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Miriam Ransom

Further information

About the author

Miriam Ransom is a doctoral candidate in the School of Visual, Literary and Cultural Studies at Monash University. She plans to submit her thesis in March 2001.

Publication details

Volume 7, November 2000

Covering the 'Comfort Women': Asian Women as Semiotic Objects in the Discourse of the Australian Press

In this paper I examine Australian press coverage of the negotiation during the 1990s, of compensation for an estimated 200,000 women recruited throughout Asia as 'comfort women'1 for the Japanese military during the Pacific war. In analysing Australian newspaper representations of Asian others in coverage of the 'comfort women' case, I seek to uncover what such discursive production might reveal about Australian identity. Following Benedict Anderson, I consider the newspaper, that cultural artifact which constitutes the basis of a kind of secular 'communion ritual' performed by thousands of people daily, as an especially potent site of identity production. As Anderson contends, in the act of reading the newspaper, a population of otherwise diversely positioned social actors is simultaneously addressed and constructed as the interpretive subjects of a fictitious national audience.(Anderson, 1991)


Military 'comfort stations' were first created in the 1930s following Japan's invasion of China. In 1937 the Japanese Government adopted a policy for systematically establishing 'comfort stations', and the first official military brothel was built in December of that year in central China. While some comfort stations were managed by civilians, all were licensed and regulated by the Japanese military. From 1941, brothels were established in Japan's occupied territories throughout South Asia. Women from were transferred from the Korean Peninsula to China to work in the brothels from 1938. (Chin, 1997: 223-4) Most of the estimated 200,000 'comfort women' were taken from poor rural communities in North and South Korea, with Korean women comprising 80 to 90 per cent of the total number of 'comfort women'.2 The women were held in sexual service, their freedom of movement heavily restricted, and submitted to intrusive medical examinations every week, some for up to nine years. (Doglopol, 1994:14)

The first military sex slaves came forward in August 1991, and since then, over 100 women have registered with the South Korean Government as former 'comfort women'. In December 1991, three elderly South Korean women filed the first lawsuit against Japan for enslaving them in military brothels during World War Two. 3

Given that the vast majority of 'comfort women' were recruited on the Korean Peninsula, the case must be viewed in light of the Koreas' historically ambivalent role as Japan's colonial Other. Bhabha's psychoanalytically inflected conception of colonial modes of identification and authority may be usefully applied to understand this relationship. Bhabha has shown all colonial representational regimes to be ambivalent to the extent that they seek to 'incorporate' the other even as the discriminatory logic of colonial rule strives to maintain an enforced separation between coloniser and colonised. (Bhabha, 1997) This simultaneous production and disavowal of the other's difference takes on a particular character in the case of Japan's relationship with the Koreas. In Japanese nationalist discourse, Koreans have been deemed racially close and therefore capable of cultural assimilation, even as they are judged indisputably inferior. John Lie has argued that it was precisely this 'ideological combination of closeness and insistent inferiority' which facilitated the mass rape of Korean women under the comfort system, as the ambivalent objects of desire and disgust. (Lie, 1997:255)

The comfort system should also be deciphered in terms of colonial Japan's attempts, since the Korean Peninsula was incorporated as a Japanese protectorate in 1905, to obliterate the distinctive Korean language and ethnic identity. In this context, colonial Japan's drafting of Korean 'comfort women' appears as an instance of ethnic genocide, aimed at weakening Korean identity by depleting the reproductive capacities of its female population.

At the same time however, since this 'ethnic' struggle is enacted by men on women's bodies, its profoundly gendered nature must be recognised. As with any case of mass rape as a war tactic, the comfort system was crucially dependent upon the patriarchal cathecting of woman's body as man's property. Moreover, it reflects way in which women are often assigned a metonymic role as underwriters of the inviolate nation. The invasion of enemy women's bodies in war aims to leave what Hyunah Yang has described as 'a rift in the most fundamental ground of the symbolic system that sustains the enemy's group identity'. (Yang, 1998: 63) In this sense, the 'comfort women' case illustrates the discursive construction of women's bodies as semiotic bearers of culture, (Fuss, 1994: 26) by which they are symbolically reduced to the space outside history on which masculine contests are waged.(McClintock, 1995:31)

This type of construction is most transparently operative where the imperialist invasion of territory is analogised as sexual conquest or 'rape'. In this sense the violence of imperial acquisition has borrowed its rhetoric from the violence of the patriarchal imagination. Edward Said has famously shown how the sexual subjugation of oriental women by white men in the nineteenth century stood as a metaphor for the West's imperialist incursions into the Orient.(Said, 1978: 6) Feminist critics have however taken issue with the fact that in Said's account, gender and sexuality and operate as no more than tropes or metaphors for the more crucial [read: male] processes of imperialism. (McClintock, 1995: 14) Clearly, to view gender or sexuality as simple metaphors is to fail to understand the ways in which they are in themselves constitutive dynamics of imperialism. Moreover, since indigenous women are often subjected to mass rape in imperial contest, sexual conquest must be understood as a metonym for imperialism, engaging both symbolic and 'real' levels simultaneously.

