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"I'm Here Alive": History, Testimony, and the Japanese Controversy over "Comfort Women"

Yoshiko Nozaki,
State University of New York at Buffalo


[A] conference of historians, psychoanalysts, and artists, gathered to reflect on the relation of education to the Holocaust, watched the videotaped testimony of the woman in an attempt to better understand the era. A lively debate ensued. The testimony was not accurate, historians claimed. The number of chimneys was misrepresented. Historically, only one chimney was blown up, not all four. Since the memory of the testifying woman turned out to be, in this way, fallible, one could not accept--nor give credence to--her account of the events. It was utterly important to remain accurate, [lest] the revisionists in history discredit everything. A psychoanalyst . . . profoundly disagreed. "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[1]



      In recent years, women's testimonies based on their experiences have offered crucial evidence for challenging normative view(s) of history. Testimony as such has been "an act of memory situated in time," "vital" to historical knowledge, as it "dislocate[d] established frameworks and shift[ed] paradigms" of the discipline.[2] The power of words has also been clearly present in current educational practices. Teachers working at different levels of education--from a classroom where twelfth grade students read I, Rigoberta Menchu[3] to a classroom at Yale where college students watched films of Holocaust survivors[4]--have reported that the testimonial narratives of previously marginalized voices have powerful transformative effects upon the consciousness and actions of students. 2
      The use of testimony in history, however, often brings with it a good deal of tension, uncertainty, and conflict--be it epistemological, methodological, ethical, or otherwise--with respect to research and teaching practices. It also follows at times an open, public controversy of an intellectual or political nature in which some testimonial texts (and the historical knowledge they bear) become vulnerable to attack. For example, one critic argues that 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.[5] Clearly, history as research and education involves social and cultural struggles over interpretations of the past--struggles feminist historian Joan Scott has called the "politics of history." From this perspective, it is important for historians to attend the "conflictual processes that establish meanings . . . [and] the play of force involved in any society's construction and implementation of meanings."[6]
      The present study examines the Japanese controversy over the history of the "comfort women" (ianfu) system during Japan's Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945) and the inclusion of that history in school textbooks.[7] The testimonies given by former comfort women in the 1990s have forever changed the paradigm of historical research on the subject, and thus, have become the focus of charged debate among intellectuals of different disciplinary and ideological backgrounds as well as the target of Japanese right-wing nationalist attacks. Although historical controversy is not new in Japan,[8] the history of postwar Japanese research on comfort women illustrates the point that historical interpretations are "not fixed . . . but are rather dynamic, always in flux."[9] 4
      The factual existence of comfort women was a kind of ubiquitous knowledge in Japan from the late 1930s, despite certain forms of censorship applied during the war. In the old interpretation that has existed for more than six decades, the episode was (and is) one of "love/sex affairs" by men in the service, who were "comforted" by the women. In the 1990s, however, feminist movements inside and outside Japan, not to mention the victims who broke silence and gave testimonies,[10] challenged the old interpretation and delivered a new one--an interpretation that portrayed the women as enslaved by the state in a system that subjected them to forced prostitution and systematic rape. A charged controversy ensued academically and politically. By examining the process through which the challenges to the normative interpretation were posed, the ways the challenges were countered, and the rhetoric and discourses involved in the comfort women controversy, this essay provides a comparative perspective for understanding contemporary controversies over women's voices, testimony, and history more generally.[11] 5

The Challenges to the Meaning of Comfort Women in Postwar Japan

     A number of reports, diaries, and memoirs published in Japan during and after World War II included the story of military comfort facilities on the various war fronts as well as in territories occupied by the Japanese imperial forces.[12] In these stories, the phrase comfort women was a euphemism for prostitutes who provided sex to men in service. Although the story had no place in Japan's official war history, it was told and retold privately as a nostalgic (and sometimes romantic) side story in men's memoirs and novels.
     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.[13] Senda, a former journalist, based his work on extensive research and interviews, and from these he concluded that the women's situations had been "pitiful."[14] Despite this conclusion, however, 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.
     More feminist approaches began to appear shortly after this, especially when the Japanese journalist and feminist Matsui Yayori became interested in the issue. In 1984, Matsui published a short article in Asahi Shinbun, a major Japanese newspaper, marking the first time any major newspaper included discussion of the issue. Matsui's interviewee, a former comfort woman whose name was not disclosed, was a Korean living in Thailand. She spoke of her experience this way:

The life of comfort women was this--during the day doing laundry of soldiers' clothes, clearing the barracks, and some heavy labor such as carrying ammunition, and during the night being the plaything for the soldiers. There were days when I was made to serve scores of men beginning in the morning. When I resisted--even just a little--I was beaten by the supervisor, pulled by my hair, and dragged around half-naked. It was a subhuman life.[15]

