“Comfort Women” in Taiwan

Issues of Discursivity, Intertextuality, and Filmic Representation
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Room 6

  • Agnes Schick-Chen, “The Interdiscursivity of ‘Comfort Women’ Memoryscape in Taiwan”
  • Shu-Hua Kang, “Storytelling as Resistance: Towards a Humanist Discourse for Taiwanese Comfort Women”
  • Chris Berry, “Situating ‘Song of the Reed:’ Documentary Ethics and the ‘Comfort Women’ Genre”
  • Astrid Lipinsky, “Filmic Representation of So-called ‘Comfort Women’: Changes and Developments in Taiwan and China”

The ways in which the historical experience of so-called “comfort stations” for WWII Japanese military personnel in several parts of East- and South-East Asia, was dealt with in different post-war societies, depended on the social, political, and cultural developments of the respective countries and regions. Questions of how the memories of those who had been conscripted and misused as sexual slaves in their youth have been broached in Taiwan after democratisation are addressed in this panel.
Kang Shu-Hua introduces activist initiatives such as a museum, workshops, and documentary films, aimed at a new understanding of the fate of “comfort women” by transcending the victim paradigm and repudiating earlier political interpretations. The film Song of the Reed of 2015 she sees as one significant contribution to what she identifies as a new humanist discourse on comfort women in Taiwan, is further discussed by Chris Berry who places it in the context of a growing number of international comfort women films and highlights some of the ethical aspects of their making and reception. Comparing Song of the Reed to an earlier Taiwanese documentary, A Secret Burried for 50 Years (1998), and the mainland documentary Twenty Two, Astrid Lipinsky looks at filmic representation of “comfort women” from a gender perspective. Finally, Agnes Schick-Chen maps other discursive formations configuring the space in which Taiwanese discourse(s) on “comfort women” has(have) evolved and developed in recent years.

Agnes Schick-Chen, “The Interdiscursivity of ‘Comfort Women’ Memoryscape in Taiwan”

Following up on previous research pointing to the impact of rights and gender discourses on the retrospective treatment of the Japanese WWII ‘comfort station system’, this presentation approaches the problem of a limited memory-scape of ‘comfort women’ in Taiwan from the perspective of interdiscursivity. It argues that whereas initiatives such as a comfort women museum or monument may be read as belated attempts to open up public space to the commemoration of those victimised, related accounts and commentaries still illustrate the difficulty of framing this aspect of Taiwan’s war-time history within the discursive foundations of Taiwan’s post-martial law development. After the end of martial law in 1987, the opening up and re-structuring of discursive space allowed for the (re-)introduction and re-configuration of topics that had been suppressed and/or constrained by authoritarian rule. This led to a situation in which debates on gender equality, human rights, and post-coloniality were gaining momentum, and issues of coming to terms with past traumata were finally addressed by political and social actors. In order to answer the question of why, in spite of this seemingly conducive discursive constellation, it was still so difficult to re-narrate and re-establish the fate of ‘comfort women’ as individual cases of infringements against women’s rights in the colonial past, is targeted by looking at how the above named related discourses interact and interfere with each other in ways that set the parameters of constituting the discursive memoryscape of comfort women in Taiwan.

Shu-Hua Kang, “Storytelling as Resistance: Towards a Humanist Discourse for Taiwanese Comfort Women”

Gaining public support for issues that comfort women face has always been a challenge in Taiwan because of the complex sociopolitical contexts that impede full recognition of their suffering. This study discusses how activists in Taiwan who worked closely with comfort women initiated a humanist discourse that emphasises humanistic characteristics of comfort women survivors and resistance to the collective image constructed by the dominant discourses. The activists presented human characteristics and life stories of comfort women using arts-based social activism, such as photography, documentaries, and museum exhibitions that transcend the traditional image of comfort women as victims of Japanese atrocities in World War II, and instead, enabled people to view them as they would their grandmothers. In this study, we first discuss the issues of the Taiwanese comfort women that emerged in the 1990s and review the transnational redress movement using the competing discourses of nationalism and women’s rights. We then discuss the process of developing a humanist discourse from survivors’ acts of storytelling that re-positions comfort women within Taiwanese society and reconnects the memories of comfort women as ordinary human beings with the public through arts-based social activism. Finally, we assess the weaknesses and strengths of the humanist discourse. This study also serves as a self-reflection of the author’s practical experiences to offer new perspectives on the comfort women redress movement and professional inspirations concerning other social movements.

Chris Berry, “Situating Song of the Reed: Documentary Ethics and the “Comfort Women” Genre”

Song of the Reed (蘆葦之歌, 2015) is a Taiwanese documentary film directed by Wu Hsiu-Ching (吳秀菁) and completed in 2014. It marks the Chinese-language world’s growing participation in the spread of films about the former sex slaves of the Japanese imperial army referred to as “comfort women.” How should we understand this film? This paper argues that placing Song of the Reed in an intertextual and transnational genealogy of so-called “comfort women” films can illuminate its ethical contribution to the depiction of the survivors. It traces the proliferation of fiction and documentary films about the so-called “comfort women.” From the long absence of such films and the initial representations in the form of prostitution melodramas, the paper argues that ethics has become an ever-greater concern in the design and reception of these films, and especially documentary films. It locates a tension between two overlapping aims—the push for political recognition of the “comfort women” and the concern for their well-being —and locates Song of the Reed as an effort to maximise the therapeutic benefit of the filmmaking process itself.

Astrid Lipinsky, “Filmic Representation of so-called ‘Comfort Women’: Changes and Developments in Taiwan and China”

Taiwan has established a legacy of ‘comfort women’ documentaries with A Secret buried for 50 Years in 1998, that was continued and further developed by the release of Song of the Reed in 2015. Both documentaries are directed by women and focus on the same group of former so-called ‘comfort women’, so the second film was able to rely on the basic knowledge established by the first and attempt to proceed in a different direction. The two documentaries have been inspired, financed and made possible by the Taiwanese Women’s Rescue Foundation, a women’s NGO. Without NGO support, neither the number of Taiwanese survivors willing to be filmed nor the importance given to this issue by politics and society would have allowed for the making of a film—or even two films. The problem of financing a film on ‘comfort women’ also became obvious to mainland Chinese director Guo Ke. As it took him years to assemble the necessary crowdfunding, he contrasts the slowness of funding sources with the speed of former ‘comfort women’ passing away. By comparing the Taiwanese female directors’ films with the one made by male mainland director Guo Ke, the paper raises the following question:  How far were the directors’ approaches related to their gender? And has Song of the Reed introduced a new generation of ‘comfort women’ documentary to Taiwan that is not visible (yet) in the People’s Republic of China?

Event Timeslots (1)

Room 6
Issues of Discursivity, Intertextuality, and Filmic Representation