The recruitment of Korean 'comfort women', however, differs in several respects from instances where rape is deployed as a strategy of imperial conquest or ethnic genocide, as in Bosnia for instance. In the first place, Korean women, already a part of Imperial Japan, were not discursively positioned as the enemy, but were instead mobilised for Japan's war effort as deishintai (volunteer corps). (Yang, 1998: 63) Secondly, the comfort system was not aimed at expropriating the women's bodies as reproductive vessels with which to accomplish the corruption of Korean identity. As Hyunah Yang notes, 'comfort women' who fell pregnant were injected with '606', a mercury containing antibiotic, to induce abortion. (Yang, 1998: 65) Under the 'comfort system' then, the bodies of feminine others were simply appropriated as Japanese 'military supply'.

In the present study, however, I am more concerned with another discursive 'othering' process. In particular, I am interested in how representations of Asian others in Australian press coverage of the 'comfort women' case, might function as sites on which Australian identity is figured. My analysis is indebted to those metaphysical and psychoanalytic notions of otherness taken up in anthropology and cultural studies from the 1970s as analytical tools for approaching questions of identity and difference. The project is specifically informed by Sartre's existentialist model of human development, in which the individual subject acquires a sense of 'self' only within a system of differences and in the presence of an other. (Sartre, 1975) Related to this is the Lacanian precept that the detour through the place of otherness is the precondition for the subject's accession to identity in the Symbolic Order. For Lacan, 'the Other' is not to be understood as pure alterity, but denotes rather the locus of intersubjectivity 'from which the question of [the subject's] existence may be posed to him [sic]'.(Lacan, 1977: 194)

Images of definitional others are therefore deployed in discourse as vehicles for the subject's existentialist meditations. In this sense, sites of textual othering arguably reveal more about the representing subject than about the others s/he purports to represent. Moreover, constructions of others are often instrumental in consolidating, by favourable comparison, the representer's own subject status.

If self-construction is always implicit in representations of others, the external unity that has operated as Australia's most durable definitional other in the post-war era has arguably been 'Asia'. 4 As Tebbutt has noted, the experience of the Pacific War left Australia with an awareness of the need for self-reliance in defence and diplomacy in the region, precipitating a shift in nationalist discourse, so that after World War Two, Australia's national imaginings were increasingly in relation to 'Asia' rather than the British Empire. (Tebbutt, 1995: 204-5) This post-war movement away from colonial origins and towards an independent regional identity, gained momentum in the 1960s, as the ABC and most Australian broadsheets appointed permanent foreign correspondents in the Asian region. (Tebbutt, 1995: 206)

Although discursive constructions of Australia's relation to 'Asia' have shifted over time, persistent fears of 'Asian invasion' in the face of a thinly veiled desire to maintain a fictive 'whiteness', lend an historical continuity to such representations. In this sense the cohesion of white Australian identity is underwritten by an indefinite deferral of engagement with the nation's threatening constitutive difference, which would deny the presence of Asians in Australia alongside the earliest European immigrants as well as thousands of years of Aboriginal settlement. Stratton reports that white settlers in the latter half of nineteenth century took exception to the number of Chinese emigrating to the colonies. (Stratton, 1998: 88) The legislative foundations of the White Australia policy were laid soon after, with the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act (1901), whose aim was the establishment of an exclusively 'Anglo-Celtic' Australian population. 5 Half a century later, nationalist discourse deployed the same rhetoric of 'Asian invasion', with Australians of the 1950s and 1960s being told they had to 'populate or perish' at the hands of the 'yellow hordes'. (Stratton, 1998: 88) And, during the 1980s the 'yellow peril' appeared in a slick new corporate guise, as significant Australian real estate holdings were acquired by Japanese investors. (Stratton, 1998: 165) The spectre of 'Asian invasion' still resonates in the Australian imaginary. It has been exploited more recently by Pauline Hanson, who targeted 'Asian' immigrants as undesirable because they fail to assimilate and create enclaves of an alien - and apparently undifferentiated - 'Asian culture', undermining what Hanson would define as 'Australian' [read: white] culture.