     In spite of such testimony, Matsui's report did not trigger a large public reaction. Instead, it was only after the successes of South Korean democratic and feminist movements in the 1980s that the issue became international, and forced the Japanese to recognize the history of comfort women as a serious part of Japan's unresolved war issues. Yun Chung-ok, a professor at Korea's Ewha Womans University, was an important catalyst in this development. In the late 1980's she met with Matsui to exchange critical information about the comfort women, and in 1990 she wrote a series of reports on the issue for a Korean newspaper.[16] Yun's reports ignited and enraged the South Korean public, and prompted calls for redress from the Japanese government. Her reports also catalyzed Japanese women's groups and political parties, many of which began to call for a governmental inquiry into the issue as a war atrocity.
     In a Diet session in June 1991, the Japanese government responded to the new developments by denying the involvement of the wartime state and its military in the matter--a response that only further enraged South Koreans. Among them was the former comfort woman Kim Hak-soon. Kim was so outraged that she decided to "come out" as a way of forcing the Japanese government to confront the issue. In so doing, she became the first Korean woman residing in South Korea to reveal herself in public as a former comfort woman.[17] In the fall of 1991, Kim gave her testimony in front of the Japanese public. Her testimony, translated, recorded, and later published, began with her language of endurance during the previous five decades and her declaration to break the silence to be a witness:

For these fifty years, I have lived, by bearing and bearing [the unbearable]. Since fifty years ago, I have had a heavy, painful feeling, but kept thinking in my heart about telling my experience some day. . . As I try to speak now, my heart pounds against my chest, because what happened in the past was something extremely unconscionable . . . Why does [the Japanese government] tell such a lie [to deny its knowledge of comfort women system]? Actually, I was made into a comfort woman, and I'm here alive.[18]

     Kim's testimony was one of the most significant events in the process of establishing a new interpretation of the comfort women issue. In Japan, the effects of her testimony were palpable. When her story was aired on Japanese television, it came to the attention of historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki, a scholar of contemporary wartime social history. After watching Kim's testimony, Yoshimi went straight to the archives of the Self-Defense Agency (Boeicho), where he quickly found evidence that clearly demonstrated the involvement of the Japanese Imperial Army in organizing the comfort women system for its soldiers (though the kind of involvement, including the use of force, was still in need of further study). In 1992, he published his findings in the major Japanese newspapers. Faced with such evidence, the Japanese government changed its tune and admitted the military's involvement, prompting then Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi to officially apologize to South Korea.
     In 1993, the Japanese government conducted a hearing for fifteen former comfort women in Seoul, which yielded evidence suggesting that many women had been made to work as comfort women involuntarily. Later that same year, then Chief Secretary of the Cabinet Kono Yohei made a statement essentially admitting that the Japanese Imperial Army had been both directly and indirectly involved in the establishment and administration of comfort facilities. The government also admitted that various kinds of coercive measures were used in the recruitment and retention of the women, and called for historical research and education aimed at remembering the fact. The Kono statement provided the basis for addressing the issue of comfort women in education, and by 1997, almost all school history textbooks and those in related subject areas included a reference to comfort women.[19]
     In recent years, historical research has uncovered more disturbing details about the comfort women system.[20] Scholars estimate that between fifty thousand and two hundred thousand women were enslaved to provide sexual service to Japanese officers and soldiers. The majority of these women were Korean and Chinese, and they included a large number of minors. Many of them were rounded up by deception or under conditions of debt slavery, and some were violently abducted.[21] Although prostitution for military personnel in war zones and occupied territories is fairly common in history,[22] Japan's comfort women system differed from other cases in that most of the women experienced extreme forms of coercion and oppression. In addition, state and military authorities at the highest levels were involved in its establishment and maintenance.[23]
     One of the results of both the Japanese government's apologies and of recent scholarship on comfort women has been resistance and backlash from right-wing nationalist groups. In particular, nationalists have objected strongly to both the government's admission of state involvement in the matter and to the inclusion of the issue in school textbooks. They have attacked politicians who support the government's apologies as well as historians' findings about comfort women. They have also targeted contradictions within the testimonies of comfort women themselves in an effort to discredit their accounts entirely.
     In response, progressive and feminist historians have redoubled efforts to advance empirical studies on the issue of comfort women. Even so, right-wing political pressures were successful enough to cause a number of publishers to remove references to comfort women from their 2002 edition junior high school textbooks.[24]

