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The "Endangered Voices" of the Taiwanese Victims of Japanese Sexual Slavery

Towards Postcolonial Feminist Ethics of Listening to Trauma

Magdalena Zolkos Fall 2019

DOI: 10.25335/ppj.2.2-09

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While the question of justice for the victims of sexual slavery institutionalized by the Japanese Imperial Army during the war has generated great communal and scholarly interest, in Taiwan it remains a pressing and unresolved concern what implications this traumatic history has had for the consolidation of the postcolonial and post-authoritarian publics. This is not only because the sexual enslavement of Taiwanese women unfolded before the backdrop of Japan’s colonization of Taiwan, in particular of the Indigenous “highlander” groups but also because the post-war public (and private) narrativization of this history, and any pursuit of justice, were impossible during Chiang Kai-shek’s authoritarian era. Referring to the victims by the Taiwanese term “Ama” (rather than the more common but problematic term “comfort women”), I propose that in contemporary Taiwan the traumatic history of female sexual enslavement is of great significance for contemporary public life because it functions as a kind of “optic,” which reveals and magnifies broader historical dynamics of colonial appropriation, of sexual and epistemic violence against women, and of the marginalization of Indigenous and economically disadvantaged groups. Methodologically, the identification of such an optic draws from cultural theory of psychoanalysis, which links traumatic experience to “unspeakability” and to psychic repression of overwhelming contents, and from sociological and philosophic insights into silencing as a mode of epistemic violence.

Content Warning: Please be advised that this piece discusses heavy, potentially triggering topics, including references to sex slavery and human trafficking, sexual violence and rape, colonial violence, and military sex slavery.

1. Historical Trauma of Sexual Slavery in Taiwan

In a 1998 film, A Secret Buried for 50 Years A Secret Buried for 50 Years—The Story of the Taiwanese “Comfort Women, a Taiwanese survivor of the Japanese sexual slavery program during the Pacific War, Shen Chung Li, describes the psychological effects of the violence she endured at the hands of Japanese soldiers as a paradoxical experience of living-through her own death: “my life had ended on [that] day,” she says poignantly.(1) Another survivor, Jung-mei Chaung, speaks of a continuous pain, which has not decreased in severity for fifty years, thus also narrating the effect of her trauma as a “devitalization,” or “withering,” of subjectivity. A third survivor, Kuei-Ying Tsai, says in an accusatory gesture directed at her absent perpetrators, “Our fate was sealed by you.”(2) With this she hints at the difficulties of overcoming the stigmatizing social effects of sexual violence but at the psychological level and in terms of her compliance with traditional gendered norms in post-war Taiwan.

These women are known to the contemporary public in Taiwan as “Ama,” which is a Taiwanese-Hokkien term for an “elderly auntie.” According to the information in the Ama Museum in Taipei, the name Ama connotes “endearment [and] respect for women of the older generation.”(3) In recent years it has gained popularity as a supplement to the formal terms for the victims of the Japanese sexual enslavement program: “sexual military slaves” or “comfort women.”(4) What is equally important is that the use of the name Ama has become a way of signalling to the Taiwanese public that there is a political urgency in receiving their demands and listening to their testimonies in the present, given the advanced age of the survivors. And not only that—the sense of exigency in granting public recognition to the survivors’ stories also stems from the fact that the avenues for achieving justice for the Taiwanese survivors had been exhausted in 2002 when their case was dismissed by the Tokyo District Court and when, in 2004 and 2005, their appeals were rejected by the Tokyo High Court and Tokyo Supreme Court, respectively.(5) In the context of the impending disappearance of these first-hand accounts, I refer metaphorically to the Amas’ voices as “endangered” in order to draw attention to the temporal-political urgency of listening to Amas as something that needs to happen now as “the time is running out.”(6) 

The testimonies of the surviving victims of the Japanese military sexual slavery presented in the film Faces of Ah-Ma resonate strongly with the key motifs of the cultural and psychoanalytic theory of trauma. These include the repression of the traumatic contents, its “belated” (Nachträglich) return to the subject’s life, and the aforementioned discursive and philosophical link between trauma and death.(7) In a text often considered synonymous with the beginning of the “trauma turn” in contemporary theoretical humanities, Cathy Caruth argues that trauma should be seen not only as a psychological condition but also as a critical and philosophical idiom for the encounter with an extreme, incomprehensible, and consciously unassimilable occurrence.(8) The “unconscious histories” witnessed by the subjects of trauma, as Caruth argues, constitute “a new kind of historical event,” which is characterized by “individual not-knowing” and which focuses the testimonial knowledge not on “what [the subjects] know . . . but on what they do not fully know in their own traumatic pasts.”(9) In Caruth’s Freudian theorizing of trauma, the subject sustains a kind of “wounding” that brings about a temporal disjunction in her life in that it produces two distinctive life-phases: “before” and “after” trauma. Trauma has to do with the subjective impact of a discrete event of catastrophic proportions for which the subject is utterly unprepared in the moment of its occurrence and that they are incapable of absorbing and assimilating in the present. Caruth thus writes that “trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on.”(10)

