Rewriting the History of ‘Comfort Women’

Catherine Hu

ARTSSCI 2A06: Social and Political Thought


Judith Butler, in Precarious Life, makes a poignant statement that “the body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well” (26). The body makes it possible to grieve, makes it possible to love, and makes it possible to recognize our interconnectedness. However, the body is also vulnerable to corruption, deceit, and the selfish nature of other beings. War is a prime example of the way vulnerable bodies can be exploited, as it is precisely those that are most vulnerable that suffer the most violence.

Following the WWII Nanjing Massacre where up to 300 000 citizens were murdered and tens of thousands of women were brutally raped, the Japanese government kidnapped and coerced 200 000 Chinese and Korean women into servicing Japanese soldiers in ‘comfort stations’ (Blakemore). For Butler, governing who is grievable is “circumscribed” and can be used to “serve the derealizing aims of military violence” (37). It is precisely the circumscribed measures of grievability that made it possible for the Japanese government to derealize the so-called ‘comfort women’ and the trauma they endured. The derealisation of the ‘comfort women’ is horrifying, and multi-layered. The process that was initiated during their violent kidnapping and assault not only resulted in thousands of deaths but also led to a historical narrative that wrote them out of existence as ‘casualties of war’. However, it is important to remember that those same subjects eventually fought back and took control of the stories of their lives. In the case of the ‘comfort women’, that process of realization primarily happened in two ways. In recent years, the remaining survivors have begun to come forward with testimonies of their experiences, in hopes of undoing their derealization by controlling their narratives and reclaiming their lives as grievable. Moreover, the advancement of media and widespread coverage of these testimonies has increased the awareness of this horrific event and has called for the proper retribution to be made by the perpetrators, thus putting political pressure on the Japanese Government to issue a full apology.

The Derealization Process

The mass rapes that occurred during the Nanjing Massacre initiated the dehumanization process of Asian women at the hands of the Japanese military and government. Butler explains that “dehumanization emerges at the limits of discursive life” (36). “Discursive life” can be understood as an undefined, unsolidified life, where the boundaries of life are no longer clear. For example, during times of war, it was easier to dehumanize individuals, because what it means to live and the value of life became undiscernible. The military officers, who had already been exposed to the limits of discursive life during the massacre had already begun dehumanizing women by perceiving them as mere trophies of war and objects of pleasure. Similarly, in Emperor Hirohito’s perspective, he “was [more] concerned with [the massacre’s] impact on Japan's image” than the thousands of women brutally raped and murdered, he had already derealized the lives of the women killed and taken (Blakemore). Consequently, Hirohito ordered the military to expand ‘comfort stations’ and recruit thousands of women, abhorrently justifying that “a steady and isolated group of prostitutes'' would satisfy the “sexual appetites” of Japanese soldiers (Blakemore). Hirohito’s mindset allowed him to develop a framework that derealized the lives of the Chinese and Korean women murdered and captured, enabling the infliction of unlimited violence to the women captured. By derealizing ‘comfort women’, they became “neither dead or alive, just interminably spectral” (33-34) according to Butler. The violence they endured did not leave a visible mark on society, and thus allowed them to become subjects of perpetual violence.

‘Comfort women’ were “convinced to travel to what they thought were nursing units or jobs, or [were] purchased from their parents as indentured servants” (Blakemore). These falsities deepened their derealization, as the women’s families and loved ones were oblivious to the real intentions of their capture. From society’s point of view, these women were lost to the war in a completely non-violent context. As the outside world was deceived, these women suddenly became an isolated entity, making them incredibly vulnerable to violence and dehumanization. These women could not be “mourned because they were already lost” (Butler 33), and so their suffering and the women themselves suddenly became ungrievable. Judith Butler notes that “the norm of governing who will be a grievable human is circumscribed and produced in these acts of permissible and celebrated public grieving, [and] how they sometimes operate in tandem with a prohibition on the public grieving of others' lives'' (37). At the end of WWII Japan publicly mourned those lost in battle, as well as the citizens killed by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Okuda). The public grieving of these individuals occurred in tandem with the prohibition to publicly grieve for the ‘comfort women’ who suffered and died at the hands of the Japanese military. Not only were these women robbed of a public grieving, but most of society had no knowledge of their circumstances and the horrors they had experienced. As fallen soldiers were being mourned by the country for their bravery, Japan’s secrets involving ‘comfort women’ were simultaneously laid to rest. The government was able to differentially allocate who the public grieved for, and in doing so, served “the derealizing aims of [their] military violence” in the process (Butler 37). Documentation of ‘comfort stations’, ‘comfort women’ and any remnants of wrongdoings or inhumane treatment were completely destroyed, and as Japan rebuilt after the war, the story of its enslavement of women was “downplayed as a distasteful remnant of a past people would rather forget” and the women became social outcasts (Blakemore).

