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Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women. A book and film. BOOK: Parkersburg, Iowa: Mid-Prairie Books. ISBN 0-931209-88-9. 1999. 212 pages. $15.00 (paperback). FILM: 35 mm (88 minutes; $85.00 + $15.00, rental), or video (57 minutes; $265.00 + $15.00, purchase). Ho-ho-Kus, NJ: Dai Sil Productions. 1999.

Reviewed by Keith Howard
SOAS, University of London


Before and during the Pacific War, up to 200,000 women were coerced by the Japanese to serve the imperial troops in military brothels in China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and elsewhere. According to most accounts, the majority of the women were Koreans, typically teenagers, and most were taken from families, schools, and friends in Korea either by force or on the promise of work in factories or for Japanese families. The euphemism 'comfort women', taken from the Japanese jugun ianfu, might better be rendered as 'military sex slaves', as the title of the Korean umbrella organisation that has sought to publicise the issue through the 1990s indicates: the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Kim-Gibson, along with most other authors and editors publishing on the subject in English, have chosen to keep the familiarity of 'comfort women'.

Kim-Gibson's book positions herself within the narrative. Hence, between the testimonies of surviving 'comfort women' whom she has interviewed, we have accounts of her struggling with police in China to be allowed to interview two surviving women, several chapters of history, comments relating her reactions and emotions as she is told about what happened to her informants, and five poems. These latter, translated from the Korean by Kim-Gibson, are by Yun Tongju (1917-1945), who, born as the eldest of four children in Yanji, China, died in Fukuoka prison after being arrested for promoting Korean independence.

The 'comfort women' Kim-Gibson talks with are referred to as 'grandmas'. The author explains this as follows: "I call them grandmas because it is a Korean custom to so refer to any woman old enough to have grandchildren. More importantly, I call them grandmas because I feel as if they are my own grandmas" (page 11). This close association is a recurring feature throughout the book, and while the author insists she does not embellish the testimonies and can disengage herself from the accounts, she admits intellectual and emotional attachment, to the extent that she accepts her responses may not be objective. Indeed, she accepts a "double subjectivity", first because of her own depth of emotion, and second since in her writing she consciously positions herself in the story. This may be acceptable in a post-modern world, but it leaves me wary. I am unsure how to treat the following comment: "Feeling the power of the [comfort women's] stories as a common experience, I made composite characters but the stories are theirs, not fiction" (page 10).

I am also surprised that published oral accounts are largely dismissed. The footnotes contain references to a number of Korean accounts, but no English-language accounts except for a couple of translations of articles from Korean Council members. The text states that most accounts are "primarily summaries of interviews conducted by scholars or journalists In the name of objectivity and scholarship, much of their stories are refined, hence taking away the raw pain and feelings from their stories. They have largely become issues, numbers, things, and objects of studies, not full blooded human beings" (page 9; grammar as published in the text). This is surely disingenuous, since there has been a considerable amount written on the issue, which ought not be avoided or dismissed without a more considered positioning. Since 1991, members of the Council have collected testimonies of surviving women, publishing several volumes; nineteen of these testimonies in translation, formed the basis of a book I edited and annotated in 1995, True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women (London: Cassell)-I am, then, obliged to argue this point in defence of my own work. Excerpts of accounts appeared in George Hick's slightly journalistic and sensationalist book, The Comfort Women (St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 1995). A number of other English publications exist, starting with the papers in Korean and Korean American Studies Bulletin 5.2/3 (Fall/Winter 1994), and including Chungmoo Choi's excellent edited volume, The Comfort Women: Colonialism, War, and Sex, published as Positions: East Asian Cultures Critique 5/1 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997). There is also a North Korean volume, admittedly with abbreviated testimonies, and containing the standard disgust at the Japanese imperialists in each of its 40 accounts: Downtrod Women's Cry: Indictment against Japanese Imperialists' War Crimes (Pyongyang: Committee on Measures for Compensation to Former Korean Comfort Women for Japanese Army and Pacific War Victims, 1995).

None of this need matter, since this is not meant as an academic text. The 'comfort women' issue remains unresolved. It is perhaps the greatest tragedy that remains from the period when Korea suffered as a colony of Japan. It is appalling that the Japanese government, while making apologies, still maintains a stance of distance, refusing to accept that the setting up and running of military brothels was authorised by the state, and insisting that a civilian fund alone be developed to pay compensation to victims. It is appalling that governments in the region, including those of Korea and China, have sought to prevent the issue coming to the surface. Kim-Gibson does a worthy job at showing the reader the different dimensions in the issue. She has conducted extensive research, over an eight year period, working with scholars and activists, interviewing official spokesmen, seeking out surviving women, and comparing the documentation and testimonies available throughout East Asia.

And yet I still find myself critical of the style of writing; surely, it does matter. A good editor could have spotted the all too common lapses in grammar, or the mis-spelling of place names (eg, Langoon, "Batavia, then known as Jakarta", Malaya). Romanisation is curious, explained in the preliminary notes in terms of "I did my own transliteration as closely as they sound without following the most common practice of using the McCune-Reischauer system". Everyone reading this will know something of the debate currently raging about romanisation, but some consistency is needed if we are to know where Chung Yang Li is (Ch'ôngnyangni?), or Dae Gu or Choong Chung.
To summarise: there is a tremendous amount in this book. Kim-Gibson has coaxed detailed testimonies from many women, and records them, sometimes in massive chunks, and at other times juxtaposing elements cut from each to develop specific ideas. She carefully adds commentary, the interviewer observing her own reactions, documenting her own emotions. The historical account, apart from squashing the entire Japanese colonial period into a single, oppressive whole, is thorough and enlightening. The focus on the lives of the women before and after their wartime experiences-a focus largely missing from other published accounts-is illuminating, both to show the reader that these were, indeed, ordinary girls at the outset of their ordeal, and to demonstrate the nightmare faced everyday since 1945 by those who survived.

