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

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Review (part 1): True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women.
According to the inside flap, this collection consists of "Testimonies compiled by the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and the Research Association on the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan" with the testimonies being translated from the original Korean into English. This book is quite the eye-opener and all the more reason to doubt sensational news stories, as if I needed any more prompting. The papers get the facts right some of the time; the exegesis wrong nearly all the time. If there is a superficially persuasive, emotional and emotive, legally defensible explanation of events, preferably cribbed, it's fit to print.

I don't put the latter down to cynicism, at least not all of the time, as, judging by the editorial pages, newspaper editors happily down the swill brewed up by their own freshly-university-graduated keeners. Editors, contrary to my naive opening presumption, aren't hard-boiled and savvy, while privately up for sale behind the closed door; on the contrary, they're eager to please, soft-hearted and soft-headed souls, as easily squeezed for tears as soap opera patrons and as much agape at the media circus as their customers.

That the newspapers are unreliable is not difficult to understand: their raison d'être being, first and foremost, engines of profit. I'm all for getting rich and the problem, as I see it, does not lay with quality control in the news manufactory, but quality demand at the other end: the undiscriminating purchaser, panting and goggle-eyed at the latest incredi-burgable headlines. News-writers and news-makers learn to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the reading public, often the hard way, for there doesn't seem to be any other kind of reading public, at least not in the numbers required to make a public oracle operate in the black. Ergo the media plays to the gallery and offers explanations of events in terms the gallery is disposed to comprehend and, more importantly, get worked up about and willing to pay for more. Purveying of the truth so-called, or even a bona fide attempt in this direction, is naturally hampered by this. But, it is hampered even worse by the professional hack and their hack-work, the former consisting mostly of harried young professionals who spent most of their time cribbing material from one another. This leads, very naturally, to the blind leading the blind. Which brings us back to the Korean Comfort Women.

What best recommends this book is that it gives the reader access to original sources, even though these testimonies are translations and even though, and you know I hate to carp, most translators get in the way of the original. And deliberately so, through redacting the intemperate or lunatic utterance that often livens up original documents; through earnestly bungling the meaning of the original document (common, in part, because so few carvers of original documents ever attain the precision that many translators are forced to acquire); and through prettifying the original to enhance its value to readers and thus make it more saleable, though also to impress unilingual publishers with the translator's virtuosity with the written word. The result is something both less and more than the original document, and, either way, it's a disservice not to mention results in an unreliable document dangerously skirting the fiction category.

This time around though, I suspect the translator got it right. I say so because in these testimonies appears clearly the natural human tendency for documents to consist of an amalgam of both ideas clearly expressed together with the nearly incoherent and the logically improbable.

It's telling that in the preface to the book, the editor points out that of the more than forty women who were originally interviewed for this book, 21 gave testimonies which had to be dropped from the book itself. On page v of the introduction, Keith Howard writes that there were upward of 200,000 comfort women but on the following page he states that by the end of 1991, only three had come forward. Why? He states that “The tragedy then, was exacerbated by silence. The shame of a woman was the shame of her whole family.”

In sum, he pleads the special case of cultural victimization: Koreans don't air their dirty laundry. As opposed to whom? Westerners? Do we gaily air our personal foibles, family follies, or national failures? The author plays the oldest trick of information misers (professors and neighborhood know-it-alls, for example) by announcing that only he understands the special circumstances, the extended details, the historical background, the forensics of the situation. He's sympathetic; he feels their pain. Thus moral authority accrues to him. Having deviously arrogated the soap box, such scamsters go on to plead special cases which they can safely presume to be irrefutable by those readers not possessing library cards, i.e. newspaper readers and TV watchers. Examples of such special cases that come to mind are those civil war historians who make a special exception of Lincoln, calling him the 'benevolent dictator'; quacks who make an exception for SARS: a raging epidemic that required three long months to make it across the world's busiest border; and philanthropoids who make an exception for Mother Theresa and her passion for illicit money grubbing, but confiding to one in private that though Mother was dumb, she was sincere. Agreed; but sincere about what?

On page two Keith Howard writes, "Korea was ill-equipped and unprepared to modernize at the pace dictated by foreign powers." This is sophistry hiding the fact that Korea was originally a despotic monarchy with institutionalized slavery. In other words, it was not a matter of being ill-equipped and unprepared, like a town of Hobbits hit by a swarm of cross-eyed Orcs. The nasty indigenous régime was unwilling to give up power and share it with the man on the street. Had the monarchy opened up Korea's borders and liberalized its economy, it could have financed a modern military and there would've been no way for Japan to get into Korea in the first place.

On the same page, Keith Howard writes, "Policy institutionalized discrimination: Koreans were made to be useful for the empire. The appropriation of resources moved beyond labor, industry and agriculture to encompass language and culture." In the same vein of preposterous thinking one could say that a second generation American receiving a public school education is made useful for the American Empire. This is simply glib spin by someone ignorant of capitalism and laissez-faire economics and the many benefits of Japanese imperialism in particular. It was Japanese imperialism, for example, which ended traditional Korean capital crimes such as commoners giving their kids overly auspicious names and not bowing low enough when the gentry passed by. And, in passing, the common argument that Japan went to Korea only to benefit itself displays a complete misunderstanding of capitalist economics and human nature. Of course Japan went into Korea to benefit itself. What do the bloody Koreans do when they go to work every day but strive to benefit themselves? Since when does anyone not strive to benefit themself? To presume anything but self-interest in any human action is to misunderstand human motivation at its most elemental level.

