By Daniel J. Bauer
Shape the term “comfort women” on your lips, and pronounce its separate sounds aloud in your mind. This is easy to do. Indeed, talking about “comfort women” on a shallow level is not difficult. The more however we contemplate upon a few realities here, the more complicated the topic seems. An apparently simple expression becomes a nasty combination of complex notions, not to mention emotions, each more troubling than the other.
As slightly vulgar slang might put it, this is one hell of a can of worms. No one really wants to open it. How strange and shocking — yes, shocking — that World War II is said to have officially ended with signatures upon paper on board the ship the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. Yet only now, presumably in our new year of 2016, will the governments of Japan and the Republic of China, Taiwan, sit down together to address the many problems that the odd sounding term “comfort women” represents. It was simply a matter of time before Taiwan would make its demand this past week through President Ma Ying-jeou that Japan apologize to Taiwanese women who were forced into sexual slavery so long ago, and offer “compensation” for their suffering. The president’s call came within hours of word from Seoul that negotiators for the sides had reached a deal on behalf of Korean comfort women.
Three days ago one of my students (ironically, she also studies in our Japanese Department) asked why I used quote marks around a certain word last week about a student hostage event in Taitung (“The over concern,” The China Post, 12-27-15 p.4). I explained that the quote marks were to emphasize an ambiguous use of the word.
You may have noted the use of quote marks above. I am reluctant to so punctuate, but have no choice. We may rightly ask, “From whence might come a dollop of comfort for our ‘comfort women’, particularly with only a handful of them still alive? And, pray tell, what “compensation” could ever meet the wrong that was done? I spoke at the beginning about “complex notions.” Let me try to unpack that suitcase, first with a personal anecdote. Years ago I was giving a tour of our campus to a visiting American professor from Nanzan University in Japan. He pointed to a beautiful and pricey sports car in a parking lot, and said he had students who drove to class every day in cars just like it. “Our people really love what looks impressive and good on the outside. It’s related somehow to the inability of many (or only some?) in Japan to face shame. To say ‘We were wrong, we are truly sorry’ is exceedingly hard.”