Denials Cannot Stop the “Movement of Grace”
“There are no records confirming that women were taken away by force and there are no accounts [by former Japanese soldiers], but the Kono statement came out based on the accounts of comfort women,” said Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at the Diet on August 27, 2012.
Amid increasing tensions over territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea, and between Japan and China, Noda’s statement further infuriated people in Korea and China, contributing to more fervent nationalist uproars. This statement of Japan’s prime minister, however, requires serious responses instead of ethnocentric nationalist reaction, for it is not only a reminder of Japan’s unresolved colonial legacy in the Asia Pacific but it is also an alert of what military imperialism is capable of doing in any given context, be it past, present, or future.
When three former “comfort women” filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government in December 1991 at the Tokyo District Court asking for a public apology and compensation for their forced sexual slavery during World War II, the Japanese government denied any involvement in what was known as a “military comfort system.” In 1993, then cabinet secretary Yohei Kono admitted for the first time that the Japanese Imperial Army was in some way involved in running the “military comfort stations” and the transfer of “comfort women.” However, the Japanese government rejected any legal responsibility on the grounds that the war compensation issue was settled with the 1965 treaty between Japan and South Korea.
The denial of the Japanese government has focused on their assertion that there was no coercion or force involved in the process of recruiting women for the “military comfort system.” Nationalist conservatives and right-wing groups in Japan have asserted that there is no evidence, namely “no official documents” or “no written records,” that proves such a mobilization practice by the Japanese military for the coercive recruitment of “comfort women.” Instead, they have insisted that women were “voluntarily” drafted.
“Kidnapped,” Soon-Duk Kim (1921-2004) *
In contrast to these outright denials, women’s testimonies tell completely different stories as to how they were drafted and treated. In December 1994, fifty-one survivors in South Korea testified that they had been mobilized as members of the Women’s Voluntary Labor Service Corps by policemen, local officials, and other administrators from the colonial government. Women’s testimonies tell that coercion and deception by police, government agents, and officials who promised employment were routine methods of recruitment in the process of conscription. Abduction and forced recruitments were also common methods that the Japanese military used—not to mention brutal rape and physical torture that were also frequently used in the process of “voluntary” conscription, as well as during their stay in the “military comfort stations.”
“Stolen Away in a Ship,” Soon-Duk Kim (1921-2004) *
Yet, against all the odds, it was the “comfort women” who broke the “collusion of silence,” exposing the inhumanity of the military sexual slavery, duplicitous international and national politics, and the deep-rooted misogynist religiocultural ideology that teaches a woman to keep her chastity under all circumstances and blames survivors of sexual violence. In their testimonies, almost every “comfort woman” shows the recognition that her story contains the stories of other “comfort women.” The former “comfort women” connect their personal experiences to the larger context of sexual slavery by rearticulating their own and other women’s experiences of rape, violence, humiliation, pain, torture, and isolation. Their experiences are acknowledged not as a unique personal story of suffering but as a collective story of struggle. Through the act of testifying, they have resisted the persistent forces of denial. Through the act of breaking silence, they have expanded the horizon of solidarity.
Observing the positive power of breaking silence by women’s organizations and movements, feminist theologians Rita Nakashima Brock and Susan Thistlethwaite call breaking silence a “movement of grace” in the book Casting Stones. They powerfully write, “[It] shatters the pain and denial that squeezes the breath out of us. It opens doors for the new breezes of life, hope, and liberating action. Always tell, and always tell with friends to help you remember.” (285)
Julia Partosa-Porras, who was 13 years old when she was taken by Japanese forces in the Philippines, tells that she broke silence because she was encouraged by testimony of another “comfort woman.” Partosa-Porras unwaveringly asks, “Where is justice if the Japanese government does not face up to their political and legal responsibility to the Asian war victims, particularly the women?”
Whether it is the Japanese government or any other group, they cannot continue denying what has already been told and what will continue to be remembered. The denials, no matter how persistent, cannot stop the movement of grace in which these former “comfort women” have already been powerfully engaged. These survivors, and those with whom they have shared their experiences, will continue to tell and remember the horrifying experiences that happened more than a half century ago.
 See Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Uncovering the Truth about the ‘Comfort Women’,” Women’s Studies International Forum 21, no. 4 (1998).
 See Chin Sung Chung, “The Origin and Development of the Military Sexual Slavery Problem in Imperial Japan,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 5, no. 1 (Spring 1997).
 See In God’s Image 15, no. 2 (Summer 1996).
* From The Survivors’ Artworks: