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Body Politics, History, Justice

A Redemptive Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31 in the Context of the Comfort Women

The survivors were oppressed and deprived of their freedom, dignity, identity, womanhood, and youth. However, they are now human rights movement activists, teachers, living testimony of the painful history, and much more.

For South Koreans, Japan comes to a particular resonance—not only in terms of a political aspect but also in terms of socio-historical and cultural aspects, after experiencing Japanese colonialism. The deep chasm between South Korea and Japan is difficult to bridge, precisely due to the political atmosphere. Central to this tension is the issue of comfort women. It is debated how to name them before even starting the argument. The appellation, “comfort women,” has become common; however, the scholars who are mostly working in the English-speaking world often point out the problematic nature of the name “comfort women” and propose “Japanese military sexual slavery” to emphasize how Japanese colonialism mistreated women. In terms of the appellation, it is worth noting the recent debates between a former comfort woman, Lee Yong Su, and the former chief director, Yoon Mi-Hyang, of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Through this debate, Lee highlights that she has never been a slave and refuses the category of comfort women. She wants simply to be called by her name. By emphasizing the forced nature of the comfort women, it quickly puts them into the victim status of naivete, passivity, and powerlessness. As Gayatri Spivak problematizes, the label of “comfort women” misrepresents them and mutes their voices. Now the public becomes more aware of the complexity of comfort women’s issues in terms of agency. Of course, the appellation of military sexual slavery is now internationally renowned; while acknowledging the vexed nature of the name, here in this essay I will use the term “comfort women” for the general public. The term, “enforced sex slaves” became internationally known when the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in July 2012 that the comfort women must be referred to as sexual slaves.

The comfort women have not remained silent; they have gathered to protest and demand an official apology and a legal reparation by the Japanese government since the 1990s. To be specific, the so-called Wednesday demonstration began Wednesday, January 1992 and has continued to the present, in front of the Japanese embassy, to gather public attention to the Japanese military’s wrongdoings during WWII against women. Starting with several survivors releasing their anger and stories of mistreatment, now the Wednesday rallies have become more organized and gathered support from various civic organizations, including activist movements. The rallies’ primary focus is to address the comfort women’s issues and demands of the Japanese government. Their needs are more about retrieving human dignity than receiving monetary compensation. Now the survivors speak for themselves and stand for others as a human activist.

The leap from victim to human activist is breathtaking. Although empowering the survivors through the Christian faith and resisting against any harm are a Christian responsibility, Korean Christianity failed to be keen on issues of human rights and to seek the justice of God. Here, as an example, I will propose reading the biblical text of Proverbs 31:10-31 as an encouragement for the church to move forward into the social realm, specifically by supporting the survivors by empowering them and their agency as human beings.

Admittedly, relating Proverbs 31:10-31 to the social issues of the comfort women may sound odd. In the Korean Christian context, ‘a capable wife (חַיִל אֵשֶׁת)’ in Prov 31:10-31 has been read as ‘a virtuous wife’ in a way that resonates with the Confucian norm of a sacrificing wife, a wise mother, and a loyal daughter-in-law. However, many of the survivors had to remove the womb, suffered from sexual diseases, and ended up not being able to be a wife or a mother. Many survivors remained single due to their traumatic experiences, being excluded from the typical, normative category of women in Korea and Korean Christianity. In this regard, Prov 31:10-31 might seem the oddest choice to help empower survivors and address their social issues.

However, here I propose Prov 31:10-31 as a redemptive reading for the survivors. Prov 31:10-31 is, on the surface, about a superwoman who provides material blessings her husband and the household with extraordinary productivity. If her outstanding productivity is the only virtue that people and God praise of her, Prov 31:10-31 would never be applied to the survivors.

Who is this woman? In a literal sense, the word, חַיִל, refers to physical and mental/moral strength, and courage, connotating an extraordinary strength characteristic of a soldier. Accordingly, this woman is a strong woman with physical and mental prowess. Regardless of the socio-historical context of ancient Israel, she is a matriarch of the family, an independent woman, and not emphasized much as a mother. Rather than her outstanding capability, she is praised for her virtue, her fear of the Lord (v. 30). Most of all, her sacrifice for the family, charity to the poor and the marginalized (v. 20) and wisdom and lovingkindness (חֶסֶד) (v. 26) are the results of her strength (חַיִל). She is far from the normative features of women today who appear forever young with the assistance of cosmetic technology. Her appearance reflects her diligence and physical strength. However, these characteristics are found in the nature of God. God is mighty (2 Sam 22:33), cares for the poor and the marginalized (Lev 19:10), and loves people (Deut 7:12).

The survivors of Japanese oppression entered the draft in order to support the family economically, and they were the teen head of the family. Due to the conspiracy of the Japanese military, their dreams ended up leaving their hearts and bodies with disastrous and traumatic experiences. They finally returned home, but they were considered guilty and shameful as women, especially in terms of sexuality, and driven to the margins of society, suffering from poverty. The woman in Prov 31:10-31 who embodies God’s characteristics appears to the survivors as a countercultural example: She is as strong and mighty as a soldier (v. 10, 29). For the survivors, everyday life must have been a battle, and they have to be a soldier, guarding their bodies and hearts to survive. She offers her hands to the poor, the marginalized, just like the survivors (v.20). Instead of wrapping herself with decorative ornaments, she is filled with confidence and dignity (v. 25) regardless of her masculine appearance (v. 17, 30), opposite to the culture. Her mouth is filled with God’s wisdom and lovingkindness that encourage and empower the survivors.

Prov 31:10-31 teaches the Christian community a valuable lesson on how to support the survivors. Part of the reason why the woman can make such a great achievement is that everyone trusts her: Her husband (v. 11), the entire household (v. 21), children (v. 28), and the whole community (v. 31). Her outstanding performance is the result of multilayered trusts and support of the community.

This reading of Prov 31:10-31 in the context of the comfort women raises a question: Is the Christian community supportive and empowering of the survivors? Prov 31:10-31 raises the question of whether the Christian community gathers to hear their stories and stand up with them to resist.

Instead of judging and criticizing the survivors based on the cultural norms and moral standards, Prov 31:10-31 asks the Christians to trust them, embrace them with lovingkindness as God.

The survivors are called halmoni, an elderly woman in Korean culture (Son, 17). For those who do not have grandchildren, just as the survivors, this appellation is a metaphorical and honorable term in the sense that it suggests that the survivors have wisdom and teachings to transmit to the next generations.

The survivors were oppressed and deprived of their freedom, dignity, identity, womanhood, and youth. However, they are now human rights movement activists, teachers, living testimony of the painful history, and much more. Their traumatic experiences made them strong, dignified, and wise. They may not be the ideal women that society expects them to be. Their chastity has been taken away, and their bodies are not suitable for child labor. However, Prov 31:10-31 is not a to-do list to be affirmed and praised as a virtuous and good woman. This scripture affirms their mode of living as strong and powerful survivors who have to navigate their lives strategically.                   

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