Indeed, 'Asia' has often been figured in Australian national imaginings as a cultural monolith, comprised of undifferentiated - and patently inferior - 'Asians'. Where it has invoked its definitional others then, the Australian discourse of nation has partaken of that homogenising impulse which Luce Irigaray has identified as marking all logocentric representational regimes. (Irigaray, 1985c: 74) However, cracks were already appearing in the monolith even before the war was over. As Annette Hamilton points out, the wartime success of Imperial Japan meant that the Japanese could not be so easily subsumed within the category of backward 'Asians'. And underpinning the imperialist rights - including to Australia - championed in Japanese nationalist discourse, lay an assumption of cultural superiority which mirrored that claimed by White Australia over its 'Asian' others. (Hamilton, 1990: 24-5) Contemporary Australian representations of Japanese others in coverage of the 'comfort women' case thus bear traces of these old wounds sustained in its World War Two encounter with Japan. In any case, ongoing discursive labour is required to shore up the always-already destabilised - and heavily invested - superior Australia / inferior Asia binary.

I am particularly interested in the gendered inflection of received practices of representational othering at work in Australian news representations. My analysis therefore attends to place occupied by the feminine in the self-other dynamic which underwrites the production of Australian identity. More specifically, I seek to understand how the figure of the 'Asian woman' might function in Australian press coverage of the 'comfort women' case as a site on which the [white, masculine] Australian subject surreptitiously inscribes itself.


News texts drawn from several major Australian metropolitan daily newspapers published in Sydney and Melbourne, including the Age, the Herald Sun (HS), the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and the Australian Financial Review (AFR) were analysed. Feature articles appearing in the Good Weekend Magazine (GWM) were also included in the sample. While the 'comfort women' issue received considerably more attention in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald than it did in the other newspapers, there was little discernible difference in the overall perspective taken on the issue between the publications.

All articles mentioning 'comfort women' published in these newspapers from January 1992 to January 1999 were collected for analysis. Of a total of 153 articles collected for analysis, only 73 featured the 'comfort women' as their main substantive topic, and the remaining 80 alluded to the case in the context of a consideration of Japan's war crimes in general, or of reporting on Japanese domestic politics, diplomacy, or trade. As I felt that this 'non-substantive' type of coverage was interesting in itself, for reasons to which the discussion will later return, these kinds of news texts were analysed together with the texts which addressed the 'comfort women' case more fully.

In total, 119 of the articles collected for analysis were authored for a specifically Australian audience, by staff reporters or by foreign correspondents stationed in Tokyo or Seoul. Editorial pieces and letters accounted for a further 18 texts in the sample. The remaining 34 articles, derived from syndicated press services such as Reuters, may be considered 'Australian' only by virtue of their circulation in this national domain.

Each of the 153 articles collected was closely examined in terms of their operative narrative, stylistic and rhetorical devices. Most of the texts built their narrative trajectories around the central theme of the failure of the Japanese adequately to acknowledge and atone for their role in World War II. In relation to this general theme, 'the Japanese' typically emerged as deluded about their role in the war, kept in the dark by a self-serving and unjust government which has consistently refused to make proper amends for the unparalleled horrors perpetrated by Japan's wartime administration. And the former 'comfort women' appear as abject victims whose innocence and youth were stolen by 'the Japanese'.

This then, was the thematic framework providing the context within which Australian news consumers were invited to make sense of the 'comfort women' case. In what follows, I outline the components of this narrative template, and examine its ideological effects, paying particular attention to the white Australian Subject's emergence at a sub-textual level in the representations.

Pedagogical moralising: judging 'the Japanese'

Various rhetorical devices are employed in the coverage to connote the Japanese Government's categorical misconduct in responding to the 'comfort women' issue. Lexical elements of apologies issued by Japanese officials are routinely dissected in the coverage in such a way as to imply their insincerity, and a recurring line of argument posits any moves towards compensating former 'comfort women' as representing nothing more than calculated attempts to win sympathy for Japan's ambitions of obtaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. (SMH, 3 April 1993: 22; HS, 13 August 1993: 18.)

Official Japan's alleged failure to atone for acts perpetrated by its military during the war is openly deplored, and it is warned that 'Japan will not be fully accepted in the world until it owns up'. (Age, 25 November 1994: 15) This patronising, pedagogic tone is not confined to editorial and opinion pieces, and many of the news texts covering the 'comfort women' case read like homilies, belying the conventionally understood neutrality of 'the news' as information transmission.

'The Japanese' are alternately chastised in the coverage for their stubborn refusal to acknowledge what is presupposed as 'the truth' of the war - 'to their shame, the Japanese have steadfastly refused to come to terms with the past' (Age, 28 January 1995: 23) - for their obfuscation of this horrifying truth with coy euphemisms - 'what the Japanese call the Pacific War, in which the Imperial Army conquered half of Asia, killing some 30 million soldiers and civilians' (SMH, 15 August 1994: 13) - and for their misplaced self-pity - 'the Japanese, prone to collective amnesia about wartime events… often see themselves as victims'. (AFR, 3 February 1995: 3) The tone of condescension discernible here is echoed in the many infantalising constructions of Japaneseness that appear in press coverage of the case.