Deepening Butler’s notion that “the differential allocation of grief serves the derealizing aims of military violence” (37) is the 2007 report by the Associated Press stating that US authorities had actually allowed ‘comfort stations’ to continue to operate. These operations lasted for a year after the end of the war and “tens of thousands of women in the brothels” were forced to continue serving as sex slaves for American men (Blakemore). In this case, the remnants of war on the battlefield were ignored and the derealization of ‘comfort women’ was reinforced. American soldiers continued to subject ‘comfort women’ to violence whilst leaving no historical mark for them to be publicly grieved, thus raising questions regarding the dangers of derealization and the conditions that make life universally ungrievable. These women had already been deemed ungrievable by the Japanese, so the United States military and government did not need to differentially allocate the public’s grief to avoid mourning these women.

A Shift from Derealization to Realization

The derealization process begins when human suffering cannot be empathized with or understood. In these moments, the human condition can be exploited through different forms of oppression. Judith Butler introduces this notion by stating “it would be difficult if not impossible to understand how humans suffer from oppression without seeing how this primary condition is exploited and exploitable, thwarted and denied” (31). When individuals or society can not recognize the wrongs perpetrated against a certain social group or individual, these conditions of wrongdoing will continue, and be further exploited. This step is crucial in the derealization process because it facilitates the conditions for those that are exploited to either never be seen or to be forgotten by society.

The conditions of war made it possible for ‘comfort women’ to be oppressed by the Japanese government. Kim Bok-dong recalled the day she was taken away by soldiers at fourteen years young believing that “she was needed to work in a factory. If she did not come, they warned her mother, the family would suffer” (Drury). As Kim’s parents were under the impression that she would be working in a factory, they were oblivious to the trauma she would suffer when transported to ‘comfort stations’. Kim reveals that whilst at the station, she and a few other women tried to attempt suicide but failed. After waking up from a suicide attempt, she decided that she needed to live so that she would be able to tell her version of the history (Drury). The only way society can begin to understand what Kim and the other survivors had experienced is by listening to the testimonies of the survivors. In doing so, by retelling and recounting their exploited experiences through the lens of oppression it allowed for their realization process to begin. Butler suggests that the condition that allows for the undoing of the derealization process is when human suffering is understood and empathized with. This is only possible when humans who have suffered from oppression reveal to society how the “primary condition is exploited” (Butler 31). Subsequently, their adversity and trauma can then transform into the necessary fuel to ignite an entire movement.

The Realization Process: A New Era

The realization of ‘comfort women’ ties to the idea of conditions, particularly what conditions made it possible for survivors to speak out. In the late 1980s, South Korea became a democratic state which “enabled more critical media discussion of the Japanese colonial era and feminist campaigns for women’s rights” (O'dwyer). This shift in power and government structure created an environment that allowed survivors to come forward and testify about their experiences. These testimonies sparked public interest and led many feminist and human rights activists to campaign and bring their experiences onto the global stage, such as Kim Bok-dong’s story now being told on multiple news outlets (O'dwyer). During this moment in time, ‘comfort women’ were still struggling for rights to their own bodies as they continued to process the trauma they faced. However, as Butler mentions “the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own '' (26), and the democratization of South Korea provided the conditions for these women to safely share their trauma. By speaking out, these women forced the world to recognize their vulnerability. In doing so, their vulnerability was no longer in the hands of their exploiter but rather their own, shifting power and truth in favour of these women. This shift of power allowed the world to see them as survivors and provided them with a platform to speak their truth, thereby amending the wrongs in history (Butler 43).

In China, when the 70th anniversary commemorating the end of the conflict took place, ‘comfort women’ were amongst the “war’s unsettled ghosts” (Hornby). The Chinese press portrayed these women as fragile victims and the movement to ensure that their stories were heard “in an atmosphere of official neglect” (Hornby). However, neglect fueled the desire for survivors to speak out and allow the world to acknowledge their vulnerability. With each survivor that spoke out, their power and presence compounded, generating momentum to begin shifting the historical narrative. This momentum put increasing pressure on the Japanese government to investigate and “eventually spark[ed] backlash [even] from Japanese nationalists” (O'dwyer). As such, vulnerability gave ‘comfort women’ the power to shape and take control of their narrative – undoing their derealization.

