Back to the Start

I can’t say when I learned for the first time about the issue of the comfort women, but I remember that I felt stunned.

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It was 2009, and months after graduating from college in Minnesota I had moved to South Korea to teach English in a Seoul suburb. Somewhere in those early months I encountered the story of comfort stations and the girls who endured them. I was shocked. I simply could not comprehend that before and during World War II, thousands of girls across Asia had been coerced into sexual slavery by Imperial Japan. I couldn’t believe that this massive system of institutionalized rape had once been maintained at the highest levels of the Japanese Empire’s military and government. I couldn’t conceive that girls and young women had been presented to troops as an amenity whose bodies they were entitled to use and plunder for their own relief. And most of all, I couldn’t imagine the moment to moment reality of those young girls and women whose endured such inhumane violence for days, months, years.

I also recall that for a brief moment, I experienced disbelief—the impulsive rejection that something so unthinkably horrific could possibly be real.

That was a passing emotion, quickly replaced by curiosity. I wanted to understand how this horrible thing that happened, and why I knew nothing about it. Like investigating so many ugly and complex chapters of the past, the more I learned the more I saw that the existence of comfort women and comfort stations was all too real, and also not a thing of the past.

I also recall that for a brief moment, I experienced disbelief—the impulsive rejection that something so unthinkably horrific could possibly be real.

Thousands of women who survived comfort stations died before they ever saw justice, many before what happened to them was seen as problematic or cruel, let alone criminal. But not all. Some are still alive. A few have dedicated their lives to fighting for justice. Everyday their numbers dwindle, as struggles for recognition and justice g0 on. Campaigns for truth and reconciliation persist as advocates try to tell the stories of people overlooked or silenced in the past. Governments and advocates grapple to determine what justice should look like, and how to both move forward while atoning for past wrongs. And across the world people still try to understand what we can learn from the comfort women to avoid a similar atrocity in the future. That means taking a hard look not just at issues of gender and sexuality, but also class, racism, and colonialism.

I left South Korea after a year of living there, but I’ve returned again and again to the issue of the comfort woman.

In graduate school I dedicated my thesis to the topic, reading every relevant text I could find, and when that was done, broadening my definition of what had relevance. The result was a year-long fever dream of highlighted passages, late nights, and poor attempts at pulling off too many things at once. Now the thesis is submitted and archived, and I’ve emerged from the haze of graduate school more hungry than ever to understand the story of Imperial Japan’s Comfort Stations, of the women who endured them, and of the survivors and activists who continue to fight for justice today.

So now I’m going back to the drawing board, returning to sources I read at a breakneck pace, and uncovering new ones. But this time I’m going to wade through them slowly and thoroughly. Here I’ll share what I learn, and reflect on the many things I still don’t understand, as I go. Along the way I’ll catalogue news updates, share photos, and try to make sense of things I find confusing.

Interested? Feel free to follow along.