise. How does the issue of translating each development in a decades-old argument into several languages and back again exacerbate and change an issue?


“Comfort women” denialism can be seen in the rejection of basic facts and concepts by Japanese revisionists who argue that women are not victims in acts against humanity but rather willing participants in their own plight. In contrast, historians have vigorously countered the claims of Japanese denialists. The question of motivations and causes behind Japanese “comfort women” denialism seems to be self-interest (economic, political, and possibly financial) as well as defensive mechanisms. Tactics include conspiracy theories, cherry-picking information, false experts, moving the goalposts, and other logical fallacies.

Ramseyer’s claims have been refuted by scholars who have thoroughly examined his publication, allegations and evidence. Expert opinions from Harvard historians who examined Ramseyer’s work exposed big evidentiary gaps. Despite Mark Ramseyer’s efforts to trivialize the plight of “comfort women,” historians have successfully and sufficiently rejected his claim. Japanese historians have also exposed Ramseyer’s academic misconduct in his failures to acknowledge absence of evidence, selective use of presented evidence from the US Military, and mischaracterization of testimonies, key documents, and primary sources (see ‘Contracting For Sex In The Pacific War’: The Case For Retraction On Grounds Of Academic Misconduct). Additionally, expert historians noted that besides primary sources, Ramseyer misrepresented much of secondary evidence, including citations from Kim and Kim, Shokuminchi Yukaku, and selective citation of “Showa shi no nazo o ou,” violating appropriate citation practices. “Comfort women” denialism is reminiscent of Holocaust denialism as the refusal to accept historically verified reality.

Nationalism and Gender 

Nationalism takes center stage in Shusenjo and, more generally, in the controversy surrounding the “comfort women” issue. Nationalism is typically considered a concept that is not necessarily linked with gender — a textbook definition of “nationalism” typically defines it as an ideology that promotes the interests of a nation, even to the detriment of others. In contrast to this gender-blind view of nationalism, the history of the “comfort women” issue lays bare the degree to which nationalism and gender are intricately tied. 

This is especially apparent considering the experiences of the “comfort women.” The “comfort women” issue, for decades, has been a sticking point for both Korean and Japanese nationalists. Of particular note, some Korean nationalists have held up victims as evidence of national grievance and used their ordeal as something to be avenged. However, this representation of the “comfort woman” as a national victim created a perverse valuation of the “comfort women” stories. Because stories which feature Japanese troops or middlemen kidnapping at gunpoint or otherwise obviously coercing women to fit within the nationalist narrative of Korean victimization and Japanese atrocity, some Korean nationalists promote these stories. Thus, women who were “merely” tricked into sex work are not as valuable to nationalist narratives. The result is that many women stayed silent, as their stories did not fit within the range of acceptable nationalist discourse.

As the film shows, this tendency to promote the especially egregious experiences of “comfort women” spreads to those who could hardly be called Korean nationalists. Although the especially tragic stories deserve attention, inflated numbers and more monstrous stories create unfortunate sensationalism. This relegates the more “mundane” stories of exploitation, rape, and sex slavery to the sidelines. This framing also reduces the agency of the victims themselves, as the most sensationalized stories are ones in which the violated women have the least control or agency.

Shusenjo shows that the process of addressing national grievances is highly gendered. Korean nationalism has driven the South Korean government to attempt to reach settlements and agreements with the Japanese government, and, as the film shows, those who settled the agreement were men of higher status. Meanwhile, the women were left with no place at the table. In essence, women are the vessels of national victimization, while men are the actors who were allowed to address the national grievance. Therefore, one is left to wonder what role did and do the actual victims play in arriving at a settlement. The “debate” surrounding “comfort women,” meanwhile, does include many women. The film depicts Japanese nationalists, Korean lawyers, and activist students, all of whom include women. Even so, because the film focuses so heavily on the “arguments” between suit-clad male historians and revisionists, there is a sense that even the “debate” is a male-dominated space.