And so, to the film. I have only the video to review. Moving, affecting, harrowing, powerful, overwhelming; these and other adjectives are often repeated in the many reviews that have appeared since the film was released. The video includes 36 minutes of personal testimonies from former Korean comfort women. Many are filmed in close up. One bares her back to reveal an appalling injury and botched operation sustained as she was forced to 'serve' the Japanese military; another lies in a hospital bed, with tubes in her nose to help her breathe, and laments the fact that she has forgotten how to speak Korean. She holds the hand of the interviewer. Elsewhere, tears flow. Several Japanese apologists appear, lamely mouthing denials (who are these apologists? Are they representative?); a Japanese soldier, and a Japanese teacher, argue that the practice was just as the suffering Korean women relate. The present is pictured through Seoul's high rise apartments, through rice fields and wild flowers blooming in the countryside, and as trains rumble past. The past is dramatically recreated in a series of short scenes, the most vivid of which accompanies the voice of a former comfort woman, remembering how she fainted as she watched Japanese soldiers use a sword to slit a pregnant woman from chest to womb. These vignettes, performed by actors, enhance the tales. The testimonies themselves are always compelling. One former comfort woman describes how she and others were forced to bayonet Chinese civilians. Another remembers eating human flesh. We hear how the women were duped into leaving home, how they were introduced to their new lives of servitude, lives which would gradually spiral downwards as venereal disease and more took its toll until death arrived.

The testimonies are interspersed with snippets of archival film, still black and white photographs relating specifically to comfort women, and footage of marching soldiers and the war dead. Some of those interviewed point to documents that illustrate-perhaps prove-something of what happened. There are, though, too few documents; this is one reason why many Japanese can continue to deny the dreadfulness of what comfort women endured. One scholar points out that the Japanese military would have destroyed anything that might have implicated them in an offence punishable by court martial; a Western military historian tells us that, in order to ensure the rebuilding of Japan, the Americans themselves destroyed masses of documentation, some of which he saw. And the film ends with the deaths of two of the comfort women who we have seen and heard. Throughout, suitably haunting music by the Korean-American composer Donald Sur provides a background.

The project began in November 1992. Kim-Gibson received a Rockefeller Fellowship that enabled her to travel to Korea, Japan and China to assemble material, work with women's groups, scholars and human rights activists, and to attend public demonstrations and private assembly meetings. Co-produced with Charles Burnett, the film is sub-titled in English throughout. It has won Kim-Gibson an Asian-American Media Award. It was screened on PBS in the United States on 18 May 2000, and has been screened at festivals and film centres in San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, New York, Denver, Philadelphia, Pusan, Seoul, at the Smithsonian, and at Vassar College, the University of Wisconsin, and Hampshire College, Amherst. The list, doubtless, is by now longer than that I have been able to assemble. This is actually the fifth film from Kim-Gibson; previously, and amongst others, she has written, directed, and produced documentaries about the 1992 Los Angeles troubles, looking at the perspective of Korean women shopkeepers, and about the Korean labourers moved to Sakhalin by the Japanese who then found themselves caught within the Soviet Union for 50 years (see http://koreanstudies.com/ks/ksr/ksr99-05.htm).

The first English-language documentary that I know of to deal with the comfort woman issue was prepared by the BBC in early 1992. Initially designed to explore Japanese war crimes, the documentary famously allowed official Japanese government spokesmen to damn themselves: one is unable to answer a question, and is pictured sitting in silence for almost two minutes. By June 1992, this documentary had reached Pyongyang, and choice segments were being shown, with suitable voice-overs, every evening on TV. This, of course, came after a number of Asian films, the first of which was probably Imamura Shohei's Karayuki-san (Foreign-Bound Women) from the late 1970s, in which the director travelled to Malaysia and then accompanied a former comfort woman back to Japan. In 1979, the director Yamatani Tetsuo showed the life of a Korean former comfort woman, Pae Ponggi, in his Okinawa no harumoni. In 1986, Imamura produced a feature film, Zegen, about a comfort station. Perhaps most significant, and appearing as the first Korean former comfort women were coming forward to register their past in public statements, the Korean documentary Chôngshindae arirang, by Pak Sunam, appeared in 1991.

What makes Silence Broken any different from previous films? Certainly, Kim-Gibson has benefited from the research done by the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, and by other scholars and individuals, but she is also an accomplished filmmaker, able to weave her story together, seamlessly mixing testimonies with contemporary and historical footage. To do so, she uses far more sources for information, and features in-depth testimonies from a greater number of women, moving between these as she develops specific points, than earlier films. She also builds her argument across a broad geographical area, utilising interviews and footage from Japan and China as well as Korea, unlike in earlier documentaries. And, she unrelentingly hammers home her message from beginning to end. It is this last that leaves an indelible memory for reviewers.
Kim-Gibson's film, then, is not just impressive, but vital. it is a valuable tool for all of us teaching Korean Studies. As an accompanying document to the film, the book adds substance to the visual images and verbal statements. In this respect, it is of considerable importance. But, as an academic document-and here I am assuming that many who read this review will be seeking to discover its usefulness in teaching-the book is, unfortunately, flawed; I would hope that the points I have raised above will be considered if a revised edition is printed.


Howard, Keith 2000
Review of Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women (2000)
Korean Studies Review 2000, no. 7

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