ahorbinski: hulk smash male privilege! (hulk smash male privilege)
Bibliographic Data: Soh, C. Sarah. The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Main Argument: Soh's main argument is that "the personal tragedies of Korean comfort women arose, in part, from the institutionalized everyday gender violence tolerated in patriarchal homes and enacted in the public sphere (including the battlefront) steeped in what I call 'masculinist sexual culture' in colonial Korea and imperial Japan." Additionally, "the majority of Korean comfort women survivors were not mobilzed as cheongsindae." (3) In other words, the comfort women system cannot be properly understood outside of the structural gender violence prevalent in both Korea and Japan which allowed it to flourish as a transformation and extension of prewar sexual practices.

The Comfort Women )

Critical assessment: On the whole, this is a strong, necessary book, one that presents what I do think is an important revision to the common understanding of the comfort women system by situating it in a patriarchal culture common to both sides of the Korea Strait and by connecting wartime military sexual violence with its decedents (prostitution as well as outright sexual violence) in the postwar period. For these reasons alone, Soh's book deserves to be read.

That said, Soh's treatment does feature persistent infelicities in framing which, while never rising to the level where they outweigh the value of Soh's arguments, do prevent a strong study from reaching true excellence. The first, as might be forgiven of an anthropologist writing a profoundly historicized study, is a series of bizarre gaps in Soh's background reading--I looked in vain for Cynthia Enloe's Bananas, Beaches, and Bases in the bibliography, or for almost any historical treatment of what Soh terms Korea's colonial modernity. The second, less obviously, is that this is a profoundly sex-negative book, which viewpoint Soh never quite states explicitly. Instead, she persistently frames her discussions so as to foreclose the possibility of women ever being desiring (sexual) subjects in their own right. Instead, in Soh's view, for women sex is always sexual labor, whether in marriage or in prostitution (and indeed, these seem to be the only venues in which women have sex).

For all that Soh discusses, rightly, structural violence and its role in propagating the comfort women system, she seems to be unwilling to discuss the role the structural violence of the Japanese imperial army, which is very well-documented, may have played in the comfort women system. For instance, the fact that imperial soldiers were not granted leave, ever, would seem to deserve more than a single mention in passing in explaining the widespread nature of the comfort women system.

There are other niggling errors, such as Soh's misunderstanding of the nature of war crimes--it's fine to argue for a different conception of war crimes, but to do so you need to contrast your definition explicitly with the one that is agreed upon in international law. She also gets the English name of my home institution in Japan, Doshisha University, wrong, which is the sort of thing that unfortunately leads readers to question your accuracy in general. It's also odd to read her relate her experiences being harangued by many of the South Korean activists with whom she used to work: the subaltern can indeed speak, and it's surprising that Soh doesn't seem to realize how many grenades she's lobbing into the discourse by calling out both sides of the debate.

Indeed, I'm told that Soh burned every bridge she had to write this book, which is part of the reason I wish it were an unqualified success, but regardless, this is a strong and important study that deserves to be the standard work on the subject.

Further reading: Bruce Cumings, Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History

Meta notes: This book sits oddly in the Chicago Press "Worlds of Desire" series, which focuses on "sexuality, gender, and culture"--none of the other books in the series appear to take on comparable subject matter.

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Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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