Entering transnational memory: the trajectories and representations of the ‘comfort women’ in international media discourse, 1990-2000 (国境を越える記憶:1990年から2000年までの国際メディアにおける「従軍慰安婦」の歴程と表現)

Joachim Bergstrom

This thesis analyses the transnationalization and globalization of collective memory of the comfort women: the formations and flows of disembedded, narrated, concrete and multidirectional collective memory, symbols, themes and tropes in discourses in global and international media discourse during the 1990s. The research is grounded in, and follows methodologies of, memory studies, but also draws upon theoretical and empirical work from other domains increasingly addressing collective discursive memory: post-colonial thought, cultural studies, literary studies, gender studies, globalization theory and psychology. The thesis is a contribution to knowledge about collective memory in the globalizing world, a case study about narrative and discourse on sexualized violence in war, as an analytic study of the development of the comfort women issue as a transnational topic, and its representation and symbolism in wider contexts. The study contributes both to memory and to media studies with its focus on the role of news texts in the discursive formation of collective, transnational memory.
     The narrated, collective memory of the comfort women is today neither limited to those people directly involved in these war crimes – either as perpetrators or victims – nor to the populations of their respective countries or region. The comfort women constitute an important transnational symbol about gendered violence, rape and sexual slavery in wartime: a de-territorialized and de-temporalized sign invoked in contemporary fields of conflict and circumstances far beyond the original context. The comfort women have also become globally cited emblems of official Japan’s present inability to deal with its imperial past in Asia. The comfort women issue surfaced in the early 1990s after years of silence – for reasons this thesis analyses – and has by now become part of a globalizing memory of war. Nation-transcending memorial practices and goods is a reality, and a growing body of research in the field of “global memory” is now taking shape, increasingly studying the developments of memorial discourses and practices with a focus on context, agency and representation of historical events in the present.
     The thesis argues that the comfort women’s entry and establishment in discursive and collective memory of the globalizing world occurred as the result partly of a conflation of three important and telling “turns” in social life in the late twentieth century. A change in paradigm needed to take place in order for sexual violence in war in general – and the comfort women’s past more specifically – to be recognized, problematized, widely discussed and battled by the world community. First, the “human rights turn” in the 1990s produced a more pronounced concern for rights issues in social, political and legal discourse, and the expanding phenomenon of globalized justice. Part of the “human rights turn” in the 1990s is also the fact that sexualized violence against women in war zones was first openly debated as a human rights issue during this decade. In 1998, with the adoption of the Rome Statute, rape in war was defined as a crime against humanity. The second important issue is the “mnemonic turn”, referring to the much-heralded proliferation of public memory in the decade preceding the third millennium, causing an augmented social and intellectual interest in the past, particularly the traumatic historic events of the 20th century: war, terror, genocide, disease and environmental disaster. The third and last major development to consider when reflecting on the globalizing memory of the comfort women is the “transnational turn”, implying an increased focus on the intellectual and social consequences of globality, the particular interest in “motion”, and globalization from below. This thesis is not written in defense or salutation of globalization, and does disregard globalization’s negative results, but wishes to acknowledge the constructive and helpful influences of globality on a field like expanding human rights. In the transnational turn lies also an important dimension of greater “cosmopolitan” consciousness.
     Drawing from current theories and recent memory research, this thesis uses the term “transnational memory” (TM) to refer to the process of de-territorialization and globalization of memory, geographically dislocated and disembedded, migrating and nation-transcending shared notions, references, symbols, signs and motifs of, and about, the past; the interactions between the past and the present in globalizing, disembedded, or cross-national discourse; and mediated representations and invocations of historical symbols, tropes, and material in the present. TM can emerge both in global and local contexts (texts, monuments, films, national days). Often, global/local are well studied simultaneously to understand how global messages gain local relevance, and how local messages go global. Mass media texts offer a good example, therefore it is increasingly attracting the attention of memory scholars, and media scholars are increasingly turning to the theme of memory. Transnational or collective memory is not about the individual act of remembrance, and the term does not refer to any vague, unarticulated or abstract sense or awareness among audiences. The focus is on text. TM cannot be abstract or intangible. Transnational as well as collective memory has to be concrete, narrated and discursive. There is not one finally negotiated TM, but a perpetually evolving, morphing and transmuting process. Collective memory, as Edward Said argues is “not an inert or passive thing, but a field of activity in which past events are selected, reconstructed, maintained, modified, and endowed with political meaning.”[1] This is highly relevant for TM moving from local contexts to global discourse and perspectives, but also from the global back to the local. Like collective memory in general, TM has heterogeneous and egalitarian qualities, articulating views of the past from the “inside” of groups, also from the socially disenfranchised and the subaltern of history. An important function and characteristic of TM is its recognition of trauma and injustice, and its ability to forms links between instances of trauma, over space.