Empirical Debates:The Nationalists vs. the Progressive and Feminist Historians

     Making and keeping the issue of comfort women controversial has been one of the most effective strategies taken up by right-wing nationalists. In particular, nationalists have focused on minor details of the facts presented by women's testimonies and historical research, pointing out errors and the impossibility of verification.[25] For example, in the early 1990s, some school textbooks called the women in question teishin-tai (volunteer corps) and jugun-ianfu (war comfort women). Nationalists, however, argued that the use of teishin-tai is incorrect and that jugun-ianfu is not the "historical term," meaning that it is not the exact term used during the war. Therefore, they have argued, these terms should be removed from school textbooks.
     There is a modicum of truth in the nationalist claim: research so far has found only a few cases in which teishin-tai women (who were mobilized to take on various occupations like factory work and war nursing) were forced to become comfort women. Also, the term jugun-ianfu was indeed a term created in the postwar years. During the war, comfort women were often simply placed in categories such as shugyofu (women of indecent occupation) and ianfu (comfort women) which included both women forced to work in the military comfort facilities and in the private brothels. 17
     Beyond that arguably legitimate semantic issue, however, nationalist efforts to undermine the history of the comfort women--and to erase it from school textbooks--seem manipulative at best. They argue, for example, that the term jugun, as part of a compound noun (e.g., jugun-kisha, the term for war correspondents; and jugun-kangofu, the term for war nurses), indicates the status of gunzoku, or civilian war workers (those officially on the payroll of the army and/or navy). The comfort women, they argue, were not in that category. Historians such as Yoshimi have refuted this argument by pointing out that the term jugun literally means "going to the front with the military," and was not used exactly in the same way as gunzoku. Most war correspondents, for example, were not employed by the Japanese military (the army had its own correspondents only after 1942). Also, while the term jugun-kangofu has been commonplace, the official name for the war nurses (of the Japanese Red Cross) was kyugo-kangofu (relief nurses), and they became military employees only after 1939. In addition, Yoshimi and others have pointed out that terms used in historical research (and education) are often not the exact terms that were actually used during the period under study. In their view, using the term jugun-ianfu in school textbooks poses little problem; rather, the real problem is that it is euphemistic--"comfort" (ian) is hardly an adequate term for a situation that was, in fact, enslavement.[26]
     Another point of dispute has been over the types, agents, and extent of coercion. Right-wing nationalists have taken an issue of the term kyosei-renko (taken by force). They have defined the term somewhat narrowly as "taken by force by the military and/or government authorities" and argued that no such cases have been found. Therefore, they argue, school textbooks should not include the term to refer to the comfort women. Nationalists argue that the grounds for their objections lie in their claims that the testimonies of former comfort women have contained errors and exaggerations, and that no (Japanese) official documents have been found showing the use of direct force, military or otherwise, in the recruitment of women. Moreover, they argue that official documents found so far indicate that the military and police instructed the traffickers to follow the law and regulations in their recruitment of comfort women (trading women for prostitution was legal, but regulated), and that the testimony of Yoshida Seiji, the only person who publicly admitted the violent means he and his co-workers used to recruit comfort women, lacks credibility in several key issues such as dates and places.[27]
     While nationalist arguments may sound coherent on the surface, they are misleading in many ways. First, no school textbooks to date have used the exact term kyosei-renko (taken by force) in their description of comfort women, although the term has commonly been used to describe the way many Korean and Chinese men were gathered and sent into forced labor in places such as coal mines. While references to comfort women usually appear in sections of the texts where the major topic is the forced labor of Korean and Chinese men, it is somewhat inaccurate to charge that these textbooks used the term to describe the women as "taken by force by the military and/or government authorities." It appears that one cannot criticize the textbooks without reading them very closely.[28]
     Second, Yoshimi and others have argued that it is a basic logical error to argue that the absence of official documents that ordered the kyosei-renko proves that no direct state force was used in the recruitment of the women. While admitting that no official documents have been found ordering the use of military and police force for the recruitment of women--in particular, in colonized regions such as Korea and Taiwan--they have pointed out that many wartime official records were destroyed at Japan's surrender. Besides, it is questionable whether any government would give such an order--"use force to round up women and send them to comfort facilities"--so directly and explicitly.[29]
    More importantly, progressive and feminist historians argue that such an absence of official documents does not mean that the military and government authorities were not involved. There has been other evidence showing that the state and military were complicit in many ways, including knowing about, but not stopping, the traffickers' use of violence and deceptive tactics in the recruitment of comfort women. Such inaction de facto meant giving tacit approval to such activities. Moreover, some Japanese laws that regulated the recruitment of comfort women were not applied to colonies such as Korea and Taiwan. In fact, evidence shows that colonial authorities saw no problem with the fact that very young girls were traded, even though such a thing would have been illegal in Japan. In addition, the testimonies given by former comfort women demonstrate that there were cases in occupied territories, such as China and Southeast Asia, where government and military authorities themselves took women by force. Finally, the use of force was widespread not only in the recruitment of women, but also in making them stay and work in the comfort facilities.[30] Yoshimi and others suggest that the nationalist focus on the term kyosei-renko is, in fact, a strategy being used to digress from the main issue concerning the coercive nature of the military comfort women system.
     As matters stand, progressive and feminist historians seem to be winning the empirical debate. Nevertheless, they face several problems, for even though the nationalists have lost many points in the debate, they have not withdrawn their arguments and objections. Instead, they continue to circulate their discourse not only through that part of the media that is exclusively right-wing, but also through the mainstream mass media. Because of this, the controversy has attracted quite a large audience in Japan. And while it is unclear whether the nationalists have been able to win over many adherents, it does seem to be the case that the strategy of making and keeping the issue controversial has led the public to believe that both perspectives have a certain legitimacy. In addition, because of the nationalist insistence on the accuracy of even the most minor of details when teaching about comfort women, teachers now feel pressure to acquire technical knowledge on the issue in order to teach it in the schools.

