News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Part 2 of my review of True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women (still a bit rough)

Reviewing original documents makes all the difference. Having done so, the dreadful calamity of forced prostitution turns out on closer examination to be something which starts out, depending on the person, to lay somewhere between slavery and run-of-the-mill bawdy house prostitution. However, once the professional duties begin, the story turns into a generic cat-house yarn of professional jealousies, cat-fights, ladies of joy fighting over customers, customers fighting over ladies of joy, johns getting mashed on the ladies, tricks proposing marriage and fidelity evermore if only the angel before them answers their sacred proposal with an affirmative.

In other words, yet again, the newspapers, their reporters, editors, and experts-for-hire can’t be trusted to competently discuss the issue at hand. Neither can the experts of academe, most of whom remain high up in the ivory tower with their heads in the clouds. Ideology further befogs already befogged brains; such poor sods can't comprehend let alone get up and run with a new idea. And training in the academy generates paragons of erudition not intelligent, not bold, not imaginative, but instead armed with more useful tools for their trade such as a first-hand knowledge and application of the valor of timidity and directions for getting to the safety of the clubhouse and the protection of its virtuous swamis and intellectual giants, when in doubt. But joining a club means adhering to the rules, and in this case it's a club of smarties and thus the rules are woven into a lofty ideology. On closer examination, ideologies turn out inevitability to be no more than an iron-clad code of ideas, notions, and hunches emerge from committee-like compromises and which have a relevance, in a constantly changing world, that begins to slump as soon as the ink dries on the paper. Adhering to this code brings one inevitably in conflict with our changing world, and thus puts one in conflict with sense. Stalwart allegiance to the code forces compromises with one's honor and requires the committing to memory of nonsensical, improbable defenses that generate epithets of ‘rocket scientist’ and ‘bookworm’ from the lay folk.

This is the private comedy of the institution of higher learning, particularly in those fields requiring self-reliance, imagination, pugnacity and a rough-and-ready intelligence if the resident nonsense of previous generations, such as boosterism, belief in spirit realms, and the moral uplift of mankind, is to be exploded. Fields such as anthropology, political science, and history require an overcoming, a reevaluation, a combat with ideas and people that the hard sciences require far less often, though they certainly have their own shenanigans and Pied Pipers – Robert Gallo, the Pope of AIDS, and the Alvarez father and son team (champions of the asteroid extinction of the dinosaur theory who didn’t hesitate to hit fellow theorists below the belt).

For what is an ideology but a temporary slam-bang cluster of the current theories, schools of thought, respectable sympathies and hatreds, changing as regularly and predictably as the seasons. In other words, a very puritan scheme and one opposed to common sense, thinking for oneself, or any other activity with the potential to occasion sinister heterodoxies.

Academic experts as a class are a proof-positive that the phrase educated above one's level of intelligence is far more than just rhetoric; that, as the Europeans complain, North America’s graduate schools are too many and too prodigious, watering down requirements and standards to facilitate the grinding out of graduates like sausages. The budding Plato requires little more than a capacity and willingness for committing an assortment of lineages, languages, terminology, ideas, dates, grey eminences and other trivial matters to memory according to this season's fashions. Once achieving the prize of tenure, young brains petrify, their intellects caught up and preserved in a slavish adherence to schools of thought; the prestigious amber of academia rendering minds already dead today, dead forever more.

This overpopulation of academe with the undifferentiated children of the electorate has resulted unsurprisingly in mob behavior: clans of quacks armed with canons of posing, abstruse, sesquipedalian, and ultimately inscrutable raving - the masterworks of professors Said, Marx, and Chomsky come to mind – vie for the intellectual Camelot and in their wild jousting for preeminence, scatter the runts and weaklings to flee and pursue the security of the larger partisan side of the moment. When a lonely iconoclast enters the fray and threatens to expose the farce, the axe falls, the axes fall, from every direction.

