Global Voices: Channeling ‘comfort women’ amid new controversy

South Korean women used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II rallied outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to protest Japanese politicians' recent comments diminishing their abuse. The plight of the so-called comfort women is a subject of the novel "Sunday Girl" by Korean American writer Kalliope Lee.
(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

A Korean American author’s reverie on the victims of World War II sexual enslavement has landed in e-book form in the midst of fresh controversy provoked by a Japanese politician’s defense of “comfort women” as necessary for wartime discipline and morale.

Kalliope Lee’s “Sunday Girl” is set in Seoul in 1991, decades after the war’s end. It tells the story of two young women who have returned to their birthplace after growing up in the American heartland.

Sibyl, whose Korean mother and GI father have imparted a sanitized version of their postwar meeting during his service at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, is in search of the secrets of her heritage, which were lost with her mother’s early death from cancer. Jang-Mee, adopted from a rural orphanage at age 4 and brought up in small-town Minnesota, has come to look for her birth mother, whom she recalls through fragmented memories she has meticulously nurtured.


Their stories veer through a South Korean capital freshly invigorated by an economic boom and successful hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics. But their physical and psychological journeys take them to darker times in their homeland, confronting them with memories of wartime rape and mutilation they come to believe they carry in their blood. Like the curve of an eyebrow or the shape of a chin, the trauma of sexual enslavement endured by as many as 200,000 Asian women during the war is related to the reader as an experience replicated in subsequent generations. The past haunts women spared the firsthand suffering by what Lee calls a mere quirk of time.

Her novel is a work of fiction, but the channeling of the comfort women’s abuse is so intimate and graphic as to seem at times like narrative history. It captures the essence of women caught between two cultural identities and traveling into the realm of the surreal.

“I can feel in my heart their suffering, the rage of those who died in the ordeal, silenced by shame,” Sibyl conveys upon learning of the comfort women’s ordeal in the novel. The shame “finds its way, slips through the pores of the living, surviving as a quiet virus in the blood, silently passed on, stealing bodies and voices, ruining lives as theirs have been ruined, until the apocalypse is complete.”

A Generation X scholar of Greek tragedy, like narrator Sibyl, Lee spoke with The Times about “Sunday Girl” and the legacies of Korean and American culture that led her to write it.

Question: What was your inspiration for writing the book? Did you hear stories growing up about the sexual enslavement of Korean women before and during World War II?

Lee: No stories were passed down to me. I was brought up in near silence, as far as my parents’ past and the war were concerned. I think there was a lot of trauma they went through, that they chose not to remember. And I didn’t ask. There seemed to be this kind of invisible fence I couldn’t cross. Then when I heard about the comfort women, in the 1990s, my reaction was so visceral, it was almost seismic. I felt the tragedy immediately in my body. I had always wanted to be a writer and I felt like I needed to lend my voice to their stories. After the brutal trauma they experienced, the second trauma was their silence, due to the shame. It prevented any kind of healing.

Q: Are any of the stories or resources referred to in the book historical accounts or are they all purely fictional? The diary of Dr. Noh Young-Soo has such an authentic ring to it.

Lee: It is purely fictional. One of my writing professors was E.L. Doctorow. The best advice he gave me was not to do my research beforehand, that it would weigh me down. But I did read a lot of war narratives and assimilated it all.

Q: The book is threaded with mystical elements, the notion that blood can carry memory and pass it down through the generations like physical traits. Do you feel experiences of women in previous generations?

Lee: Mysticism is something I’ve been quite skeptical about, as is Sibyl. But I have to say that the active creation and writing led me to believe otherwise, that I have this soul that has experienced many things that I have not. That’s why I can write about it with such knowledge. I felt like there were these unremembered dead within me. The ones that died tragically, penniless. They were people who suffered tremendously and were not able to talk about it. I intuited, though I had no personal experience, that they were my ancestors. When I first heard about the comfort women, something within me was speaking, asking me to write about it.

Q: There are scenes of sadomasochism as well as sexual violence involving Sibyl. Is she trying to channel the blood memories of the abuses suffered by the comfort women?

Lee: This was very difficult for me, almost a sacrifice. But I think that divulging some of these topics, which are quite taboo, is very healing. Shame is at the threshold of taboo. Sibyl is able to break through it by enacting the most shameful experiences she can think of.

Q: There is a parallel story in the book about adoption of Korean children by Americans and the influence that has had on the grown children’s identity. Do you see the stories of sexual enslavement and the proliferation of adoptions as connected?

Lee: They share the element of shame, of sex before marriage, and when a child came, there was a need to hide that evidence of shame. Most of the children given up for adoption came from unmarried women. If you were a Korean woman, your future was entirely dependent on finding a man who would help you survive. If you had sexual relations – God forbid you got pregnant – no man was going to look at you. You were used goods. Christmas cake, as the Japanese say: something no one wants after the holiday.

Q: Why is the story of the two young Korean American women set in 1991?

Lee: That was the year when Kim Hak-soon came forward, the first comfort woman to tell her story. I wanted there to be a revelation at the end of the book. There was so much going on in 1991 – the first Gulf War, with a lot of American soldiers still in Korea talking about the possibility of getting shipped off to the [Persian] Gulf. My novel is very much in that zeitgeist, the main motif not being just about comfort women but about how wounds that are not dressed and healed will recur and get passed down.

Q: The mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, has revived the controversy over Japan’s treatment of the comfort women with his recent remarks in defense of the provision of sex slaves to soldiers during World War II. Does this scandal recur all these years later because there hasn’t been full apology and restitution for Japan’s wartime actions?

Lee: Hashimoto is a bit hotheaded, quite extreme. But Japan has really sidestepped legal responsibility throughout various prime ministers’ terms. They have paid lip service and expressed regret over what happened and set up some kind of compensation fund. But they have not admitted in categorical terms that what occurred was an atrocity. That’s why many of the surviving comfort women won’t take the money.

Right-wing militarism seems to be growing in Japan. Hashimoto’s comments made me reflect on the disparate ways that postwar Germany and postwar Japan have dealt with their criminal pasts. In Germany, genocide denial is a crime. Germany has educated its children that the Holocaust happened and that it was an atrocity. I have German friends who still feel tremendous shame about what happened. The difference with Japan is that shame and honor are inculcated in Japanese culture. The antidote to shame is ritual suicide, an act of honor. Some of the right-wing politicians in Japan believe that if they admit their country committed atrocities during the war that that would dishonor their ancestors.

Japan and Korea have such a difficult, dark past. Korea feels raped by Japan. The comfort women issue is so provocative and incendiary because they are the living symbols of Japanese colonialism. If you think of territory, of a country, women are a resource of that country. They are the ones who give birth to its citizens. I’ve always seen this corollary between colonialism – the usurpation of territory – and the rape of women. I don’t think Korea will ever be able to forgive Japan until Japanese leaders show honest contrition.