'The Japanese' are described as 'still largely ignorant of their role in the war,' (Age, 4 August 1993: 8) and this alleged state of national delusion is routinely attributed in the coverage to the Japanese Education ministry's ruthless censorship system, (SMH, 3 July 1993: 24; SMH, 2 October 1993: 7; SMH, 23 July 1994: 32) beyond which, it is implied, lie the undisputed facts of Japan's wartime belligerence and atrocities. This notion of uncontaminated historical 'truth' is in part established in coverage of the 'comfort women' case by reference to 'Western historians' who appear as repositories of 'facts' and whose versions of history are consonant with that presupposed in the dominant narrative template. (SMH, 18 July 1994: 9)

Representing rape: victimologies of the 'comfort women'

The former 'comfort women' emerge in the coverage as incontrovertible victims. Their eminent 'rapability' is established in some texts by reference to their tender age, or to the fact that they were attending school and still in parental custody at the time of their conscription. (Age, 22 July 1994 :13; Age, 17 June 1995: 7; HS, 5 March 1998: 5) The recruitment of women for 'comfort stations' is typically represented as a violation of the sanctuary of the family home. From one text, for instance, readers learn that the Japanese military 'dragged Korean girls from their parents and tore mothers from their crying babies to take them off as prostitutes'. (SMH, 15 August 1992: 15) And in general, the women are discursively situated in the protected domain of marriage and the family, as is evinced in the description of one former 'comfort woman' as 'only seventeen and due to marry in five days when Japanese soldiers stormed into her house'. (SMH, 15 August 1992: 15)

Some texts resort to more explicit indicators of the women's chastity [read: rapability] by referring to their virginity prior to recruitment as 'comfort women'. A feature article describes 'seven frightened, exhausted girls huddled together to cry over lost virginity' following their 'first horrific night' in a comfort station. (SMH, 11 December 1992: 13) But perhaps the most exemplary rape victim is constructed by foreign correspondent Ben Hills in his description of an innocent girl who 'was raped - a virgin, before her first period - and thrown into a military brothel'. (Age, 22 July 1994: 13)

The coverage generally attaches considerable importance to the degree of force used against the women. Many of the texts thus establish the 'comfort women's' unequivocal status as 'rape victims' by invoking the conventional ideology of what constitutes 'real' rape. It is variously alleged, for instance, that the women were 'forced into submission under threat of death', (HS, 2 October 1994: 26) that they 'fought, cried and pleaded for mercy, all in vain', (SMH, 10 December 1992: 3) and made 'unrelenting, though futile, struggles to resist'. (SMH, 11 December 1992: 3) One article notes approvingly that eight Australian nurses captured after the fall of Singapore in 1942 safeguarded their chastity and courageously refused to be forced into prostitution, 'saying they preferred death'. (HS, 2 August 1992: 32)

The troping of the former 'comfort women' as victims is at times expedited in news texts by referring to the women's long held silence. 'For almost half a century the vast majority of victims have suffered silently', one article claims. (SMH, 11 December 1992: 3) Much of the coverage displays a preoccupation with the women's 'deep shame' and 'humiliation'. (SMH, 15 August and 10 December 1992: 3) South Korean former 'comfort women' are alleged in one article, for instance, to 'have kept a low profile in society because of their guilt and shame for having been sex slaves of the Japanese'. (SMH, 10 February 1993: 11) The dominant narrative template in fact constructs the Asian societies from which most of the 'comfort women' were recruited as lamentably inhumane and bigoted. Reputedly 'shamed and shunned by the conservative societies in which they live,' Asian former 'comfort women' have existed, it is claimed, as 'social pariahs'. (Age, 22 July 1994: 13) The Asian women who survived the 'comfort stations' thus appear in the coverage as doubly victimised. Violated by 'the Japanese', persecuted and 'condemned' (Age, 22 July 1994: 13) by their own communities, they emerge in the coverage as abject, broken women. 'Tortured by injury and illness; some sent mad by their ordeal… infected with venereal diseases,' as foreign correspondent Ben Hills describes them, '[s]ome committed suicide, others became insane'. (Age, 22 July 1994: 13)