Iconoclasm is perhaps most often the product of an honest man or woman finding his worldly experience militating against the received wisdom. Most liberal arts academics are far from worldly, having graduated in a factory-like procession from Montessori to the Ph.D. program. This reliance on the claimed, on third and fourth hand testimonies (surrounded by clones, second-hand evidence is yet still rare), and with debates reduced to he-said/she-said, nothing is ever nailed down, fact and fancy are never distinguished confidently. Thus the fashion for crazes; for when nothing is known, rhetoric wins the day. Thus so many liberal arts academics can’t distinguish between fact and fiction, can’t differentiate between a telling detail and a red herring, nor do they value the pursuit of truth; they value rhetoric, ergo the popularity of Foucault and of Marx; ergo the emergence of the whole tribe of third-rate rhetoricians, which are in fact no more than the politicians of academe, hard a-beating their tubs and a-charging their soap-boxes to dizzy their peers with canned publish-or-perish masterpieces; ergo the politician-like pursuit of inscrutability, the deliberate cultivation of unintelligible jargon, the requirement that each professor worth his salt deliver up and proffer definitions that have a shelf-life of one book and one book only.

This lack of personal life experience also renders quacks incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of others and thus they present a shallow and often rhetoric-based explanation of events. Thus the reduction of complex historical processes to combats between angels and sinners, our boys with the home team and the Huns. Arguments are prefaced with a moral scheme and historical players reduced to oppressors and the oppressed, to the haves and have-nots, to nationalists and colonizing powers.

Thus to both the correct media and the correct academic, i.e. to the ignoble and oppressive hack and mediocrity, the comfort women are portrayed as simply the victims of a nasty campaign by WWII Japs taking advantage of the indigenous women in their colonies. It's cut and dried, black and white: the evil grasping military occupier rapes and pillages.

But how could this possibly be true? Is anything in life this simple?

It's a testament to our curiously blinkered world and the near-impenetrable divorce from reality that most of us are sunk within, that this bogus vision is swallowed whole hog again and again, issue after issue. But the muddled compassionate enjoy, perhaps need, having something to be indignant about to give their lives purpose. And even when those rare few read up on the subject and become conversant with the issues, they yet still remain, at base, children with a rigid moral vision of reality, motivated foremost and hindmost by emotion. They're not interested in something approaching the truth, whether it's events overseas or domestic. Habituated to white lies, fibbing, evading, trimming, hedging, etc. they never get within a country mile of what's really going down.

I've chosen to concentrate on Chapter 4 which is entitled I Have Much to Say to the Korean Government and is the testimony of former Korean comfort woman Kim Tokchin. She was born in 1921 and started working as a comfort woman at the age of 17 in 1937, apparently being misled into the position by being told that she was going to be working for a factory in Japan. She returned to Korea in 1940 with the help of a Japanese officer. Yes, a Japanese officer. I think you'll find her tale of woe not a little strange but also illuminating.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I'm being critical and not compassionate in the following in part because compassion doesn't make 2+2=5 and because people are not sock puppets in a moral play. They're living, breathing, farting mammals with personalities, achievements and follies, and who are sometimes honest and sometimes not. They have cultural, familial, gender roles etc. which make them complex. It is neither interesting nor useful to reduce people and their stories to a stock combat between good and evil. Loudmouthed victims of war crimes committed decades ago by the losing side, like George Orwell's saints, should be considered guilty until proven innocent. It shouldn't be forgotten that nations such as Korea, without a tradition of free speech produce citizens who engage in regular fibbing, evading, and fabrication; for otherwise they would not survive. Neither would you or I. To swallow wholesale the testimony of a self-proclaimed victim, particularly if doing so primarily because it facilitates one's political beliefs and ideological preconceptions, is lunacy. But, of course, it's done everyday. It's not the exception; in fact it is the rule. A glance at the newspapers, the work of most academics, and Hollywood surely reveals this.