A "Poststructuralist" Feminist Critique of "Positivism" in History

     Faced with nationalist challenges, some critics have begun to suggest that new postmodern approaches ought to replace current empirical approaches to the issue of comfort women. In a provocative essay, noted Japanese feminist Ueno Chizuko criticizes as "positivist" (jissho-shugi) the arguments of both the nationalists and the progressive/feminist historians involved in the debate.[31] Citing "poststructuralist" theories, Ueno maintains that the issue of comfort women is linked to fundamental questions about the methods and methodology of historical studies. She asks: "[I]s a historical 'fact' such a simple thing that it looks the same to whoever looks at it?"[32]
     According to Ueno, while right-wing nationalists and progressive/feminist historians have argued against each other, both groups have made their arguments within the positivist paradigm of history. The positivist approach, Ueno argues, regards written historical material as the first and only source for the study of history (bunshoshiryo shijyo-shugi), and has allowed the nationalists to discredit the testimonies of former comfort women on the grounds that no official documents have been found showing that the women were taken by force. In her view, progressive and feminist historians have been committed an error by attempting to refute the nationalists by advancing the positivist study of history. Commenting on a televised debate on the issue, Ueno charged that:    

Yoshimi Yoshiaki, a conscientious historian who has contributed most vigorously in discovering the historical materials concerning the issue of comfort women, was driven into a corner by the questioning of [nationalists such as] Kobayashi Yoshinori, and [Yoshimi] finally admitted that no written historical materials exist that properly prove the involvement of the Japanese military.[33] If [one] stands on the doctrine of the written historical material as the first and only source, [one] has no choice but to admit "no." It became more or less a shared understanding that the documents Yoshimi found [and reported in 1992] can be indirect evidence for "taken by force," but not the historical source that substantiates it as a fact.[34]

     While Ueno's interpretation is not without its problems, at its heart is the suggestion that positivism "denies the 'evidentiary power' of the victims' testimonies, and, thus, discredits "the 'reality' [experienced and told by] the victims." Ueno argues that it is "arrogance of the positivist historians to think that a given historical fact can be 'judged' [verified] as it 'existed' from the position of a third party, apart from the reality of the persons involved." She states that to negate the testimonies of the former comfort women is to trample their dignity underfoot. Instead, she argues for the importance of recognizing "a variety of histories," or a "pluralistic history," which would represent histories from individuals' differing realities. Because of these differing realities, it would not then be necessary to choose just one history from the variety.[35]

Progressive Historians' Reply to Ueno

     There is no doubt that Ueno's argument has caused a stir within the circle of progressive and feminist historians, where an ongoing, heated discussion has been taking place. For example, Yoshimi finds some slipperiness in Ueno's argument.[36] Yoshimi points out that no proper Japanese historian today takes the view of written historical material as the first and only source for the study of history. Yoshimi also notes that it is a common sense among historians that "the picture of history is not unitary even in cases where [historians] address the same object." Yoshimi cites the difference between two versions of life histories told by the same former comfort woman (who is a Resident Korean woman living in Okinawa). That difference, he suggests, is based on the differences between the interviewers' social locations and positions--one a Japanese feminist, and the other a Korean support group.[37] 27
     Yoshimi maintains that historical facts need to be constructed by various sources such as documents, testimonies, and other kinds of physical evidence; and that the theories and methods of history are only tools for historical analysis and reconstruction. In his view, a reconstructed history needs to be evaluated in terms of its persuasiveness and logical coherence--which for him is "verification."[38] Yoshimi questions whether Ueno's position that there are no "facts" or "truths" in history, only "realities reconstructed from given perspectives" ultimately suggests that one's viewpoint is the only thing that matters in studies of history. This, for Yoshimi, is a highly problematic position. As he puts it:

If so, . . . which "reality" to choose would be decided by determining which [viewpoint] to choose from the [various] "viewpoints" that construct it [history]. This would result in either agnosticism, or the situation of beliefs and tastes, i.e., which viewpoint one believes or prefers.[39]