In the case of the trauma of sexual slavery and the Taiwanese Amas, these theoretical insights into the structure of trauma as the haunting effects of an unassimilable violent event, and as a compulsive reenactment of supressed and unbearable contents, need to be adjusted, or, to put it stronger, critiqued, in two important respects. First, the abstract idiom of a “violent event” in cultural trauma theory, which in Faces of Ah-Ma refers to the Taiwanese women’s experience of sexual enslavement by Japanese soldiers, needs to be located more closely within the specific colonial, ethnic, and economic context of gender relations in Taiwan before the war. It is perhaps appropriate to speak in this context of “intersectional trauma,” where the military occupation and sexual enslavement are only two vectors in a more complex mosaic of violence that materializes on these women’s bodies—its other important constituents are both the history colonization of Indigenous Taiwanese populations and the way that the Kumintang governance after 1949 had shaped the dominant interpretations of Japan’s colonial rule of Taiwan as positive and benign. The estimated number of sexually enslaved Taiwanese women by the Japanese military was 2,000, with fifty-eight confirmed survivor cases; the victims included Indigenous women from the Taroko, Atayal, and Bunan tribes, as well as the Chinese, Hakka, and Min-Nan women, with their shared characteristic of socioeconomic vulnerability.(11) The women were recruited forcefully, placed in military or privately-run “comfort stations” and, with the exception of the Indigenous women in Hualien, trafficked overseas; the official aims of the policy were to maintain soldier discipline, secure public safety, and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among the recruits. The victims suffered continuous sexual violence, as well as mental and physical assaults, torture, starvation, and forced labor.(12) 

The traumatic experiences of sexual enslavement of women in the territories occupied by the Japanese army during the war needs to be seen within the larger historical and political context framing and enabling the establishment of the “comfort women” system. In Taiwan that context includes Japanese colonization (1895-1945), which coincided with the colonial strategies of pacifying and subjugating the Indigenous peoples of Taiwan. As such, I argue that the violent claim on the ownership of the women’s bodies by the Japanese army reflected and magnified the colonial logic of appropriation and exploitation that had existed prior to the events. That logic rendered the bodies of colonized women “thing-like”—appropriable and disposable. Both the historical research on that subject and the survivors’ testimonies emphasize the daily practices of dehumanization and objectification of the women, who in the military documents were referenced as “units of war supplies.”(13) In regard to the theoretical and methodological debates in the field of cultural trauma studies, the case of the Taiwanese Amas suggests, first, that there is a need to suture the gap between event-centric approaches to trauma and the broader systemic and environmental conceptualizations of trauma—a discrepancy spotlighted by scholars who have pursued a “decolonized trauma theory.”(14) At the same time, the history of the Taiwanese survivors of the Japanese military sexual enslavement system can serve as a generative focal point for the debates about contemporary meanings of postcolonial sociality and justice in Taiwan, including the critique of continuously popular interpretations of the Japanese rule as a beneficial and benign governance, and a period of Taiwan’s modernization and civilization.(15) 

When approached from the perspective of cultural trauma theory, the testimonies by the Taiwanese survivors of the Japanese sexual slavery system accentuate the dual dynamics of the lack of political will and capacity to bring the issue to the international fora until many decades after the war, as well as the practices of social silencing, shaming and stigmatization of the Amas on their return from the overseas stations, blocking not only avenues for the achievement of justice, but also expressions of grievability.(16) In Taiwan (as in South Korea) the public invisibility of the violence against “comfort women” coincided with the post-war period of authoritarian rule—in Taiwan the “White Terror” of 1949-87—and it was only with the beginning of the democratic reforms in late 1980s that the survivors started to publicly come forward and demand justice, supported institutionally by the establishment of Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation (TWRF) in 1992. Here the question of the psychic mechanisms of suppression becomes inseparable from the social repudiation, stigmatization, and silencing of the survivors.(17) The temporal gap between their endurance of trauma and its public surfacing is demonstrative not only of what Freud (and, more recently, Jean Laplanche) theorized as “belatedness” (Nachträglichkeit) of trauma, but also of what Arthur S. Blank Jr. has called the societal and political “aversion to knowing [what is] too painful and horrifying and difficult.”(18) Within this conceptual-theoretical matrix, in the case of the Amas, it is, perhaps paradoxically, not the victims themselves but the post-war Taiwanese public that cannot process and assimilate the events by “refusing to recognize the reality of a traumatic perception.”(19) I suggest the silencing and erasures of these rape testimonies in the post-war public and cultural discourses establishes a particular version of Taiwanese colonial history, whereby the Japanese imperial project in Taiwan, specifically in regard to the attempted assimilation and subjugation of the Indigenous populations, is being constructed as a mutually beneficial and relatively benign expansion of cultural and technological achievements within the East Asian region. In other words, the Amas’ stories of sexual enslavement are so powerful and subversive because they show violent appropriation and objectification of female bodies as political and as colonial. They reveal the fictitiousness of dominant historical narratives by testifying to the violence and brutality perpetrated systematically by the allegedly benign colonizer, thereby pointing to its dual logic—the appropriation of women’s bodies and the dispossession of Native peoples—that had always already been integral part of the imperial project.(20) 