Misogyny and Whoreophobia

Not every opinion is worthy of a platform—some opinions when given a platform demand editorial intervention. By and large, this is what Shusenjo does most well. The visual language of documentary film making—cutting together interviews to communicate consensus and to produce a coherent narrative—allows Shusenjo to contextualize and rebuke inaccurate and dangerous revisionist histories of the “comfort women” issue without giving them a larger platform. This technique is highly effective for addressing and rebuking historical inaccuracy through material evidence. Still, it does not offer a means by which to address the more abstract historical inaccuracies which arise from collective patriarchal and imperialist cultural assumptions. These ideas, while less overt than material evidence, are foundational to the revisionist argument. How else could such an overtly false narrative claim legitimacy? Moreover, because they re-enforce current and ongoing forms of oppression, these ideas are also harmful to women and sex workers today. 

Take, for instance, the issue of coercion and consent. Differentiating between coercive and consensual sex work is a primary issue and point of contention in Shusenjo. The entire debate revolves around this question of definition. On the one hand, many “comfort women” advocates are quick to regard sex work as an inherently coercive process, and by extension, view all sex workers as victims. This view obscures our ability to differentiate between sexual slavery and prostitution meaningfully. On the other hand, historical revisionists of the “comfort women” issue often take a different perspective, arguing that female sex workers are autonomous agents who exploit men’s desire for sex to accrue tremendous material gain. These views stem from the inaccurate assumption that sex work is fundamentally different from other forms of paid labor. This emanates, perhaps, from a continued, collective inability to place sex work alongside other forms of gendered, service work, deriving from vestigial moral/religious understanding of sex as an act outside of economic life.

This assumption is well-known to sex workers and their advocates. We can see it at work every time a sex worker is asked whether they would have sex with their clients if they weren’t being paid. The answer “no” often serves as evidence of victimhood, whereas the answer “yes” often serves as evidence of total agency: but who works because they want to? This is why Molly Smith (2018) argues that in discussing sex work, “Work is thus constantly being re-inscribed as something so personally fulfilling you would do it for free.” If we want to see sex workers as fully realized historical subjects, we need to challenge this whoreophobic view. Doing so will also make the difference between sex work and sexual slavery as overt (that is to say: as complex!) as the difference between free and enslaved labor. 

Another related practice in untangling misogyny and whoreophobia from the “comfort women” question is reframing how we understand resistance. When we study the experiences of subjects of systems of gendered violence, in this case the film’s careful discussion about “comfort women,” we must remember that a lack of direct, physical resistance is not the absence of resistance, nor is it a form of implicit consent. In the case of a documentary film, it is the director’s imperative to frame this understanding for their audience. 

Once again, this task is best accomplished by using the language of film to juxtapose inaccurate historical revisionism with historical reality. When a talking head makes the claim that a lack of direct, physical resistance indicates consent, the film must pose a counterargument. It must force its audience to consider: what would resistance to violence look like if you have no decision-making power over your own body? If you believe that you cannot trust the police? If you have no economic, political, or physical capacity to leave the site of your abuse? If you live under the direct and immediate threat of violence? It can suggest or offer evidence that rather than overt physical acts of fight or flight, resistance appears as a series of tiny, daily actions: saving your money, feeding your kids, keeping your body strong. It can illustrate what Heidi Schrek (2017) terms “covert resistance,” the idea that sometimes, seemingly passive, victim-like behaviors are at times the sanest and most brilliant response to living in a violent culture. It can celebrate survival as the ultimate act of resistance.

