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Objectification of Comfort Women and the Theology of #WithYou

These protests, the victims’ testimony, and the courage of survivors remind us that it is time to turn off the powerful sound of the perpetrators’ dominant voices and tune in to the voices of the oppressed.

One of the fundamental sins of Japanese colonialism was human objectification. The Imperial Japanese army objectified the male body as a weapon to dominate new territories, beatifying their soldiers’ sacrifices with the image of cherry blossoms representing Japanese imperialism. Along the same lines, they utilized the female body to comfort Japanese soldiers who had experienced objectification. Martha C. Nussbaum identifies seven concepts associated with objectification: “Instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fungibility, violability, ownership, and denial of subjectivity.” This list demonstrates that the absence of subjectivity is the main issue for people who are objectified. For this reason, when people are used as an object in a certain situation for the sake of a people or ideology, they tend to try to recover their violated human rights by seeking experiences in which they feel they are acting as the subject. This paradigm has frequently occurred in the context of war in the form of abusing or dehumanizing the weak. It also happened in Nanjing in 1937, when Japanese soldiers committed crimes such as looting, arson, massacre, and mass rape. After this incident, Japanese armies systemically established comfort stations that offered their soldiers the opportunity to recover their subjectivity through objectification of comfort women. The Japanese military leaders did not have any interest in the victims’ stories or feelings in this process of sexual objectification; the offenders just needed the victims’ bodies to comfort the soldiers who had been sacrificed and objectified to achieve the imperial dreams of the Japanese government. The victims’ bodies were raped as many as fifty times a day, and their physical freedom was extremely limited as military supplies. Their bodies were not only sexually abused but also dominated by the political power of the offenders. Korean and Taiwanese women were the primary victims in the Japanese military comfort stations because their countries were already Japanese colonies at the time; in fact, roughly 80 percent of the victims were Korean. This demonstrates that Japanese imperialists viewed the people in their occupied territories as objects that they could use for any purpose in the empire’s quest for conquest.

One of the serious issues in this sexual objectification of Japanese military comfort women is the victims’ PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and their wounded being. They were overwhelmed by three extreme situations: war, sexual assault, and objectification based on the imbalance of political power between the Japanese military and them. The experience remained in their memories as an ontological wound that affected their whole existence, including emotions, psychology, body, and spirituality. Furthermore, most of the victims later experienced secondary victimization, which exacerbates victims’ trauma and shame through victim-blaming because of a sociocultural emphasis on the sexual purity of women based on patriarchy and Confucianism. The victims were first overwhelmed by the perpetrators during their traumatic experience in the Japanese military comfort stations and then later by their male-dominated society after the war. For these reasons, the story of the Japanese military comfort women was not revealed until 1991, when the first witness, Hak-sun Kim, testified. The victims had to hide their experiences behind the bars of patriarchy and suffer terrible shame in the Korean patriarchal society. For these reasons, the reporting rate for Japanese military comfort women is significantly lower than for other types of violence and exploitation in the Asia-Pacific War. In addition, treatment for victims’ trauma of sexual objectification is not carried out properly. Many victims are still suffering alone, fearful of sharing their experiences in public.

The victims of the Japanese military comfort stations are human beings who have the same human rights as all humans. However, objectification and secondary victimization are still ongoing issues in their lives, and Korean churches are not interested in their marginalized lives and their long, coerced silence. Judith Lewis Herman points out that people struggle to be witnesses who sympathize with the victims. She reports, “All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He speaks to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victims, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

It is a natural human desire to be on the side of the strong and powerful rather than the weak and oppressed. However, the decision to stand on the side of the perpetrator goes against the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus’ life, especially the accounts of Jesus described in the Gospel of Luke, was always with the oppressed and marginalized. Jesus was not shaken by abusers’ threats, and he showed what it truly means to be #WithYou—this is a movement that arose after the #MeToo movement, and it advocates support for the victims of sexual violence—with the victims. His last message in the Gospel of Matthew is notable: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b, NRSV). His life and this last message in Matthew remind us of the theological essence of his ministry and of Christianity: God in Christ has decided to be with humans and suffering instead of being the Divine Bystander. If he were still here physically, Jesus would sit down next to Sonyeosang—a symbolic statue memorializing the victims of Japanese military comfort stations—and create a community of solidarity and healing for the victims. Most trauma theories emphasize the importance of having a safe space and reconnecting with society through a community that is ready to share the victims’ pain. Christianity could provide a safe space and healing for the Japanese military comfort women’s broken hearts and bodies based on a consideration of the theology of #WithYou.

One of the victims of the Japanese military comfort stations, human rights activist Bok-dong Kim, who passed away in January 2019, said, “Let’s hold the hope. I will live with hope.” Our support of #WithYou will hold hope for the victims and protect us from invisible domination. Every Wednesday for the past twenty-eight years, victims who are still alive and their supporters have held vocal protests in front of the Japanese embassy in Korea to raise awareness of Japanese wartime atrocities and to call for a proper official apology and legal compensation. These protests, the victims’ testimony, and the courage of survivors remind us that it is time to turn off the powerful sound of the perpetrators’ dominant voices and tune in to the voices of the oppressed. It is our turn to stand next to the victims of the Japanese military comfort stations and become the hope to make Jesus’ theology of #WithYou real.

The Banality of Oppression: Memory, Theology, and the Suffering of Chinese Comfort Women

Remembering a future that is habitable for humanity and receptive to justice requires remembering the inconvenient past that, when surfaced, can threaten the status quo.

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.

Objectification of Comfort Women and the Theology of #WithYou

These protests, the victims’ testimony, and the courage of survivors remind us that it is time to turn off the powerful sound of the perpetrators’ dominant voices and tune in to the voices of the oppressed.

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