Drawing upon theories in trauma, this article examines the complex issue of sexual slavery in Taiwan to gesture towards a philosophy of traumatic listening. Recent sociological and philosophical literature on listening has argued that we approach practices of listening as a mode of enhanced connection with others and as a nuanced process of mutual atunement between the speaker and the listener rather than solely a passive reception of verbalized contents.(21) Drawing on that scholarship, I propose a conception of “traumatic listening,” which, in the contact of Taiwanese Amas’ testimonies, means a political but also ethical process of becoming collectively receptive of, and affected by, these historically marginalized voices. The effect of such “traumatic listening” is not simply factual knowledge, but, potentially, connection-building and repair. The motif of “listening” to Amas’ stories contributes important feminist and non-Western insights to the theory of trauma through the emphasis on embodied, sensory and affective reception of traumatic histories by the larger public, and it potentially weaves into trauma theory a more hopeful conception of the subject, who assumes an affirmative and agential relation to the past.

2. Philosophic Perspectives on Listening to Trauma

In the writings of Cathy Caruth, and of many other contemporary theorists of collective trauma, the idiom of “listening to trauma” is differentiated from the attempts at comprehending or “grasping” the inner life of a person who has experienced an extreme form of violence. “Listening” to trauma and obtaining a narrative knowledge about the violent events are thus divergent and potentially conflicting modes of engagement with trauma. In trauma theory, “listening” is closely linked to adopting a position of ethical receptivity towards the victim, even though one might never be able to comprehend her experience. Furthermore, trauma listening as an act of receptivity to the voice and story of the other is premised upon a testimonial address.

In his philosophical reflections on the poetry of Paul Celan, Jacques Derrida describes the witness as someone who implicates the listener into their story through a specific speech act: “Believe me, I have been there”; “Believe me, I have seen it.”(22) The etymology of the word “witness” comes from two Latin words: testis (“the third”—someone capable of producing an objective proof of her experience) and superstes (literally, “one who stands by,” i.e., in direct proximity to the violent event, and who survives it). Derrida argues that the fundamental speech act of a witness is a plea to be believed in spite of the lack of formal proof, by which he means the subject’s inability to produce such material evidence of their story that would position it beyond any questioning or doubt. No matter what evidence is produced, Derrida argues, in testimonial speech there is always a possibility of doubt and disbelief; what’s more, the possibility not to be believed is the very condition of witnessing. This insight resonates strongly with the Taiwanese Amas who never achieved formal justice in the court of law. In a sense, one could perhaps argue that the Amas “cannot” produce  proof, or what Derrida calls “the theoretical-constative certitude”(23) of what happened (of course, there is plenty of material evidence and documentation confirming the existence of “comfort stations,” their systematic and forced character, as well as its geopolitical scope). That further emphasizes the precarity of their voices in the face of the political denial of responsibility and of the failure of justice. Thus, the question of the public attention to the voices of Amas is also a question about the relationship between public listening to trauma and a more radical conception of justice; one beyond the formal justice of the law, or what Derrida also calls “the justice of a judgement.”(24) 

What Derrida’s philosophy of witnessing helps us notice in the Amas’ testimonies is their entwinement of heterogenous temporalities. Derrida emphasizes the intertwining of “presence” (being there) with “present” (narrating past in the continuous tense) in the act of witnessing; he writes that “[he] or she will have been present at, in the present, the thing to which he testifies.”(25) For Derrida, listening in a testimonial context is a laborious, difficult, and yet necessary act: reading Celan’s poems is akin to an ethical task of listening to the witness. The intertwining spatial-temporal motifs of “being-present” and “being-in-presence” resonate strongly with the first-person testimonies collected by the Ama Museum: the striking characteristic of the survivors’ testimonies is that they are often not formulated in the past tense, as events that had come to an end, but, rather, as continuing or reverberating in the present, with powerful psychological, social, and cultural effects: what they endured has “ended,” “ruined,” and “sealed” them as “worthless women.”(26) 

