Getting the aging Korean women who were forced into prostitution slavery by Japanese soldiers during World War II to tell their stories is a crucial part of the Redress movement, according scholars from around the world at the eighth international conference of QC’s Research Center for Korean Community.
The center is a research institution dedicated to understanding the Korean community in the United States and its future in American society. This year’s conference focused on the 27- year-old Redress movement for the victims of the Japanese military sexual slavery, often referred to as “comfort women”, and brought scholars from all over the world to discuss the movement, its accomplishments, failures and its future.
The presenters laid out three goals for the conference: to raise awareness about the Redress movement and the Japanese government’s lack of accountability for its atrocities; to produce valuable literary scholarship on the comfort women issue; and to provide a public venue for activists and scholars engaged in the issue to network and support continued research.
The conference began with the presidents of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues Inc., Jungsil Lee and Dongwoo Lee Hahm, reviewing the history of the Redress movement. The term “comfort women” refers to the kidnapped and trafficked women in various areas of Asia and the Pacific, who were forced into providing sexual servitude to Japanese soldiers at military brothels, or comfort stations, during World War II.
The Redress movement started in 1990, when various female leaders in Korea established the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. This happened after a former Korean comfort woman came forward to tell her story and demand justice for the crimes. Lee and Hahm said the movement’s mission is to increase awareness of what happened to these women and to hold the Japanese government accountable. The movement has demanded an official apology, monetary reparations for the victims, monetary reparations for its victims, and teaching about the crimes in Japanese schools.
Mary McCarthy, associate professor of politics and international relations at Drake University, said the comfort women narratives are important not only for their historical context, but to empower the victims. Giving comfort women the opportunity to tell their stories and demand justice for the crimes they endured has given them back the agency that was taken from them during their sexual slavery, thus empowering them. Once they started telling their stories, she said, the stories that were previously about victimhood, violence and difficulties became stories about rebirth, strength and renewed purpose.
Phyllis Kim, co-founder of the Korean American Forum of California, said that by using the stories of the comfort women, or “grandmas” as they are lovingly called, we can ensure that history does not repeat itself. Recording the grandmas’ narratives will continue the fight for accountability even after their deaths, Kim said.
Judith Mirkinson, founder of the GABRIELA Network which advocates for the rights of Filipino women, said the Redress movement has faced stiff resistance from the Japanese government, with Japanese nationalists and government officials claiming that the comfort women were not trafficked, but instead were prostitutes who willingly serviced the military. Murkinson said the comfort women deniers have been an obstacle to the creation of memorials honoring the victims, but ironically have also drawn more attention to the movement.