And last of all: the problem with sympathy as an approach to pursuing truth is that truth then becomes a prisoner to correctness, i.e. a temporary moral scheme principally devoted to presenting oneself as superior to one’s competitors and enemies. This makes truth ephemeral; i.e. makes it into a sort of anti-truth, for what is truth but not fact eternal? A more practical and effective approach might be that people are as mechanical as a watch. That and empathy: constructing similar circumstances to the period and person under study in which one can conceive of oneself willingly, happily, etc. committing atrocities, etc. A sincere keeping in mind of the expression, there but for the grace of God go I doesn’t hurt. Under such circumstances, applying rules of thumb and remaining free of ideology, cant and rhetoric, just as 2+2=4 forevermore, one enters a realm whereupon the possibility of unearthing, stumbling upon or being persuaded, kicking and screaming, of truths equally immutable becomes conceivable.
Page 42: We dug up the roots of trees to eat, and my mother would work on a treadmill all day to bring back a few husks of grains as payment which we would boil with dried vegetables for our supper. Those who flattered the Japanese were able to get help from them; they might get rubber shoes. But those who kept firmly apart to forced into extreme poverty.

The questions begin. They ate tree roots? If they're surviving on tree roots and a few husks of grains, whatever that inept translation refers to, where do the dried vegetables come from? And if one flatters the Japanese, one might get rubber shoes? What sense does that make? And those who kept firmly apart were forced into extreme poverty? Well then don't keep firmly apart. If you make the decision to keep firmly part, and don't get what you want, surely you cannot accuse anyone of forcing you into extreme poverty.

Admittedly this may seem harsh and yet I honestly do not know what the woman is talking about. Do you? This is another one of the problems that presents itself when dealing with these testimonies. The people giving them are rural and uneducated, and rather incredibly incapable of stringing a logical story together. They don't seem to know how, by virtue of habit or attention span, and instead toss up loony, smatterings of stories. The testimony should have been taken by somebody who could have tried to draw out more relevant facts and by doing so fill out the original stories to have them makes sense. On the other hand, perhaps what we have here is better because it's more accurate as a testimony of the mindset and the actual, uncoached memories this woman has. It also perhaps makes it all the more easy to figure out whether a person is remembering accurately, even remembering it all, as opposed to simply making things up as she goes.

And example of the rather strange way simple folk can describe things is her description of the ferry boat being as big as a mountain. That's like telling someone your dog is as big as a bus. She's halfway between the Carib Indians mistaking Spanish galleons for floating islands and a modern viewing a ferry boat. She constantly does this type of thing and it's clear that she neither understands what she sees at times nor is even able to make sense out of the prosaic because she lacks the mental discipline, attention to detail, and the desire to fit events into larger systems and thus render them intelligible and meaningful. Later, she claims: There were bodies lying all over the place, and dogs would drag corpses around. East Asian dogs dragging something as heavy as human corpses around?

A constant refrain of the poor or those without legal protections is money. This testimony may disappoint Socialists because it includes: As we crossed Chongam bridge, we held on to each other and wept: 'Goodbye, Chongam bridge, goodbye until we return with money lining our pockets.'

Also interesting is that the woman was working in a brothel employing about 50 women, two of whom are Japanese. The two Japanese were said to have come from brothels. They were 27 or 28, about 10 years older than all the Koreans. The soldiers preferred us Korean girls, saying we were cleaner.

On page 46: When I was in pain and distressed I tried to die, but I couldn't. I thought of jumping into the river, jumping down from a high place or running into a car, but I never managed to do anything remotely like this.

In other words, she really wants to die, but she's too afraid of dying to commit suicide. Three sentences further on she says: I was so scared that I did whatever I was told to, and I would even have pretended to die if I had been told to do so. What does that mean? There's no missing context that I've failed to supply. She lurches from one crazy statement to a lunatic second one. This is what I mean by the difficulty of trying to interpret rural people's claims (as described by ex-Hong Kong justice Austin Coates in Myself a Mandarin in which he retails the difficulty of getting testimony not just out of the accused, but out of plaintiffs who were often even worse). They can be so inarticulate, unobservant, and scattered-brained that it's hard to know if and where the true starts and the embellishing ends. If someone gave this sort of testimony in court, it would be picked to pieces by a competent defense lawyer.