This picture of abjection contrasts rather dramatically with the narrative template's representation of Dutch former 'comfort woman' Jan Ruff-O'Herne. 6 Readers are assured that Ruff-O'Herne 'led a normal life', (HS, 2 October 1994: 26) marrying a British soldier named Tom, having children, and emigrating with her 'young family' to Adelaide, where she 'made her career as a teacher in Catholic primary schools'. (SMH, 11 December 1992: 3) This account of Ruff-O'Herne's recovery of bourgeois respectability contrasts starkly with the story of a Korean former 'comfort woman' who allegedly 'turned to drugs to endure her misery', and is quoted as complaining that her experience in a 'comfort station' 'destroyed [her] both mentally and physically'. (HS, August 1992: 32) Indomitable Ruff-O'Herne appears elsewhere in the coverage describing herself as 'a joyful person' who 'wasn't going to let this ruin the rest of my life'. (HS, 2 October 1994: 26) She is credited with having single handedly 'lifted the veil on one of the most brutal, least acknowledged episodes in Japanese military history'. (SMH, 11 December 1992: 3) Furthermore, by revealing herself as a former 'comfort woman', the article contends, she 'shared her darkest secret with the world'.

'For fifty years, Jan Ruff-O'Herne has been keeping a terrible secret,' reads the tagline of an article enticingly titled 'Horror of war rape exposed'. (SMH, 14 July 1994: 22) The subtext of this allusion to a horrible secret is the patriarchal framing of rape as shameful and damaging to a woman's social worth. Even as it mounts a thinly veiled attack on Asian societies for treating former 'comfort women' as social pariahs then, the Australian press coverage itself arguably displays allegiance to the same patriarchal order of sexuality. The discursive construction of the former 'comfort women' as legitimate victims is thus in part achieved via the perpetuation of a patriarchal mythology of 'rapability'. It is also, as I shall now argue, at the expense of vilifying 'the Japanese'.

Troping otherness: orientalism at work in the texts

Some texts construct lurid - indeed, arguably gratuitous - accounts of 'horrific crimes' (HS, 5 June 1996: 30) and 'grotesque punishments' (HS, 26 February 1992: 15) inflicted on the women by 'the Japanese'. Somewhat fraudulently, texts such as these address a shocked and morally outraged implied reader, even as they facilitate his or her voyeurism. 'When women contracted diseases or suffered from malnutrition,' it is reported for example, 'the Japanese threw them into the sea or doused them with petrol and burned them alive'. (HS, 26 February 1992: 15) Texts such as this convey the impression of a seamless continuity of complicity, encouraging the attribution of blame for putative wartime atrocities to the Japanese people as a whole by enacting a slippage from Japan's wartime administration to Japan's present Government and on to 'the Japanese'.

In much of the coverage then, the discursive production of Japaneseness takes shape around constructions of sadism and inhumanity. And, underpinning these constructions is the assumption, present as a subtext in much of the coverage, that 'the Japanese' committed worse war crimes than anyone else. Allegedly responsible for 'some of the most ghastly episodes of the war', (Age, 28 January 1995: 23) the Japanese are described as 'sadistic captors' whose 'unbelievably brutality' (SMH, 27 August 1994: 19) was 'so inhumane as to defy all understanding'. (Age, 28 January 1995: 23) Many articles thus discursively situate the 'comfort women' in the thematic constellation of what is referred to as 'the horror' of Japan's war record, (SMH, 6 June 1995: 15) and significant textual space is taken up in coverage of the case by general inventories of 'Japan's World War Two atrocities'. (SMH, 6 June 1995: 15) 'Terrible things were done in the name of the Emperor,' (Age, 25 November 1994: 15) an editorial piece asserts, locating the cause of Japan's war crimes in an ancient and peculiarly oriental form of despotic power. This construction clearly has its roots in the nineteenth century orientalist imaginary, and is echoed in subsequent coverage of the case. 'In the name of the Emperor and the Samurai cult of Bushido,' a later article recapitulates, invoking the spectre of a mysterious oriental warrior cult, the Japanese Imperial Army 'committed some of the most barbaric crimes humanity has witnessed'. (SMH, 18 February 1995: 30)

The reproduction of racist stereotypes is not confined to the discursive construction of 'the Japanese', but is also evident in representations of the 'comfort women' themselves. In particular, the Australian press treatment of the Asian former 'comfort women' is generally unsympathetic and frequently pejorative, contrasting markedly with the overwhelmingly adulatory representation of the Australian survivor of the 'comfort stations', Jan Ruff O'Herne.