     "At least, if it's scholarship," Yoshimi continues to argue, "it should be questioned which reality, from among various 'realities' reconstructed, has persuasive power and which has no basis."[40] To ask these questions is to ask for their verification.
     In Yoshimi's view, Ueno's argument that pointing out the exaggerations and mistakes that exist in the victims' testimonies is denying the power of testimonial evidence is misplaced. There are, in fact, cases in which victims have made mistakes. For example, a former comfort woman gave testimony in which she stated that she had been forced to work in a military comfort facility in Japan, but since no military comfort facilities had existed inside Japan, Yoshimi states that it is rather difficult to believe her testimony at its face value. In another example, a former comfort woman gave contradictory accounts on different occasions--on one occasion, she stated that she had been taken by force, but on another occasion, she stated she had agreed to the job to earn money. Yoshimi reminds us, however, that the fact that the woman gave her consent to be sent to the front (in this case Burma) does not mean that the military should be absolved for its harsh treatment of her within the comfort women system. Indeed, this woman's hardships were so excessive that she attempted to commit suicide by drowning herself. He states, "I would like [Ueno] to consider this kind of effort involved in the reconstruction of the reality."[41]
     Yoshimi's point highlights that an oral history project is not a simple task--it requires careful handling and piecing together information given in the testimonies. While Yoshimi admits that there could be another kind of research, such as an examination of testimonies as (contemporary) discursive practices and their social and historical meanings in particular contexts, he argues that the controversy over the comfort women issue has mainly been over the historical facts, and so his efforts have been geared towards the reconstruction of those facts.
     Some historians who have not necessarily been specialists in the comfort women issue have also begun to join the discussion. For example, Yasumaru Yoshio, a well-respected historian, has commented on Ueno's criticisms. While Yasumaru sees some value in Ueno's argument, he disagrees with her assessment of Yoshimi as a positivist historian. Yasumaru argues that Yoshimi began his study because he was deeply moved by the voice of Kim Hak-soon, meaning that at the bottom of his study are his "sensibility" and "ethics." Since then, Yoshimi has been committed to the issue through his skills and efforts as an historian.[42] 32
     Yasumaru also disagrees with Ueno on how to handle the testimonies. He infers (since Ueno does not clearly state it) that Ueno thinks the idea of Korean and Taiwanese women being taken by force by the military is factual because the women have testified so. He wonders whether Ueno's approach could result in preventing researchers from understanding the complexity of the events; in his words "a number of issues are coming into sight" as researchers accept that there were no cases of women being "taken by force" by the military in colonized Korea and Taiwan in the literal sense of the phrase.[43] 33
     One important issue to Yasumaru is a dimension of violence widespread in the everyday lives of people in a given society at a given time. For example, he is concerned with the activities of the traffickers in the colonies who were active agents and mediators between the women and the military, and who perhaps played a major part in the everyday, immediate violence against the women, including "taking women by force" or "kidnapping" them. Without their existence and systematic operations, Yasumaru argues, it would have been impossible for the state to collect such a large number of women (some estimate more than a hundred thousand). If we take Yasumaru's arguments even further, it becomes clear that historians and educators need to examine critically the traffickers' actual activities and operations and the colonial relations of ruling in terms of the ideologies of class, gender, race, and ethnicity that allowed them to commit such everyday violence.

The Nationalist Appropriation of Postmodern Vocabulary

     While the debate over the appropriate paradigm for historical research has continued within the progressive/feminist camp, some nationalists have begun to speak a kind of postmodern discourse, or at least to employ its vocabulary. This is a new element worth a closer look, especially since nationalists seem to use postmodern vocabularies with their own particular twists--in this case, to argue for the construction of a Japanese history from "the Japanese view," stressing unity and coherence.
     In the fall of 1996, for example, Sakurai Yoshiko, a former television news anchor woman and current freelance journalist, gave a lecture at one of the in-service teacher training programs held by the Yokohama Education Board, Kanagawa Prefecture, for the promotion of international understanding. It is not clear whether Sakurai is a true right-wing nationalist--she has sometimes been involved in some progressive causes--but in relation to the controversy over comfort women, she certainly appeared to be. Sakurai spoke at length on her views on the comfort women issue. She began with the critique of school textbook descriptions and stated: "all the textbooks are written, assuming 'taken by force' as a major premise; however, . . it is my conviction that [the women] were not 'taken by force.'[44]
     The problem, in her view, was the "structure of Japanese psyche," which was "self-tormenting." She then proceeded to argue for the concept of history as a story (monogatari) of a nation.

What I'd like to say is that history is a story. It is a story of individuals, and at the same time it should be a story of respective nation. Therefore, it has to be natural that Japan has its own way of viewing [history]. It is natural that China has its own view and Korea has its own view, and it is a reason of nature that all three are separate [and different].[45]

For Sakurai, Japan's (hi)story needs to be told from the Japanese perspective. She concluded that individual teachers should educate their students from that perspective even if the Ministry of Education would not instruct them to do so. 38
      Sakurai's ideas echo those held by other right-wing nationalist scholars. For example, Sakamoto Takao, a historian of Japanese political thought, has argued that no education is value-neutral and that the purpose of education, espeically history education, is to foster "national consciousness." In his view, "history is a story," and the Japanese history taught in schools should be "a story of the formation of a nation, a people," which aims at the construction of a sense of national unity.[46] 39
      The discourse Sakamoto employs speaks of a national history; one that is not necessarily based on verified facts from studies of history, but based on facts that may have been "fittingly woven into the story" in order to enhance its reality. In Sakamoto's view, concepts such as "state" and "nation" are, in some sense, "fictions." "However," he contends, human beings are "those who cannot live without fictions," and the "efforts" by human beings "to maintain the fictions" are still needed. The vocabulary used here may have been borrowed from recent postmodern literature, but it curiously (and ironically) serves the modernist ends (i.e., the construction of a national unity by [re]instituting national history) that have been argued against by postmodernist discourse.[47] 40
      The new postmodern line put forth by the nationalists also seems to attempt to blur the line between "fact" and "fiction." In fact, Fujioka Nobukatsu, a professor of education at the University of Tokyo and the central figure in the latest nationalist attack on history textbooks, has argued that the inclusion of "lies" in history books (and, by implication, textbooks) is acceptable for certain purposes, for instance, to make the story "colorful." Fujioka disclosed that in the 1990s, when he was involved in authoring Takasugi Shinsaku, a series of history books for children (intended to aid their understanding of history lessons in schools),[48] he included some fictitious stories. As he put it:

