In Just Two Minutes, My Eyes Were Opened to Why Resolving the Comfort Women Issue is so Necessary for Japan’s #MeToo

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Image by Jr Korpa on Unsplash.

For sixteen years, I’ve maintained a strict policy of never covering anything related to the “comfort women” issue. I already have my fair share of trolls, thank you very much, so don’t need to add Japanese and Korean ultra-nationalists to the mix.

With this convenient out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude though, I recently realized I’ve been missing a crucial connection to present discourses about sexual violence today, especially in Japan.

It just took two minutes, taken from the New Book Network’s podcast interview of Robert O’Mochain and Yuki Ueno about their book Sexual Abuse and Education in Japan: In the (Inter)National Shadows (Routledge, 2022):

“The fixation with depicting comfort women as fake victims has repercussions for survivors of sexual assault today. Even if victims of abuse are not aware of comfort women issues, they are aware of the danger of being labeled a higaisha-buru (“fake victim”), and in the book we show how the association of ideas between ex-comfort women, and fake victims, and contemporary women who report sexual assault, is still a factor in the silencing of women, who have a right to report sexual assault, but…they remain in the shadows.

And, I think a good illustration of how this is relevant still today, is something that happened in 2020. There were prominent members of the main political party, the LDP, and there was an event there on a program that was looking at (unintelligible Japanese term?) through comfort women issues, and when the issue was under discussion a member of the House of Representatives, Sugita Mio, she made the comment “Women can lie as much they want.” Now she did issue an apology later for saying [that], but she wasn’t censured by her party for the comment. They actually refused to receive a petition against her then, when it came to the LDP headquarters…she is still around—she continues to exert influence as a lawmaker in the Diet. And the comment [about the refusal?] was “Why do you report it?”, so it’s part of public discourse. So I think it indicated there’s a determination there amongst ultra-conservative groups to depict ex-comfort women as fake victims, to cast doubt on their oral evidence, and that will affect all sexual assault survivors. I think that’s an important question that we’re exploring in the book.”

(Robert O’Mochain speaking,16:24-18:33)

Unfortunately for those of you who likewise now want to get their hands on said book, I think I speak for most of us when I say US$160$204 is slightly out of our price range ㅠㅠ. So too, even US$44$50 for a copy of Voices from the Contemporary Japanese Feminist Movement edited by Emma Dalton and Caroline Norma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) that I’ve long had my eye on, when you realize it’s only 141 pages long!

I therefore recommend the podcast interview again then, for more on links to the relative failure of Japan’s #MeToo movement (also Lile Otaki Donohue’s article in Trinity Women & Gender Minorities Review for an excellent 8-page summary and comparison with other countries), and the Daiwa Foundation’s video below for short interviews of the contributors to Voices:

Finally, it’s my birthday next week on—yes, really—International Women’s Day(!), so I think one source on Japan’s #MeToo movement even I can indulge myself on is the self-explanatory Black Box: The Memoir That Sparked Japan’s #MeToo Movement by Ito Shiori :)

Has anyone read any of those books? Or have any other recommendations? Can any Japanese speakers please help with the term I couldn’t make out in the podcast at 17:25? Thanks!

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

ZOOM TALK: “Working Women and Young Industrial Warriors: Daily Life and Daily Work in 1940s Pusan,” Fri 7 October 7pm (EST)/Sat 8 October 1am (KST)

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Source: Institute for Korean Studies at Indiana University @Facebook.

(Please see the Institute for Korean Studies for further information, contact details, and registration link.)

From now on, I’ll be posting information here about every upcoming Zoom talk I’ll be attending personally. And this particular one, how could I not shout from the rooftops about it, despite its horrible hour? Not only is it a rare one for focusing on Busan, my home for two decades, but it also covers wartime Korea. Which in hindsight, is a period I’ve severely neglected, sandwiched as it were between the Modern Girls and New Women of the 1920s and 1930s and the birth of Modern Korea.

Meanwhile, for information about any further upcoming Korea and East Asia-related public Zoom talks, I have to recommend Pusan National University professor CedarBough Saeji, who makes a real effort to inform everyone about as many as she can through her Twitter account. To make sure you don’t miss out, please follow her there @TheKpopProf.

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

One Quick Thing You Absolutely Must Read to Understand Modern East Asia

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Original image source: The Chosun Ilbo, August 2015. For a discussion, see here.

It’s not often that one brief book chapter helps your whole degree make sense overnight. Even less often that someone will rescue a nearly 30 year-old, long since out of print tome from obscurity and offer that chapter as a free download.

Let me thank Shuyi Chua of the Education University of Hong Kong then, for providing a scan of Manuel Castells’ “Four Asian tigers With a Dragon Head: A comparative analysis of the state, economy, and society in the Asian Pacific Rim,” from R. Appelbaum & J. Henderson (eds.), States and development in the Asian Pacific Rim (1992). Not only did it give me one of my first genuine Eureka moments at university, but it’s still so relevant and helpful today that it took pride of place in my recent presentation above, and hence my finding Chua’s link.

(It’s probably still technically illegal to offer it publicly though, which is why I’ve never done so myself. So take advantage while you can!)