Korean former 'comfort women' are reputed to harbour 'hatred' for 'the Japanese'. (SMH, 7 February 1996: 11) Former 'comfort women' from Korea, the Philippines, China and Southeast Asia are described as having come forward to 'demand retribution', (Age, 22 July 1994: 13) protesting in explosive demonstrations and becoming embroiled in 'angry confrontation' with Japanese Government officials. (SMH, 6 June 1996: 10; Age, 6 June 1996: 10) The coverage makes frequent reference to the Asian women's mercenary demands for individual cash payment, (SMH, 3 April, 1993: 22; Age 16 December 1994: 8; Age 16 June 1995: 8) and cash amounts offered by the Japanese Government are reputed to have been 'condemned as derisory' (SMH, 6 June 1996: 10) and 'insufficient' (Age, 6 June 1996: 10) by leaders of Asia's 'comfort women'. Ben Hills in fact quotes a Korean woman bitterly complaining that '[e]ven if the Japanese gave us their entire country, that could never compensate'.(Age, 22 July 1994: 13)

While Asian former 'comfort women' are troped in the coverage as rancorous and vengeful, European survivor Jan Ruff-O'Herne emerges as the narrative template's saintly and forgiving heroine. 'Beaten and raped by soldiers in a Japanese military brothel during World War two, an Australian woman wants to see her tormentors' country welcomed to next years VE celebrations,' reads the heart rending tagline of a feature article on Ruff-O'Herne entitled 'Forgive, urges sex slave'. (HS, 2 October 1994: 26) Explicitly juxtaposing Ruff-O'Herne's conduct with that of her Asian counterparts, another text extols the virtues of the Australian's comparative stoicism. 'Her message was different' [read: superior], the text affirms. 'Where others had spoken of revenge and hatred for the Japanese,' Ruff-O'Herne, it proclaims admiringly, 'merely sought their frank admission of the truth and reconciliation'. (SMH, 11 December 1992: 3)

Moreover, the dominant narrative template casts Ruff-O'Herne as a champion of the rights of her powerless Asian sisters in need of a white saviour. Her noble decision to 'go public' is construed in the coverage as a self-sacrificing gesture made in response to her having seen the first Korean women 'sobbing for justice' on television. (SMH, 14 July 1994: 22) It is alleged then, that Ruff-O'Herne spoke out in order to rescue the inarticulate Asian women from obscurity:

'Japan wouldn't listen to the Korean women,' she says. 'I mean, what are Koreans to Japan? Nothing. But when European women come forward and say, "wait a minute, you didn't only do that to Asian women, you did that to European women, to Dutch girls, too," I knew they would sit up and listen … When I spoke out in Tokyo, the whole world was there, wanting to know the truth - radio and television. They weren't taking that much notice before because they were "only Asian comfort women". It's terrible to say, but that's the truth'. 7

Silencing the subaltern

Yet the racist double standard Ruff-O'Herne identifies here is only perpetuated in the Australian press coverage. One text for instance pronounces that Ruff-O'Herne has 'made the most powerful impact as the first non-Asian victim to go public,' and commends her 'powerfully controlled presentation' at the Tokyo hearing. (SMH, 11 December 1992: 3) More fundamentally, however, the coverage generally denies the Asian 'comfort women' the kind of three-dimensionality it accords Ruff-O'Herne.

Ruff-O'Herne is quoted extensively, discussing the psychological effects of her experience as a 'comfort woman', and expressing opinions about the wider political context of rape as a war crime. (SMH, 14 July 1994: 22) Where Asian women appear in the coverage by contrast, they are seldom quoted as sources. While it must be conceded that Ruff-O'Herne is more accessible to the Australian media, since she speaks English and has made a documentary about her experience, the coverage nevertheless reflects what critics have identified as the general silence of women who are also racial others in the mainstream news media. (Rakow and Kranich, 1991) In any case the representation of Asian 'comfort women' lacks complexity and is iconographic and overdetermined. They tend to appear in the texts as unilateral victims, reduced to the sum of the abuses they once suffered in the comfort stations, 'now ill and alone', (Age, 22 July 1994: 13) 'mostly ailing, living in appalling conditions'. (SMH, 15 August 1992: 15) Those who have offered their testimony for voyeuristic consumption at public hearings are described as 'aged, weeping women'. (Age, 5 August 1993: 11)

With the exception of one article which alludes to a former 'comfort woman's' involvement in the Philippine underground then, the coverage reproduces the conventional understanding of war-making as an exclusively masculine endeavour, an equation in which women figure only as casualties. While their testimonies might constitute a potential counter-discourse which would challenge such received wisdoms, the Asian 'comfort women' do not appear as speaking Subjects, but remain deeply in shadow.