Where it gets really interesting, and for me more believable, is halfway down the page: There were even some [soldiers] who wept, they were so scared to go to fight. I would comfort them and tell them to come back safely from the battle. When any returned to live, I would be genuinely glad to see them again. I acquired quite a few regular customers, and one or two confessed their love to me and even proposed.

The manager provided us with clothes, cosmetics and food, all free of charge. But he said he would deduct the sums we owed him from the promised final lump payments. If we needed anything we asked him to buy it when he went to the market, and he was very obliging.

Pretty and intelligent girls were selected for very high-ranking officers and taken into the army unit by car. I was chosen in this way and developed a special relationship with an officer called Izumi. When I asked how old he was, he spread five fingers before me, and so I guess he must've been about 50 years old.... I continued to meet Izumi often and came to regard him almost as my father, husband and family rolled into one. Guiding my hand in his, he taught me numbers (Biff: note that, she says numbers, not mathematics) and how to write Japanese script, and through it all I could feel great affection. Every day, he said he loved me. He said that when the war was over he would take me to Japan where I could live an easy life. He said that I would go to school and live with him. Even after I returned to Korea, we wrote to each other for quite some time.... Izumi wrote to me constantly.... he wrote such amusing letters.... he continue to write for some time from Nanjing, but his letters abruptly stopped one or two years before the liberation in 1945. All the letters I had kept were destroyed by a bomb during the Korean War.

She ends her testimony by saying: Of course Japan is to blame, but I resent the Koreans who were their instruments even more than the Japanese they worked for. I have so much to say to my own government. The Korean government should grant us compensation. Life is very hard without a place of my own to live. I think accommodation should be provided, at the very least.
From beginning to end, her international tale of woe is one long chasing after dollars.

In case you think the testimony was unusual let me introduce you briefly to the next testimony. Page 53: If the slightest symptom of venereal disease appeared, we had to have the number '606' injection in gradations numbered from one to six. The injection was so strong that once you had it you couldn't touch water for a whole week.

It goes without saying that human beings can't go without water for an entire week.

Page 54: After about two years I got to know how things were run. One of my friends tipped me off that my contract time had expired and that I could do whatever I wanted to do. A few days had passed since the end of my official term, although the proprietor hadn't said a word about this to me. So, one day, I got drunk and complained to him. Surprised at my unusual behavior, he said he would report me to the military police. I threatened him, 'If you want to report me, by all means go ahead. I'm going to report you as well. I know my contract is over. I'm going to tell them how badly you treat me.' I refused to serve any soldiers from them onwards.

In other words, she too is working for a contract. Second, the police do their job and can't be bought by her boss. Third, she can refuse to serve soldiers now that her contract is over. (I'll look into the content of these contracts tomorrow.)

The next few sentences are interesting too: On our street there lived an old Japanese man whose job was to introduce comfort women to proprietors, and one day he came to me and asked me, in confidence, if I would like to go somewhere else. He said he could find another place. I told him to go ahead, and after a few days he came back to introduce me to a new station. I moved that very same day. As I left I took with me the money I had earned since my contract had expired. I found out that once our contract was over we were meant to share our earnings with our proprietor, on a fifty-fifty basis.

On the same page: I said I would report [our proprietor] to the police for discrimination; the police had clearly stated she should treat us all equally.

Soldiers fall in love with her too. She complains about having to change the sheets on her bed everyday, she gets into a drunken hissy fit and beats up a teasing Japanese co-sex-worker.

In other words, most of the testimony sounds like what you would expect from prostitutes complaining about their business. I'm not suggesting that these women were not forced into this line of work, and I'm not suggesting it wasn't slavery of a kind. But the testimonies presented are confusing to say the least and it seems to have been significantly less of an ordeal than is often portrayed. The women have contracts, they have the protection of the law, and men are constantly falling in love with them as is always the case with prostitutes (ladies of joy seem to fend off more mariage proposals than women of any other station).
I'll finish this tomorrow...
Biff Cappuccino

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