Comfort Women – UConn expert weighs in as a dark piece of history returns to light

Comfort Women – UConn expert weighs in as a dark piece of history returns to light

February 26, 20213 min read

A recent article in an academic journal claiming that Korean comfort women -- imprisoned, raped, and subjected to brutal atrocities during World War II -- were "prostitutes" who had willingly entered indentured contracts set off a firestorm of controversy and a chorus from historians and academics calling for the paper's retraction.

It's a topic garnering international attention as survivors continue to seek resolution, compensation, and acknowledgement of the past. UConn's Alexis Dudden is a professor of history specializing in Japan and Korea who has heard stories from survivors first-hand and is among those scholars calling out the erroneous claims:

A recent academic journal article by the professor — in which he described as “prostitutes” the Korean and other women forced to serve Japan’s troops — prompted an outcry in South Korea and among scholars in the United States.

It also offered a chance, on the Zoom call last week, for the aging survivor of the Japanese Imperial Army’s brothels to tell her story to a group of Harvard students, including her case for why Japan should issue a full apology and face international prosecution.

“The recent remarks by the professor at Harvard are something that you should all ignore,” Lee Yong-soo, a 92-year-old in South Korea and one of just a handful of so-called comfort women still living, told the students.

But the remarks were a “blessing in disguise” because they created a huge controversy, added Ms. Lee, who was kidnapped by Japanese soldiers during World War II and raped repeatedly. “So this is kind of a wake up call.”

The dispute over the academic paper has echoes of the early 1990s, a time when the world was first beginning to hear the voices of survivors of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery in Asia — traumas that the region’s conservative patriarchal cultures had long downplayed.

Now, survivors’ testimony drives much of the academic narrative on the topic. Yet many scholars say that conservative forces are once again trying to marginalize the survivors.

“This is so startling, 30 years later, to be dragged back, because in the meantime survivors from a wide range of countries found a voice,” Alexis Dudden, a historian of Japan and Korea at the University of Connecticut who has interviewed the women.

In dual articles from The New Yorker and The New York Times, Dr. Dudden weighed in on the controversial journal article and offered her findings on the atrocities committed against the women:

Alexis Dudden, the historian of Japan and Korea, was one of the scholars invited to publish a reply to Ramseyer in the journal. In her comment, she observes that a reason for studying past atrocities is to try to prevent similar occurrences in the future, “not to abuse history by weaponizing it for present purposes.” She told me of meeting Korean comfort women in Tokyo, in 2000, at the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery. “One of them had her tongue cut out,” she said. “Another woman literally lifted up her hanbok to show me where one of her breasts had been lopped off.” Dudden said that the tribunal was “a big watershed in terms of understanding how oral testimony really was necessary, to shift the legal approach but also in terms of doing historical evidence gathering” in the study of crimes against humanity. In some sense, such testimony of atrocities is seemingly irrefutable. But historians such as Dudden continually seek to verify it, producing knowledge of unspeakable horrors, through cycles of historical denial, political conflict, and diplomatic irresolution.

If you are a journalist covering this topic, Dr. Dudden is available to speak with media about how history is playing a role in the current controversy. Click on her icon to arrange an interview today. 

Connect with:
  • Alexis Dudden, Ph.D.
    Alexis Dudden, Ph.D. Professor, Department of History

    Professor of History specializing in modern Japan and Korea, and international history.

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