Moreover, by examining the 'comfort women' case in terms of Japan's failure to atone for its war crimes in general, the dominant narrative template renders the women's experiences peripheral to what is truly newsworthy. The 'comfort women' issue tends to be cathected into the sphere of 'international relations' along with trade and security matters. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, just over half of the news texts analysed alluded only briefly to the 'comfort women' case in the context of a consideration of Japanese war crimes, domestic politics, diplomacy, or trade. I contend that the 'comfort women' are discursively constructed in these texts as a kind of currency of international relations. Their bodies are discursively appropriated as the property of the nation, and their own rights to reparation are marginalised. In this sense, their representation in Australian news texts exemplifies what Irigaray has identified as the hom(m)sexuality of the social order, which is premised upon the constitution of women as 'fetish-objects, inasmuch as, in exchanges, they are the manifestation and the circulation of a power of the Phallus, establishing relationships of men with each other'. (Irigaray, 1985d: 183) The 'comfort women' thus stand in the discourse of the Australian press as symptomatic of the phallic order which ensures that women have existence 'only as an occasion for mediation, transaction, transition, transference, between man and his fellow man'. (Irigaray, 1985b: 193)

Exonerating the Australian Subject

In any case, if the Japanese and Korean governments are chastised in Australian newspapers for their willful neglect of the 'comfort women', the same criticism could be justifiably leveled at the governments of the western allies. The failure of the allied powers to take any action against those responsible for the comfort system must be understood as a consequence of American security interests in the region after the war, which had the effect of muffling debate over Japan's war crimes in general. Critics have alleged that minimal restitution was extracted from Japan after world war two in order to facilitate its use as a capitalist stronghold from where Asia could be defended against the encroachments of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. (Won Soon, 1997, Chin, 1997, Yang, 1998)

More fundamentally, however, the fact that the architects of the comfort system escaped the war crimes trials with impunity points to the exclusionary devices at work in the discourse of western humanism that effectively disqualify both Asians and women from the category of 'human'. Won Soon Park has called attention to the racism of the war crimes trials, noting that most of the suits brought by Japan's former colonies were dismissed by juries that were almost entirely composed of representatives from the Western Allied camp. (Won Soon, 1997)

The comfort women's invisibility at the trials must also be viewed in the context of the belated encoding of rape as an indictable war crime. Rape, as feminists have insisted, is always a political act which cannot be isolated from power politics, even outside its tactical deployment in war as a means of undermining resistance and attacking cultural integrity. (Nordstrom, 1996) Yet the modern formulation of human rights was premised on the delineation of 'public' and 'private' spheres and the exemption of the latter from scrutiny, thus ensuring that sexual violence was cathected into the sequestered domain of 'the personal'. (Doglopol, 1994)

The allies' deafening silence on the matter of the comfort stations has compounded the women's suffering. Furthermore, it seems likely that allied troops themselves made extensive use of the comfort system infrastructure. Certainly the rapid growth of organised prostitution in postwar Japan was stimulated by the allied military presence. (8) Yet the involvement of the allies is almost entirely obscured, and nowhere in the Australian press coverage is it suggested that western governments bear any responsibility for helping to make restitution in the present. Instead, the dominant narrative template elects to explain the comfort system by deploying racist tropes of 'oriental cruelty'.

Some texts implicitly encourage the attribution of blame for the comfort stations to uniquely 'Japanese' attitudes towards women and sex, by invoking the 'comfort women' case in the context of a critical focus on sexual politics in contemporary Japan. Observing that '30,000 Korean women were traded to Japan last year at the same time that Korean "comfort women" from world war two were seeking compensation for being forced into prostitution by the Japanese,' for example, one article implies that male sexuality in contemporary Japan is marked by the same exploitative drive that engendered the comfort system half a century earlier. (HS, 6 April 1993: 21) Similarly, Japanese men are constructed as inveterate sexual predators in an article covering the publication of a Japanese guide to sex tourism in Thailand - whose first two editions, readers are pointedly told, 'sold out 250,000 copies in a matter of weeks'. (SMH, 1 April 1995: 30) The allegation of an historical continuity of sexual violence and exploitation is explicitly made in the text where the leader of a group called 'Friends of Thai Women' is quoted certifying that 'nothing has changed since the days of the "comfort women"'. It is further implied, in a report on the Japanese army's plans to issue condoms to soldiers on peace keeping missions, that exploitative sexual relations are still officially sanctioned. The text cites unidentified 'feminists and intellectuals' who claim the plan amounts to 'government approved shopping for sex', reminiscent of the wartime policy making that gave rise to the 'comfort stations'. (HS, 16 August, 1992: 27)

By representing this type of organised sexual exploitation as a 'Japanese' problem, the Australian press coverage of the 'comfort women' case contributes to an 'othering' process by which critical attention is deflected from the ethic of exploitative sexuality that is institutionalised in military systems worldwide. Instead, 'the Japanese' are vilified as cruel and exploitative sexual predators, and pitted against the rights of the former 'comfort women'. The Australian subject is exempted from this critical matrix altogether, emerging instead as a benevolent and just arbiter. The representations thus institute a Manichaean binary, such that 'the Japanese' stand in contrast to the implicit self-representation of the white Subject (the omniscient narrator) and to the implied Australian reader, who is constructed via a mode of address designed to provoke his or her liberal-humanist indignation.