To write [a history] based only on verified historical truths makes [the descriptions] indefinitely close to those appearing in the full-size dictionary of persons, makes it insipid and dry. I changed my policy for the lack of an alternative--I had no choice but to write the imagination of my own convenience to a great extent.[49]


      It seems that the nationalists are in the process of reformulating their discursive strategy and that the key to this strategy is the incorporation of postmodern vocabulary such as "history as story." As we have seen, one of the primary nationalist strategies has been to focus on the details of historical findings on comfort women, to point out errors or the impossibility of verifying certain claims, and then to suggest the impossibility of verifying any part of the history of comfort women. In this way, they can relativize the epistemological status of any claim concerning the historical facts and argue for a choice of story from any number of possible--"equally valid"--stories. The notion of "history as story" serves as a license to construct any kind of story as history, including fictive stories with real names. This is a clever move for nationalists, and a worrisome one for progressive/feminist historians. For if nationalists are unable to win the battle over empirical research and testimony, perhaps they can win with fiction.



      In contemporary society, testimony has become a privileged mode of transmission and communication,[50] and the construction of meaning has become increasingly fluid, explosive, and political in nature. As historians, we need to be prepared to use the voices and testimonies of marginalized groups in an effective, critical, and cautious manner in our research and teaching. The Japanese controversy over comfort women suggests that women's voices and testimonies can be enormously influential in establishing meaning from past events. It also suggests, however, the limitations, or inevitable partiality, of testimonies and voices when used as a source of historical knowledge. 43
     The testimonies of former comfort women that appeared in a particular national and international political context in the early 1990s changed the interpretive framework for research on the issue and for what counts as truth. At the same time, however, the emphasis placed on truth in the testimonies has backfired. Right-wing nationalists in Japan, by focusing on minor details and contradictions, have effectively made (and kept) controversial both women's testimonies and historians' findings. Progressive and feminist historians have fought back and won a number of empirical debates on the basis of expert knowledge, but a great deal of technical (and often seemingly trivial) knowledge has been brought into play, making the issue seem confusing to public audiences. 44
      Moreover, even after the best efforts of historians, some matters have remained extremely difficult or impossible to verify (e.g., the burning of key official documents at Japan's defeat). Historical research, as it is conceived and practiced traditionally, has thus met with only limited success. It is reasonable, therefore, to see postmodern discourses enter the controversy. For example, the Japanese feminist Ueno has rightly raised some important questions regarding the epistemology, methods, and methodology of historical research (and thus the teaching of history). Nationalists as well have begun to suggest that a national history is in part a fiction, free from empirical verification.
      It seems certain that the limits of historical verification in a traditional sense do not preclude using testimonies for historical inquiry and education. The postmodern debate, if conducted in productive ways, can allow the audience, including teachers and students of history, to become enlightened readers of testimonies and the controversies surrounding them. Those who tend to hold classic, commonsense notions of historical objectivity and who emphasize teaching only about "the verifiable facts" may remain vulnerable in contemporary debates over history and testimony, if only because they are less equipped to deal with attacks employing postmodern language such as "history as story." Being articulate about the nature, power, and limits of voices and testimonies seems essential for becoming a better reader of the controversy over comfort women, and, by implication, of any controversy of a similar nature.


     This article is part of a larger study supported by a 2001-02 (U.S.) National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship. I would like to thank Sylvan Esh and Hiro Inokuchi for their assistance.


Biographical Note: Yoshiko Nozaki is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, State University of New York at Buffalo. Her teaching and research interests include comparative history of education, anthropology and education, and gender studies.


[1] Dori Laub, "Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening," in Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 59-60.

[2] Allen Carey-Webb, "Transformative Voices," in Allen Carey-Webb and Stephen Benz, eds., Teaching and testimony: Rigoberta Menchu and the North American Classroom (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 7.

[3] See, for example, June Kuzmeskus, "Writing Their Way to Compassionate Citizenship: Rigoberta Menchu and Activating High School Learners," in Carey-Webb and Benz, Teaching and Testimony, pp. 123-131.

[4] Shoshana Felman, "Education and Crisis, Or the Vicissitudes of Teaching," in Felman and Laub, Testimony, pp. 1-56.

[5] Mary Louise Pratt, "I, Rigoberta Menshu and the ‘Culture Wars,'" in Arturo Arias, ed. The Rigoberta Menchu Controversy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), p. 30.

[6] Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (NY: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 5.

[7] In this article, I employ the term "comfort women" (hereafter without quotation marks) because it has been the term most often used, though I am aware that the term was (and is) a euphemism. A number of volumes and articles on the topic (written in Japanese, Korean, and English) have been published since the early 1990s, and this article only discusses a part of that literature.

[8] Since 1945, Japan has been the setting of a hard-fought struggle over the official history of World War II. See Yoshiko Nozaki and Hiromitsu Inokuchi, "Japanese Education, Nationalism, and Ienaga Saburo's Textbook Lawsuits," in Laura Hein and Mark Selden, eds., Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2000), pp. 96-126.

[9] Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, p. 5.