The movement to ensure that the experiences of ‘comfort women’ are never forgotten was facilitated by the media and modern technology. Butler’s notion that obituaries function as an instrument that publicly distributes grief (34) demonstrates how news outlets are instruments that allowed grievability to be publicly distributed. BBC eventually published an obituary for Kim Bok-dong, the ‘comfort woman’ who vowed to live to tell the tale of her experience. This obituary exposed the double victimization that ‘comfort women’ who returned home had to suffer, as “there was not space in this society for the women to go public” with their stories (Drury). Paradoxically, by exposing this notion of double victimization, the function of an obituary is deepened, because it also acts as a means to undo derealization. The obituary provides a platform to overcome the double victimization faced by ‘comfort women’ by giving them a space to have their experiences shared, providing the public with an opportunity to deem their lives as grievable. Media became another mechanismthat enabled the realization process of ‘comfort women’ and also attributed to the surmounting pressure put on the Japanese government to acknowledge the violence inflicted on these women.

However, it is important to recognize that these methods of manipulation can also be used for the purpose of censorship. Censorship can transcend all forms of media including obituaries which unfortunately have also been cited as a means to silence and exclude stories that do not positively reflect a nation or government’s image (Butler 34). In 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his apologies, and agreed to provide a $1 billion-yen compensation for the affected women (“S Korea's Moon Demands Official Apology over 'Comfort Women'”). However, despite this apology, Japan continues to block or remove ‘comfort women’ memorials and has redacted this piece of history from Japanese textbooks (Constante). As such, it is evident that steps are still being taken to sustain the derealization of ‘comfort women’ by methods of indoctrination, therefore complicating the aforementioned use of media and technology in the realization process. So long as technology is being used and controlled by the perpetrators of violence, the opportunities for the public to learn the whole truth about ‘comfort women’ will be limited in order to subdue their grievability.

The importance of “being grievable” plays a role in the realization process because grief uncovers the condition “in which our relations with others hold us” (Butler 23). Butler argues that this form interconnectedness can create a political community which can serve as the foundation that enables the altering of historical narratives. Rewriting the ‘comfort women’ back into history can end the perpetual violence ‘comfort women’ continue to face. This political community, based on shared vulnerability, also seeks to hold the Japanese government accountable, and demand for a full apology. A full apology is significant because it enables the undoing of the derealization of ‘comfort women’ by exposing the vulnerability of their perpetrators. Butler argues that the denial of vulnerability “can fuel the instruments of war” (29), and so by exposing the vulnerability of the Japanese government through a full apology, their fuel is rendered inutile. When a full apology is given, power and agency will be handed back to ‘comfort women’. This is the very condition in which ‘comfort women’ will no longer be subject to perpetual violence and their lives will become grievable.

The realization process for ‘comfort women’ is still ongoing. Conditions such as the democratizing of South Korea, as well as the advancement in technology and increased media coverage has enabled the creation of a political community as signified by Butler. However, this interconnectedness does not transcend all nation-states nor borders, complicating Butler’s notion. Discussions about ‘comfort women’ may bring forward ties implicating the ethical responsibility to acknowledge the history of ‘comfort women’, but this responsibility is not universally accepted or acknowledged. The Japanese government continues to avoid and dismiss the topic, highlighting the complexities attached to the process of realization and becoming grievable. Likewise, the government’s actions suggest that universal grievability and realization are difficult to achieve, which raises the question of whether those that have been derealized and deemed ungrievable can ever be fully re-realized. The full realization of ‘comfort women’ might only begin once the Japanese government can give a full apology, initiating a new process – healing.

Works Cited

Blakemore, Erin. “The Brutal History of Japan's 'Comfort Women'.” History, A&E Television Networks, 20 Feb. 2018, military-brothels-korea.

Butler, Judith. PRECARIOUS LIFE: the Powers of Mourning and Violence. VERSO, 2004.

Constante, Agnes. “Who Are the 'Comfort Women,' and Why Are U.S.-Based Memorials for Them Controversial?”, NBCUniversal News Group, 8 May 2019, memorials-n997656.

Drury, Flora. “Obituary: Kim Bok-Dong, the South Korean 'Comfort Woman'.” BBC News, BBC, 3 Feb. 2019,

Hornby, Lucy. “China's 'Comfort Women'.” Financial Times, 20 Mar. 2015,

O'dwyer, Shaun. “Korean Nationalism and the 'Comfort Women' Issue.” The Japan Times, 23 Sept. 2019, commentary/korean-nationalism-comfort-women-issue/#.XpC8aVNKgxc.

Okuda, Hiroko. “Remembering the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Collective Memory of Post-War Japan.” Acta Orientalia Vilnensia, vol. 12, no. 1, 2011, pp. 11–28., doi:10.15388/aov.2011.0.1094.

“S Korea's Moon Demands Official Apology over 'Comfort Women'.” South China Morning Post, Kyodo News, 20 July 2018,

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