Let me also thank Professor Michael Free and his students at Kangwon National University, for the opportunity to wax lyrical about some of my favorite topics to them. If anyone reading would also like me to present to their students sometime in person or via Zoom, if for no other reason than to remind them that it’s not just you that gets excited about your subjects, please give me a buzz.

Finally, a big apology to everyone for not writing for so long. With so little physical social interaction over the summer, and with even what face-to-face contact I do get now almost entirely confined to my family and students, then frankly the weeks and months somewhat blurred into one another, making it difficult to pay much attention to the deadlines I set myself on the (always too many) posts I have in the pipeline. Inspired by my work on the presentation now though, I will try very hard to have one of my longer and more thought-provoking ones ready for you next week.

Until then!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Zoom Talk: Migrant Conversions: Money, Religion, and Global Projects of Peruvians in South Korea (2020) by Erica Vogel, 9am Friday 12 March Korean Time

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

So many of you recently responded to hearing about Erica Vogel’s amazing open-access book, which taught me so much about a community that frankly I didn’t know existed, as well as a great deal about Korean immigration and religion in the process, that I couldn’t not tell you about her upcoming talk about her book (registration link):


Peruvian migrant workers began arriving in South Korea in large numbers in the mid-1990s, eventually becoming one of the largest groups of non-Asians in the country. Migrant Conversions shows how despite facing unstable income and legal exclusion, migrants have come to see Korea as an ideal destination, sometimes even as part of their divine destiny. Faced with a forced end to their residence in Korea, Peruvians have developed strategies to transform themselves from economic migrants into heads of successful transnational families, influential church leaders, and cosmopolitan travelers. Set against the backdrop of the 2008 global financial crisis, Migrant Conversions explores the intersections of three types of conversions—monetary, religious, and cosmopolitan—to argue that migrants use conversions to negotiate the meaning of their lives in a constantly changing transnational context. As Peruvians carve out social spaces, they create complex and uneven connections between Peru and Korea that challenge a global hierarchy of nations and migrants. Exploring how migrants, churches, and nations change through processes of conversion reveals how globalization continues to impact people’s lives and ideas about their futures and pasts long after they have stopped moving or after a particular global moment has come to an end.


Erica Vogel is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California. She is a cultural anthropologist who conducts fieldwork in South Korea, Peru, and Mexico looking at issues of globalization, migration, religious conversion, and transnational flows between Asia and Latin America. She is the author of Migrant Conversions: Transforming Connections Between Peru and South Korea (UC Press 2020). Her current project is funded by a grant from Mellon/ACLS and is called “K-Pop in Mexico: Creating and Consuming Globalization through La Ola Coreana.”

As personal testament to the book’s quality, this is actually the second talk of hers I’ll happily attend, despite them probably being almost identical. Hope to see you there! :)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Go Book a Chance to See “Portrait of a Beauty” Right Now. No, Not the Movie.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Images, L-R: a “Gangnam beauty”; the original “Mi-in-do/Portrait of a Beauty” by Sin Yun-bok; and a poster of the 2008 movie of the same name. Sources: Awesome Pick, 기냥 보는 재미…원미동통신, and 연예계 뒷담화.

I’m working on a piece about a very rare, arguably feminist example of 18th Century Korean Rückenfigur art at the moment, as one does. The artist Yun Yong, some claim, was the real painter behind “Portrait of a Beauty,” not the much better-known—but still awesome—Sin Yun-bok.

Or so I thought, until I learned that controversy was actually about the “Gosan (고산) Portrait of a Beauty,” which looks very similar and often has the “Gosan” omitted from its title (sigh).

Either way, Google perused my complicated browsing history, put two and two together, and alerted me to this news video about a week-long exhibition of it going on at the National Museum of Korea at the moment:

Apologies that I’m only just finding out about it now, and that this provincial Busanite has no information about how to book tickets to Seoul museums. But for the determined, hopefully there’s still some spaces available for the remaining three days of the exhibition.

Update: Here is the link to book tickets :)

다시 문 연 박물관…’미인도’ 내일부터 연장 전시 Museum Reopens Its Doors, “Portrait of a Beauty” Extended Exhibition Begins Tomorrow

Saturday October 3

[앵커] 한국의 모나리자로 불리는 ‘미인도’가 내일(5일)부터 국립중앙박물관에서 다시 관람객들을 맞이합니다.

Anchor: Called the Korean Mona Lisa, “Portrait of a Beauty” welcomes visitors again at the National Museum of Korea from Monday the 5th. [James—Not technically “tomorrow”; YTN got its dates wrong!]

코로나19 여파로 닫혔던 박물관이 다시 문을 열면서 특별전시회 기간도 조금 연장했습니다.

As the original exhibition ended prematurely when the museum was closed in the summer due to the Corona-19 pandemic, this special exhibition was slightly extended.

김혜은 기자가 보도합니다.

Reporter Kim Hye-eun reports.

[기자] 구름 같은 가체 머리에 둥글고 앳된 얼굴, 살포시 아래를 향한 얇고 긴 눈매.