[10] For testimonies and accounts given by former comfort women, see, for example, Maria Rosa Henson, A Filipina's Story of Prostituion and Slavery under the Japanese Military (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield, 1999); and Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women, ed. Keith Howard (London: Cassell Academic, 1996).

[11] For discussions of other aspects of the controversy, for example, see Yoshiko Nozaki, "Feminism, Nationalism, and the Japanese Textbook Controversy over 'Comfort Women,'" in France Winddance Twine and Kathleen M. Blee, eds., Feminism & Antiracism: International Struggles for Justice (NY: New York University Press, 2001), pp. 170-189. See also Laura Hein, "Savage Irony: The Imaginative Power of the 'Military Comfort Women'" in the 1990s, Gender & History, (1999), 11(2): 336-372.

[12] See, for example, Hyakusatsu ga Kataru "Ianjyo" Otoko no Honne: Ajia-zeniki ni "Inanjyo" ga Atta [The "comfort facility" and men's confessions that one hundred books tell: There were "comfort facilities" all over Asia], ed. Takasaki Ryuji (Tokyo: Nashinokisha, 1994). Takasaki finds approximately one hundred diaries and memoirs that referred to having directly witnessed the comfort facilities and/or women (those published during the war were censored so that their references were covert).

[13] Japanese and Korean names in this article follow Japanese and Korean name orders (except author information for English publications).

[14] Senda Kako, who published Jugun Ianfu [War comfort women] (Tokyo: Futabasha, 1973). Senda also wrote several bestseller volumes on the topic in the 1970s. In Korea, several publications on the subject also appeared in the 1970s. For further discussion, see Takasaki Soji, Hannichi Kanjyo [Anti-Japanese sentiments] (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1993), pp. 128-129; and Rekishi no Jijitsu o do Ninteishi do Oshieruka [How to verify and teach the historical facts], eds. Kasahara Tokushi et al. (Tokyo: Kyoiku Shuppankai, 1997), pp. 160-161.

[15] Matsui Yayori, "Kankoku-fujin no Ikita Michi" [The road a Korean woman took to live], Asahi Shinbun, evening edition, November 2, 1984, p. 5. At the time of Matsui's interview, the woman lived in Thailand. Although the article included a photo of her visiting her family in Korea in 1984, it did not mention her name.

[16] For Yun's activities, see George Hicks, The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War (NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994), pp. 173-178.

[17] In the next few years, approximately two hundred Korean former comfort women followed in Kim's footsteps.

[18] Kaiho Shuppansha ed., Kim Hakusun-san no Shogen: "Jugun Ianfu Mondai" o Tou [The testimony of Kim Hak-soon: An inquiry into the issue of comfort women] (Osaka: Kaiho Shuppansha, 1993), pp. 3-4.

[19] For further discussion, see Nozaki, "Feminism, Nationalism, and the Japanese Textbook Controversy over 'Comfort Women.'"

[20] Two excellent book length historical studies on comfort women have also been published in English: Yoshimi Yoshiaki, Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military during World War II, S. O'Brien, Translator (NY: Columbia University Press, 2000) (Original work published 1995); and Yuki Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation (London: Routledge, 2002).

[21] Yoshimi, Comfort Women, p. 29.

[22] See, for example, Louise White, "Prostitution in Nairobi during World War II, 1939-45," in The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 147-184. See also Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, pp. 84-132.

[23] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, pp. 180-181.

[24] See Yoshiko Nozaki, "Japanese Politics and the History Textbook Controversy, 1982-2001," International Journal of Educational Research, (2003), 37(6&7): 603-622.

[25] In several cases their criticisms of historical research turned out to be due to their own errors because of their lack of expert knowledge on the subject. Right-wing nationalists have published numerous volumes and articles on the comfort women issue in the 1990s. For example, Uesugi Chitoshi, Kensho "Jugun Inanfu": Jugun Ianfu Mondai Nyumon [The verification of the "war comfort women": An introduction to the issue of war comfort women], revised and enlarged edition (Tokyo: Zenbosha, 1996).

[26] Yoshimi Yoshiaki and Kawada Fumiko, eds.,"Jugun ianfu" o meguru sanju no uso to shinjitsu [Thirty lies and truths surrounding "war comfort women"] (Tokyo: Otsuki Shoten, 1997), pp. 9-10.

[27] For example, Yoshida Seiji, Chosenjin Ianfu to Nihonjin: Moto Shimonoseki Rohodoinbucho no Shuki [Korean comfort women and the Japanese: Former Shimonoseki  labor conscription manager's memoir] (Tokyo: Shin Jinbutsu Oraisha, 1977) and Watashi no Senso Hanzai: Chosenjin Kyosei Renko [My war crimes: Taking Koreans by force] (Tokyo: San'ichi Shobo, 1983). In these volumes, Yoshida "confessed" his use of deception and coercion in recruitment of Korean women for the comfort system as an officer at an employment bureau in Shimonoseki, Japan. The employment bureau offices during the war were involved in local labor conscription. Yoshida has not responded to the charges brought against him by the nationalists.

[28] Yoshimi and Kawada, "Jugun ianfu," pp. 63-65.