     This qualitative study, by a historian and with the methodologies of memory studies, traces and analyzes both the diachronic and symbolic evolvement of narrated and transnationally invoked collective memory, by studying (and reading both historically and thematically) one site of mnemonic activity: news texts referencing the subject of inquiry, flourishing in the international press, media on a global scale, also outside Japan and the immediately affected Asian countries. The main focus is therefore on texts and representations from transnational media, such as global news agencies and internationally distributed newspapers, but since an important aspect of transnational memory is the movement from local context to global dimensions, and back to local circumstances - and the meaning memory takes on in disembedded contexts (TM often figures in local contexts), a number of meaningful examples of transnationally migrated memory in local news from Anglophone media of different parts of the world, have also been included in the research corpus. The attention is partly on the linear development of the comfort women as a globalizing topic, or its existence in an international context, analyzing the many various contexts and circumstances in which the memory of the comfort women were brought to the present on a transnational scale. The other focus is on representation, and the development of the comfort women as transnational symbols, their role as carriers of meaning in larger, globalizing, contexts. The thesis also analyzes the various ways in which mediated text made sense of, and explained the comfort women issue and sexualized violence in wartime. Among the numerous sites available for mnemonic practices and narratives – the news media constitute a mnemonic agent that is both invasive (in the daily lives of people) and influential (in reaching large numbers at one time).
     The study shows how memory of the comfort women functionally figured in one of four different ways: 1) memory as news, 2) rectilinear correspondents, 3) frame-setters/explanatory or circumstantial, or 4) meta-mnemonic news. The study shows the issue’s epochal development in the mass media, and analyses the various internal and external forces advancing the topic, importantly identifying and analyzing the multitude of international and domestic events, conflicts, debates, meetings, and developments that helped make the comfort women known. Beginning by tracing (and showing that the issue was not a real secret) the comfort women in transnational discourse back to a pre-narrative phase with scattered and random press mentioning in the 1980s and early 1990s, I explain how a “narrative construction” occurred as the result of the surfacing facts and testimonies that emerged over a period between 1991 and 1993, situating the comfort women in media discourse and establishing the ways they would be invoked. Memory, per se, played an important part in the beginning of this narrative construction. In 1993, when much hope was expressed that the issue would finally be resolved, the press reported about the issue “as if” a resolution was about to occur, which it did not. From 1994 to 1996, the comfort women issue enjoyed a period of relative openness in the domestic debate in Japan, reflected transnationally, but also an uncertainty about how the matter would be resolved by official Japan. The 50th anniversary of the end of the War in 1995 propelled the issue further into news discourses, as the comfort women were in part taken up in a wide range of commemorative reports. Any hopes about Japan’s resolution of the issue were killed when the Asian Women’s Fund was launched in 1995, which, taking a private approach, did not satisfy the victims asking for state redress and an apology approved by the Japanese parliament. From 1997 and until 2000, an intensified focus on the bilateral conflicts the issues caused can be traced, as well as an increased international pressure on Japan to resolve the problem; in combination with a flora of reports about the growing nationalism and historical revisionism in Japan, and the various trials seeking justice for the survivors.
     One important aspect of transnational memory is its ability to form, use, and convey symbols and signs with a “transcendental status”. This symbolic formation can be explained as a process in which certain issues gain a particular metonymic position in wider discourses and general parlance, like the Holocaust has become widely used shorthand for genocide of the 20th century and Hiroshima for nuclear war; 9/11 came to symbolize contemporary global terrorism, etc. The process making the comfort women an internationally understood symbol of rape and sexual slavery in war – or as iconic victims of sexualized “crimes against humanity” – and of official Japan’s inability to deal with the country’s violent past – took several years, and is traceable in the ways in which the comfort women were narratively invoked in mediated texts. The language which was used to describe the comfort women changed with time (from prostitution, over forced sex to rape and crimes against humanity) – often due to factors in society and outside this discourse – and the nature of the crime committed against the comfort women during World War II was gradually and conceptually linked to similar instances of war rape and trauma elsewhere. Because in the process of relaying “news” and facts about the present, media actors also narratively invoked the past, and in this practice, often indirectly, addressed a series of deeper and more complex issues relevant to the comfort women problem and rape or sexualized violence in wartime in broad terms, as is the nature of transnational, intertextual memory. Such thematic key issues circled around the question of meaning, reason, and significance – and touched topics such as the nature of war, the universality or particularity of rape, the formation and transference of collective memory, questions of why rape occurs during war, and why no one could speak - or at least had not spoken - about such issues for many years during the postwar period.. I have argued that these topics emerged in the media discourse as a sort of meta-narrative, with a set of dominant trends that I have analyzed in detail. The focus was to comprehend how the mass media, both transnational media such as news bureaus and international publications - and local, from the immediate context disembedded publications, writing about the comfort women in places far away, had set out to comprehend, cast, and render the issue.



[1] Edward W. Said, ”Invention, memory, and place,” Ciritical Inquiry, Vol 26:2, 2000, pp. 175-192.

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