As one critic observes, I, Rigoberta Menchu “played a conspicuous role in the ideological conflicts that burst out in the field of education in the United States” in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Clearly, history involves social and cultural struggles over interpretations of the past. but are rather dynamic, always in flux.” It is important that historians to attend to the “conflictual processes that establish meanings . In the 1990s, feminist movements inside and outside Japan, and above all the victims who broke silence and gave testimonies, showed the direct role of the Japanese state and military in creating and maintaining a system of forced prostitution and systematic rape of women from colonized and occupied territories.
Feminist historian Joan Scott has called this the “politics of history,” as historical interpretations are “not fixed . When the voices of victims were reinforced by the research findings of Japanese scholars who unearthed documents proving the role of the Japanese military in maintaining the system, official denials melted away.
Her testimony, translated, recorded, and later published, began with her half century of silence and the decision eventually to break that silence: For these fifty years, I have lived, by bearing and again bearing [the unbearable]. As I try to speak now, my heart pounds against my chest, because what happened in the past was something extremely unconscionable . Actually, I was made into a comfort woman, and I’m here alive. Kim’s testimony was the most significant event in establishing a new interpretation of the comfort women system.
For fifty years, I have had a heavy, painful feeling, but kept thinking in my heart about telling my experience some day. Hearing her story on Japanese television, historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki went straight to the archives of the Self-Defense Agency (Boeicho), where he found evidence that conclusively demonstrated the involvement of the Japanese Imperial Army in organizing the comfort women system for its soldiers (though the nature of the comfort women system and the state/military involvement, including the use of force and coercion, still required further study).
It was utterly important to remain accurate, [lest] the revisionists in history discredit everything. The use of testimony in history, however, often brings with it tension, uncertainty, and conflict--be it epistemological, methodological, ethical, or otherwise--with respect to research and teaching practices. [and] the play of force involved in any society’s construction and implementation of meanings.” This article examines the Japanese controversy over the “comfort women” (ianfu) system during Japan’s Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945) and attempts to include that history in school textbooks. The testimonies given by former comfort women in the 1990s forever changed the paradigm of historical research on the subject and became the focus of charged debate among intellectuals of different disciplinary and ideological backgrounds, as well as the target of Japanese neonationalist attacks. The existence of comfort women was ubiquitous knowledge in Japan from the late 1930s, despite censorship.
“The woman was testifying,” he insisted, “not to the number of the chimneys blown up, but to something else, more radical, more crucial: the reality of an unimaginable occurrence.” --Dori Laub Introduction In recent years, women’s testimonies have provided crucial evidence for challenging normative views of history.In the 1970s and 1980s, several publications appeared that took somewhat more critical views of the comfort women issue.One of the first was a book written by the non-fiction writer Senda Kako in 1973. Senda, a former journalist, conducted extensive research and interviews, and from these he concluded that the women's situations had been “pitiful.” Senda's work was based almost wholly on sources and recollections of Japanese men who had served in the war--only a few Japanese former comfort women spoke of their experiences, and the two Korean former comfort women he interviewed remained silent. The term he used for the women jugun-ianfu (comfort women serving in the war), would later become contentious, came to have a wide circulation.The government also acknowledged that coercion had been used in the recruitment and retention of the women, and called for historical research and education aimed at remembering the fact.The Kono statement became the basis for addressing the issue of comfort women in education, and by 1997 almost all school history textbooks and those in related subjects included a brief reference to comfort women. One history textbook for junior high school read, “[M]any women, such as Korean women, were sent to the front as comfort women serving in the war.” Such statements, however bland, served as a legitimate window through which teachers and students could address the issue in classrooms.In 1993, a Japanese government hearing for fifteen former comfort women in Seoul revealed that many women had been made to serve as comfort women involuntarily.Later that year, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei made an official statement (danwa), essentially admitting that the Japanese Imperial Army had been directly and indirectly involved in the establishment and administration of comfort facilities.In 1992, he published his findings in major Japanese newspapers.Faced with documentary evidence from its own archives, the Japanese government had no choice but to acknowledge military involvement, and Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi officially apologized to South Korea.Many non-Japanese women were minors, rounded up by deception or under conditions of debt slavery, and some were violently abducted. Prostitution for military personnel in war zones and occupied territories was widely practiced during and prior to World War II, but Japan’s comfort women system was unusual in the extreme forms of coercion and oppression imposed on women, including teenage girls brought from Korea and Taiwan.The evidence reveals that state and military authorities at the highest levels were extensively involved in the policymaking, establishment, and maintenance of the system, and in recruiting and transporting women across international borders. One result of both the Japanese government's apologies and of recent scholarship on comfort women was backlash from neonationalist groups.