Reporter Kim: A cloud-like gachae [traditional Korean wig] with a round and youthful face, and thin, long eyes looking gently downwards.

웃는 듯 아닌 듯 속내를 알 수 없는 표정이 백미입니다.

The viewer not being able to tell is she is smiling or not, her impenetrable expression is one of the highlights of the painting.

목 뒤의 잔머리나 붉은 삼작노리개를 매만지는 섬세한 손 등 세밀한 묘사가 돋보입니다.

The extraordinary detail of the depiction stands out, such as in the fine hair at the back of the neck, and in the delicacy of the hand with which she’s tying the red three-piece norigae [a traditional ornament worn by women].

조선 후기 고관대작들의 초상화에나 사용했던 세밀화 기법이 여인의 초상화에 등장한 겁니다.

In the late Joseon Dynasty, this technique of incorporating small details was used in portraits of high-ranking women.

[강경남 / 국립중앙박물관 학예사: 머리털 한 올 한 올, 한복의 깃까지 굉장히 아름다운 색을 쓰고 세필로 정성스럽게 그려 넣은 것을 알 수 있습니다.]

Gang Gyeong-nam, National Museum of Korea Curator: “You can see that each hair and the collar of the hanbok were carefully drawn, and painted in beautiful colors. Great attention was paid to the fine writing too.”

Image source, cropped: Joo Jaebum @Behance; (CC BY-NC 4.0)

그림 속 여인은 기생이라고 추정할 뿐 아직 밝혀진 건 없습니다.

The woman in the picture is presumed to be a gisaeng, but no information has ever emerged about her.

간송문화재단에서 보관하던 ‘미인도’는 지난 8월 국립중앙박물관에 3주 일정으로 특별 전시됐지만, 코로나19 탓에 나흘 만에 볼 수 없었습니다.

“Portrait of a Beauty,” which was kept by the Kansong Art and Culture Foundation, was to be specially exhibited at the National Museum of Korea last August for three weeks, but the exhibition had to close after just four days due to the Corona-19 pandemic.

지난주부터 박물관이 다시 문을 열면서 ‘미인도’는 11일까지 1주일 동안 다시 전시됩니다.

With the museum reopening last week, “Portrait of a Beauty” will be exhibited again for a week until Sunday the 11th.

박물관 측은 국보와 보물 83건을 볼 수 있는 큰 전시인 만큼 특별전 기간을 오는 11일까지로 연장해놓았습니다.

The museum has extended the exhibition due to its large size, with 83 national treasures on display.

긴장감이 감도는 투전판, 옷섶을 풀어헤친 채 장기 두는 승려를 그린 김득신의 풍속화와, 지금의 청운동인 인왕산 기슭 청풍계를 담은 정선의 작품도 만날 수 있습니다.

These national treasures include Kim Deuk-sin‘s paintings of four tense men gambling and of two men and one monk playing Chinese chess. There are also a number of Jeong Seon‘s landscapes, including “Cheongpunggye” which depicts the present-day Cheongun-dong neighbourhood of Jongno-gu in Seoul at the base of Inwangsan Mountain.

다만 국보인 ‘삼국사기’는 사전협약에 따라 반환돼 연장 전시 기간에는 공개되지 않습니다.

However, the History of the Three Kingdoms, a national treasure, has already been returned to the Kansong Art and Culture Foundation according to a prior agreement and will not be on display.

관람은 1회 30분 간격, 회당 40명으로 인원수가 축소되며 온라인 사전예매 방식으로만 운영됩니다.

The number of visitors is reduced to 40 people per 30-minute interval, and is operated only by online pre-order.

YTN 김혜은[]입니다.

This is Kim Hye-eun of YTN [].

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

TIL About Eugenics in Singapore in the 1980s. Was This a Thing in Korea too?

Remember that hilarious Singaporean government birthrate campaign ad from the 1980s? Which I mentioned in my look at the demographics of Korean dating agencies?

Twenty-plus years after laughing at that as an undergraduate, last night it suddenly wasn’t so funny:

Source: Page 162 of South East Asia in the World-Economy: A Regional Economy, by Chris Dixon (1991).

Somewhat late to the party, I learned there’s actually a wealth of information about Lee Kuan Yew’s eugenicist streak out there. Which just goes to show it’s also been 20+ years since I studied Singapore in any great depth.

But I wonder now too, if Korean policymakers ever had similar motivations?

However unlikely it may sound, there’s a great deal in Korea’s history to suggest that it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Since the 1930s, an ethnically-based, “bloodlines” conception of nationalism and citizenship has been prevalent here, despite being hilariously unscientific. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a “patriotic,” semi-forced female sterilization “mania,” and widespread sex-selective abortion didn’t end until the late-1990s. Just a decade ago, the Lee Myung-bak government (2008-2013) openly acknowledged that it was criminalizing abortion in order to increase the birthrate. And today, Korea has one of the world’s lowest rates of out of wedlock-births, and continues to discriminate against single mothers,

I don’t have the answers, and I’m not saying a concern with Korean brides’ education was necessarily a thing. But it’s going to be interesting finding out ;)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)