A serious attempt to center the experiences of the “comfort women” must attend to particular forms of covert resistance as they appear, and to contextualize them appropriately. If we do not attend to resistance, then our history of the “comfort women” is reduced to a history of the violence and oppression of the “comfort women” system, rather than a history of the experiences of the women themselves. This is yet another form of unacceptable dehumanization, as the “comfort women” are pushed to the margins of their own historical experience, and their identities reduced to passive, faceless victims. Humanizing “comfort women” means attending to their struggle against suffering. It means taking their experiences seriously. It means seeing them as full historical subjects. If we want accurate and compassionate attention to the “comfort women” issue, we cannot cede an inch of rhetorical authority to misogyny or whoreophobia. 

Trauma and Oral History 

Another key feature of the discourse surrounding “comfort women” in Shusenjo and beyond is how oral histories (an already complex issue in itself) are immensely complicated by trauma, both for the “comfort women” themselves as well as nationally which impacts popular narratives. This discourse can be broken down into three major categories: a basic discussion of the validity of oral testimonies/histories and how they compare to more “reliable” historical primary sources, understanding how trauma can affect the testimonies of survivors, and reflecting on national traumas that can lead nationalistic forces to repress or bolster certain narratives in order to aid their nationalist agendas. 

The first issue is broad and applicable to many other realms of historical inquiry, and essentially boils down to the question, “Can historians trust an oral, first person account of events?” It then branches into several other follow up questions, such as “What if the survivor is elderly, forgets details from the trauma, or exaggerates and plays into other agendas, or lies?” In addition, another key question is how do oral testimonies differ from more widely accepted forms of evidence, such as military documents, written testimony, or legal documents, and are the issues behind these documents glossed over in comparison to oral testimony? Through discussion in class, we decided that at its core, oral testimony poses no more of an issue than other sources as all of them can be forged, inaccurate, lacking context, or biased. In addition, written documentation is often destroyed in efforts to erase historical events, while the experiences of survivors cannot be forgotten without destroying all survivors. All in all, we have come to the conclusion that all sources, both tangible and oral, can be flawed and should be considered with their respective contexts. 

The second issue at hand is more specific to the discourse around “comfort women,” although with parallels to other cases in which extreme violence or other trauma has taken place. This concerns the effects of trauma on the oral testimonies of “comfort women” and whether or not discrepancies in testimony due to trauma should disqualify the experiences of “comfort women” as a whole. As seen in Shusenjo and a recognized understanding about brain function, survivors of intense trauma process and store information about traumatic events differently, often leading to different narratives, forgetfulness, or confusion when retelling events. In order to combat this, historians of war, sexual assault, and other forms of violence must understand and account for the impact of trauma in the way events are remembered. In addition, these new methodological approaches for trauma cannot simply be a matter of developing methodologies for oral histories—they must also be attuned to the way forces like shame (personal, familial, and national), purity, gender roles, and trauma responses (repression, alteration, symbolism) all affect how people experience historical events both in the moment and in memory. 

Lastly, we must strive to reflect on how the narratives of “comfort women” have been received by their communities and nations in the past and present, and the effects that these social implications of coming out as a survivor has had on oral testimony. For many, if not all, “comfort women,” stigma around such traumas led many to stay silent for decades and alter their stories for their safety. As seen in Shusenjo, these “comfort women” came from a highly patriarchal society which cast suspicion on any woman’s story of abuse, leading many to refuse to tell their stories or alter the details in an effort to protect themselves from criticism. This meant that women’s stories were subject to revision by the victims over time, as more information came to light when the women felt safer in telling their stories. In addition to very personal reasons for not coming forward with their stories, even for women who do choose to come forward, if their story does not align with extremely nationalistic historical narratives, they can often be silenced or shadowed by other women’s stories. Whether by emphasis or omission, nationalists have filtered which “comfort women” accounts were told and which were listened to and promoted. For example, “comfort women” whose stories included apparent force and coercion were held as the standard of Japanese cruelty by some Korean nationalists. On the other hand, Korean women whose stories included more veiled forms of exploitation were sidelined because their stories did not neatly fit within a simple story of Japanese exploitation of Korea. These concerns should be acknowledged and combatted in order to better understand the complex issue of “comfort women.”