The Australian press coverage of the 'comfort women' case thus has the net ideological effect, at the level of identification, of shoring up the identity of the White Australian Subject by reference to inferior 'Asian' others. This discursive operation is finally contingent upon the media's perpetuation of the former 'comfort women's' silence. Their silence, indeed, might be understood as the constitutive possibility of the discourse. Returning to Irigaray, denying woman the subjectivity speech might afford 'indisputably … provides the financial backing for every irreducible constitution as an object: of representation, of discourse, of desire'. (Irigaray, 1985a: 133)

Attempts to restore the former 'comfort women's' voices by offering their testimonies for voyeuristic public consumption however, is clearly problematic. Referring to a case of seven Croatian women who committed suicide after being interviewed by male foreign correspondents about their experience of rape in war, Carolyn Nordstrom warns that 'we must take care not to reproduce systems of violence in speaking about them'. (Nordstrom, 1996: 149) Yet by commodifying the former 'comfort women' as a spectacle even as it strips them of subjective interiority, the Australian press coverage of the case has done precisely that. The former 'comfort women' stand as the overdetermined, mute ground from which the discursive production in which the sovereignty of the Subject is realised proceeds.

The 'comfort women's' silence, which remains unbroken at the conclusion of this paper, is emblematic of the current crisis of representation, such that any attempt to rescue a suppressed subaltern voice from obscurity is fraught. The speech of the other is refracted through that of another representing Subject, the academic who 'discloses' it, and although it seeks to 'speak the text of female exploitation', (Spivak, 1988: 288) such a project, benevolently 'postcolonial' or otherwise, necessarily entails the kind of 'manipulation of female subject-constitution' (Spivak, 1988: 305) which has occasioned Spivak's contentious claim:

The subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with 'woman' as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish. (Spivak, 1988: 308)

In this context, the task of the postcolonial academic cannot be to transparently 'render vocal the individual'. (Spivak, 1988: 308) To argue otherwise would be to betray the kind of dangerous 'nostalgia for lost origins' (Spivak, 1988: 307) which would finally only replace one homogenising episteme with another. This paper has therefore not arrived at a solution for restoring the 'comfort women's' lost voices. Insulated within the privileged, hegemonically white enclosure of an Australian University, I can responsibly neither 'speak for' nor even 'listen to' these subaltern women. Instead, I have attempted to track the itinerary of their silencing, and the interests this serves, in the discourse of the Australian press.


1. While this problematic term, used by both the United Nations and the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Sexual Slavery by Japan - a translation of the Japanese word ianfu - is a euphemism which conceals thousands of women's suffering as military sex slaves, I follow Norma Field in using it in order to 'preserve the linguistic history' (Field , 1997: 46). I suspend it in quotation marks in order to place it under interrogation as a site of epistemic violence.

2. However, women in Japan, Taiwan, China, Manchuria, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have also registered as former sex slaves for the Japanese military. (Yang, 1998)

3. At the date of writing, these three were the only women to have been directly compensated by the Japanese Government, receiving payments of $3,540 each in April 1998. See Sydney Morning Herald, 28 April 1998, p. 12.

4. I suspend the term 'Asia' in quotation marks in order to emphasise its status as a western construct, lacking any referent in the 'real'.

5. The term 'Anglo-Celtic', made popular in the 1980s under official multiculturalism, is in fact exclusive to Australia. As Stratton notes, it was adapted from 'Anglo-Saxon' in the nineteenth century by Irish settlers who sought to proclaim their insider status. While its earliest use was ironically 'by a subordinate group insisting on their syncretic presence within the dominant culture' then, it is contemporarily deployed not as a 'tactic of inclusion but as a strategy of exclusion'. (Stratton, 1998: 38)

6. Of course Ruff-O'Herne's representation in itself reveals much about the gendered inflection of white Australian identity. However, consideration of this issue is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper.

7. Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 1994, p. 22. Ruff-O'Herne's claim is in fact supported by the fact that the only war crimes tribunal ever to investigate the case considered evidence exclusively from a group of Dutch women, overlooking the existence of Asian 'comfort women' altogether.

8. In fact one of the first acts of Japan's postwar cabinet was to resuscitate the comfort divisions in a new guise, for the benefit of the occupation forces. Thus was the Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA) created as both a foreign exchange earner and a kind of preemptive 'shock absorber', protecting Japanese women from lascivious allied troops. (Lie, 1997: 257-9)


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