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The Comfort Women

Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan

The Comfort Women

Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan

In an era marked by atrocities perpetrated on a grand scale, the tragedy of the so-called comfort women—mostly Korean women forced into prostitution by the Japanese army—endures as one of the darkest events of World War II. These women have usually been labeled victims of a war crime, a simplistic view that makes it easy to pin blame on the policies of imperial Japan and therefore easier to consign the episode to a war-torn past. In this revelatory study, C. Sarah Soh provocatively disputes this master narrative.
            Soh reveals that the forces of Japanese colonialism and Korean patriarchy together shaped the fate of Korean comfort women—a double bind made strikingly apparent in the cases of women cast into sexual slavery after fleeing abuse at home. Other victims were press-ganged into prostitution, sometimes with the help of Korean procurers. Drawing on historical research and interviews with survivors, Soh tells the stories of these women from girlhood through their subjugation and beyond to their efforts to overcome the traumas of their past. Finally, Soh examines the array of factors— from South Korean nationalist politics to the aims of the international women’s human rights movement—that have contributed to the incomplete view of the tragedy that still dominates today.

384 pages | 16 halftones, 4 maps, 1 line drawing, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Worlds of Desire: The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender, and Culture

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: East Asia

Gender and Sexuality

History: Asian History

Women's Studies


“This is a courageous, judicious, and well-written book that refuses to yield to knee-jerk responses or politically correct narratives, but rather insists on setting the comfort women within broader historical and cultural contexts. Sympathetic and sensitive, C. Sarah Soh nevertheless challenges both feminist and ethnic nationalist paradigms in an astonishing display of objectivity. The Comfort Women is a lucid, brave, and important work.”

Gail Lee Bernstein, author of Isami’s House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family

"C. Sarah Soh’s study of ‘comfort women’ offers a close-grained yet compassionate analysis of this disturbing experience. She cogently deploys ethnography and history to illuminate a crucial case in gender and international issues.”

James L. Peacock, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“This is a dispassionate, careful, well-researched, and brave book. Embedding her story in the whole history of prostitution and abusive treatment of women from the colonial period to the present, Soh shows that the comfort women system partook not just of the authoritarian politics of Japanese colonialism, but was also deeply rooted in a Korean patriarchy whose effects continued on after 1945. I expect this book will be the standard work on the subject for some time.”

Bruce Cumings, University of Chicago

"A brave and impressive book that usefully complicates and adds layers to our understanding of a sordid system."

Jeff Kingston | Japan Times

“Since 1991, when Korean comfort women first stepped forward to demand compensation, much has been written about the Japanese military comfort system. Through careful anthropological work, Soh adds to knowledge about this system and provides a nuanced context within which to understand it. . . . In this courageous book, Soh succeeds in her aspiration to write against both adversarial ethnonationalisms and ahistorical international feminisms.”


Table of Contents

List of Plates
List of Figures and Tables
List of Maps
Prologue: An Anthropological Analysis
Note to the Reader
Introduction   Gender, Class, Sexuality, and Labor under Japanese Colonialism and Imperialist War

PART 1   Gender and Structural Violence
            Chapter 1. From Multiple Symbolic Representations to the Paradigmatic Story
            Chapter 2. Korean Survivors’ Testimonial Narratives
            Chapter 3. Japan’s Military Comfort System as History

PART 2   Public Sex and Women’s Labor
            Chapter 4. Postwar/Postcolonial Memories of the Comfort Women
            Chapter 5. Private Memories of Public Sex
            Chapter 6. Public Sex and the State

Epilogue   Truth, Justice, Reconciliation
Appendix: Doing “Expatriate Anthropology”


The Society for East Asian Anthropology: Francis L.K. Hsu Book Prize
Honorable Mention

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