[29] Yoshimi and Kawada, "Jugun ianfu," pp. 22-24. To be sure, there are several non-Japanese official documents, which refer to the facts that the women were taken by force by the Japanese authorities.

[30] Yoshimi and Kawada, "Jugun ianfu," pp. 20-31.

[31] Ueno Chizuko, "Kioku no Seijigaku: Kokumin, Kojin, Watashi" [The politics of memory: Nation, individuals, and I], Impaction, (1997), 103: 154-174. In Japan, jissho-shugi is a historical research paradigm that asks verification by empirical evidence (historical sources), which may not be exactly the same thing as positivism in Western historical studies. The article is one of the first that Ueno published on the topic. In subsequent publications on the same topic, Ueno has revised her description of the progressive and feminist historians slightly to represent them in a more positive light.

[32] Ueno "Kioku no Seijigaku," p. 159.

[33] To be sure, Yoshimi's research proved "the military involvement." The facts concerning the women and kyosei-renko (taken by force) are in dispute here, but Ueno seems to lack that precise knowledge.

[34] Ueno, "Kioku no Seijigaku," p. 159.

[35] Ueno, "Kioku no Seijigaku," p. 159-166. Ueno Chizuko, "Jenda-shi to Rekishigaku no Hoho" [Gender history and the methods of history], in Nihon no Senso Sekinin Shiryo Senta, ed., Simpozium Nashonarizumu to "Ianfu" Mondai (Tokyo: Aoki Shoten, 1998), p. 30.

[36] Yoshimi Yoshiaki, "'Jyugun Ianfu' Mondai to Rekishizo: Ueno Chizuko-shi ni Kotaeru" [The issue of "comfort women" and the view on history: Responding to Ueno Chizuko], in Nihon no Senso Sekinin Shiryo Senta, Simpozium Nashonarizumu, p. 123-142.

[37] Yoshimi, "'Jyugun Ianfu' Mondai," pp. 128-130.

[38] Yoshimi, "'Jyugun Ianfu' Mondai," p. 130.

[39] Yoshimi, "'Jyugun Ianfu' Mondai," p. 131.

[40] Yoshimi, "'Jyugun Ianfu' Mondai," p. 131.

[41] Yoshimi, "'Jyugun Ianfu' Mondai," p. 133.

[42] Yasumaru Yoshio, "'Ianfu' mondai to rekishigaku: Yasumaru Yoshio ni kiku" [The issue of "comfort women" and the studies of history: Interview with Yoshio Yasumaru], in Nihon no Senso Sekinin Shiryo Senta, Simpozium Nashonarizumu, p. 209.

[43] Yasumaru, "'Ianfu' mondai to rekishigaku," p. 206.

[44] Sakurai Yoshiko, "Janarisuto Sakurai Yoshiko ga Mita Nihon, Gakko, Kodomo" [Japan, schools and children from journalist Yoshiko Sakurai's view], lecture given at the Heisei 8-nendo Kyoiku Kadai Kenshukai, the Yokohama City School Board, October 3, 1996.

[45] Sakurai, "Janarisuto Sakurai Yoshiko," p. 13.

[46] Sakamoto Takao, "Rekishi Kyokasho wa Ikani Kakarerubekika" [How should history textbooks be written?], Seiron (1997) 297, p.50. The nationalist effort to produce and sell their kind of history textbook to high schools was unsuccessful in the 1980s, but it was intensified in the 1990s. Sakamoto's argument was made in the context of the debates among the nationalists over their history textbook project of the 1990s. Against some prominent nationalists who argued that history teaching in schools should be abolished altogether since it cannot be neutral, Sakamoto rearticulated the need for (nationalist) history with postmodern discourses.

[47] For a good analysis of Sakamoto's argument, see Iwasaki Minoru "Bokyaku no tameno 'kokumin no monogatari': 'Rairekiron' no raireki o kangaeru" ["A story for nation" for the purpose of oblivion: Thoughts on the origin of the "origin"], in Komori Yoichi and Takahashi Tetsuya, eds., Nashonaru Hisutori o Koete (Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 1998), pp. 175-193.

[48] The book title is the name of a Japanese samurai hero in the Meiji Restoration of 1968.

[49] Fujioka argues that the "lies" should be within a limit of "common sense." It follows that the real question might be what kinds of "lies" are actually inserted. Interestingly, one lie he included was very much phallocentric. The (hi)story narrates that when the hero was born, his parents and grandparents were extremely happy to see the baby was a boy, a successor of the family, and included the line that "[his father] made really sure that the baby in bathing water…had penis with it." See Fujioka Nobukatsu, "Ronso kingendaishi kyoiku no kaikaku, 21: Rekishi jinbutsu shirizu ‘Takasugi Shinsaku' o kaite, Meiji-ishin to buhsi 2" [The debate on the reform of the education of modern and contemporary history, no. 21: On writing about ‘Takasugi Shinsaku' for the historical figure series, the Meiji Restoration and samurai, no. 2], Gendai Kyoiku Kagaku, 494 (1997), pp. 112-113. For a discussion of masculine tendency of Fujioka and his followers, see also Hein, "Savage Irony," pp. 360-364.

[50] Felman, "Education and Crisis," p. 5.



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