On page three Keith Howard writes, "The descent into a fratricidal war heaped physical destruction on the colonial inheritance of poverty." This strikes me as being quite unlikely unless there was an exceptionally high birthrate in Korea. Japan was in the habit of heavily investing in its colonies, Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria in particular*. Furthermore, one wonders about the logic of the author's sentence: how does one heap physical destruction on poverty when poverty is the lack of commodities? I'm not trying to be clever, but ask a serious question: what on earth does this sentence, more poetry than sense, really mean?
* [In 1946] the Soviet commanding General Malinovsky informed Chang Kia-gnau, head of the Chinese economic commission in Manchuria, that all industrial establishments in Manchuria, conservatively estimated at 2 billion US dollars, were to be regarded as war booty of the Soviet forces. Soviet experts then began the systematic looting of Manchuria's industrial plants. The Russians presented a list of 154 Japanese enterprises to be recognized as joint Sino-Soviet enterprises. (From Chang Kai-shek: His Life and Times by Keiji Furuya)
On the same page Keith Howard writes, "There was little widespread understanding of human rights [in Korea]." But I have to wonder if there is widespread understanding of human rights anywhere in the world? What there is, surely, is agreement with the status quo. It's just that the status quo varies from place to place. Thus, in nations/regions/cities/districts where a significant minority of the population (i.e. the movers and shakers) are persuaded of the value of human rights, human rights enter the public consciousness via the media and then begin to show up on the law books via the legislators. But the public being persuaded of the value of something is surely not the same as understanding it. We may recognize the value of metabolizing food, but how many of us understand it?

In conclusion, Keith Howard's introduction is boggled due to some chronic pathology of the intellect and I abandoned the effort to probe any further.

Chapter 2 is authored by Chin Sung Chung and he cranks up the volume from Keith Howard's reserved and careful indignation to a blustery foam-flecked polemic that is not only ludicrous but demonstrates that the author becomes palpably insane at mention of the topic matter. Page 11; Exhibit A: "Korean victims of atom bombs... war crimes committed against Korea which fall into the recognized classes B and C. The most tragic issue, however, is the case of the comfort women." In other words, forced prostitution is worse than being atom bombed or being the subject of one, or more, of a presumably large array of war crimes.

Exhibit B.: "Japan, unlike Germany, has never tried to resolve postwar issues." First of all, this is complete baloney. Taking the Nanking Massacre for example, it was immediately denounced by the civilian wing of the government and by high-ranking members of the military itself*, and the Massacre has appeared in Japanese children's textbooks every year since 1946! Here the overwrought author applies a common literary dodge, denouncing nations as if the millions of individuals who constitute them should be responsible and held to account for their political leaders, media opinion makers, the ever-changing fashions blowing across and crazing the hacks of academe, social activist preferences (herds subject to much the same fashions), and the marketing and aesthetic decisions made by publishing houses and independent authors.
* Openly critical of the fanatical ultranationalism that came to grip his country in the late 1930s, [Lieutenant general Masaharu] Homma (who led the successful Japanese attack on the Philippines in World War II) ... in 1938... reportedly traveled to Nanking and authored a stinging document recounting the atrocities that had occurred under the Japanese occupation and berating the commanding officers there - a courageous stand that is said to have diminished his stature within the Japanese military. (From Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides)
And when Chin Sung Chung talks about Germany, which Germany (to adopt his phraseology) is he referring to? East Germany? Had East Germany come clean on these issues at the time of this book's publication in 1993? Shouldn't we blame the East Germans, with their domestic communist dictatorship and the hegemony of Soviet Mother Russia further saddled around their necks too?

More deliberate verbal swindling. His audience doesn't understand systems and, perhaps, neither does he. He knows their simple brains will be awed and dismayed by systems. Thus, he reduces the vast complexities of a multifarious nation of 120 million individuals into something simple: Snidely Whiplash with buck teeth, knock-knees, and glasses, waving the hated flag of the rising sun. For the discriminating, even the discriminating child, Snidely Whiplash is far too simple, far too transparent to be more than comic. But to a simpleminded polemicist writing for herds of simpletons, Snidely is the perfect clotheshorse, eminently useful just as the shady Jew caricature was to Hitler and his crew of simpletons. Simpletons unable to get the satisfaction of revenge at firsthand are often happy to have a scapegoat (which really was a goat in primeval times) via effigies and giving them the torch. Witness the pathetic spectacle of the witless burning the US flag, for example; no plainer admission of impotence and surrender there ever was.

To get back to the original clumsy complaint about not resolving issues: unfortunately for the author, two books on comfort women were published during the 1970s. I found this in the introduction to Japan's Comfort Women, published in 2001, and written by Susan Brown Miller.

In passing, it is worth mentioning that Ms. Miller is recommended to readers in the introduction as the author of the tautologically entitled Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape.

This intrigued my mischievous side (I'd be embarrassed to have this title appear in an introduction recommending me) and I peered further into Japan's Comfort Women. The very first sentence is a magnificent second example of begging the question. To wit, "Sex becomes a source of brutality and oppression, instead of one of joy and life, when it is exploited in warfare." In other words, sex is a source of oppression when one is oppressed with sex!
I couldn't help but move my gaze down the page.
Next comes a testimony from an ex-comfort woman, followed by the author’s comments: Sex is a beautiful and extremely enjoyable human activity when it confirms and reconfirms the intimate relationship with a partner. When out of control, however, sex becomes ugly and monstrously abusive. Unfortunately these are two diametrically opposing characteristics of sex. In other words, a platitude, another begging of the question, followed by another platitude. Both platitudes are patently wrong which, in the way of platitudes, is like not hitting a fish in a barrel.
More tomorrow: the testimonies of the comfort women. Not what you or I would have expected, I assure you...
Biff Cappuccino

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