Remembering Social Movements: Activism and Memory

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    The former so-called ‘comfort women’ occupy a preeminent position in South Korean memory of colonialism. Their historical sexual subjugation at the hands of Japanese imperial forces has, in many respects, become emblematic of the brutality that characterized Japan’s colonial regime on the Korean peninsula (1910–45). The ascendant status of comfort women in national memory has manifested in manifold ways. Statues commemorating their victimhood stand in symbolic locations around the country, most notably in front of Japan’s two diplomatic missions in South Korea. Public discourse has moreover privileged the plight of comfort women over other victims of Japanese colonial policies. And at the level of the state, the matter of redress for these women has dominated Seoul’s diplo-matic agenda vis-à-vis Tokyo since the turn of the century. Given that the primary victimization of Korean comfort women occurred in the context of Japan’s imperial expansion in the 1930s and 1940s, it may come of some surprise that their ascension in colonial memory has been a relatively recent phenomenon. The comfort women system was only substantially incorporated into South Korean narratives of colonialism in the early 1990s. Up until then, this episode of history was shrouded in silence and the victimhood of the women remained largely unrecognized by the public and officials alike. This prolonged period of non-recognition cannot simply be fathomed in terms of historical am-nesia. In the post-liberation milieu of South Korea, many of the comfort women were in fact willfully shunned by their families and communities. Government officials, for their part, were disinclined to bring the issue to light despite their cognizance of the women’s fate under colonialism. It can thus be said that the virtual absence of the comfort women in national memory was more a function of suppression than oblivion.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationRemembering Social Movements Activism and Memory
    Editors Stefan Berger, Sean Scalmer, Christian Wicke
    Place of PublicationOxfordshire
    ISBN (Print)9780367541552
    Publication statusPublished - 2021


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