Dori Laub links the practice of listening to survivors of atrocities and “bearing witness to trauma.”(27) Laub says that “[for] the testimonial process to take place, there needs to be a bonding, the intimate and total presence of [another]—in the position of one who hears.”(28) This complicates the subject position of a listener, who doesn’t simply “listen to trauma” but also “from the site of trauma.” From this perspective, the contemporary Taiwanese public is “fixed” within an identity that is both postcolonial and post-authoritarian. Thus, listening to the stories of Amas is an attempt at recognizing that these stories are simultaneously external to the listeners (in the sense of not having any experiential knowledge of it) and internal to them, in that these stories do not simply dispassionately narrate but affect, stir, and activate the subjects’ own (direct or trans-generational) trauma related to the war or the “White Terror” period.

In this context, listening to trauma exceeds the goals of production of the historical knowledge about Japan’s sexual slavery system; rather, it is about the recognition of the entwinement of Amas’ voices with Taiwan’s history of colonial and authoritarian violence and the psychic resonance between the personal and public articulations of this history. Elsewhere, Laub makes a somewhat puzzling statement about the ethical dimension of “listening to trauma” as the creation of “a record that has yet to be made,” by which he means that testimony does not preexist the practice of listening, but that it takes “shape” (Gestalt) with, and through, that listening. He compares the practice of listening to the “work of a midwife,” in that the listener’s role is to “create a place in the imagination for the trauma . . . in order to transmit the testimony, it needs to process with an imaginative midwife who [is] there ahead of time, ready to receive.”(29) In the case of Amas, just as it is important to recognize in their narratives of return to their families and local communities after the war the poignant emphasis on (to paraphrase Laub) the “unwillingness to receive” (the Amas’ testimonies), so is it significant to recognize the current displays of national and international attention to Amas’ stories as a shift towards public listening and receptivity. I discuss below two trajectories through which such public listening has proceeded—quasilegal and artistic-therapeutic—and argue, invoking Lena Herzog’s phrase “endangered voices,”(30) that at stake in both these trajectories has been the gathering and “holding together” of the previously dispersed and suppressed voices in communal, therapeutic or artistic spaces.

3. ‘Listening to Amas’ at the Tokyo Tribunal

The Women’s International Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery (2002-01), was the result of the concerted efforts of nongovernmental organizations grouped within the framework of the Violence against Women in War-Network Japan. It was a result of collaborations and activism in the region since the 1990s, and, in addition to Taiwan, it included prosecution teams from North and South Korea, China, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, East Timor, and the Netherlands. Despite the invitation to participate in the proceedings, the Japanese government did not offer a response.

As a people’s tribunal, the Tokyo Tribunal was an unofficial and symbolic process; even though it couldn’t “impose sentences or order reparations,” it did “make recommendations backed by the weight of its legal findings and its moral force.”(31) It was organized from a position of critique of the failure of the formal justice system to address the claims of victims of the Japanese sexual slavery system, and it built on the larger premise that “law is an instrument of civil society,” which “does not belong to governments” and thus “when states fail to exercise their obligations to ensure justice, civil society can and should step in.”(32) Its institutional framework was the World Courts of Women, with an explicit goal of creating a testimonial platform for women’s voices.(33) The indictments were organized as if the Tokyo Tribunal was a continuation of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE); it stated that Japan’s prosecution of war crimes was “incomplete” precisely because it had “inadequately considered rape and sexual enslavement and had failed to bring charges arising out of the detention of women for sexual services.”(34) 

One important difference between the Tokyo Tribunal and the IMTFE was that in the former the victims of the crimes, rather than the perpetrators, were “the moral point of departure.”(35) Supporting my suggestion that one of the key functions of the tribunal was to provide a listening platform for “engendered voices” of the women, Dudden argues that the tribunal “aimed to enable and encourage surviving victims to speak out, [and] to tell the truth of their lives in front of judges and witnesses who believed them.(36) This interplay of listening and believing was a key part of the reparative process that sought to counter the history of social silencing of the survivors by “restoring dignity to [them].” The practice of listening within the testimonial platforms of the tribunal resulted not only in extensive knowledge about Japan’s sexual slavery system(37) but also in granting epistemic and interpretative significance to the Amas’ voices and in what Dudden has called “restoration of dignity.”(38) The Tokyo Tribunal gathered and “held together” the previously dispersed and isolated voices of the victims, contributing to cross-national solidarity and community building.

4. ‘Listening to Amas’ at the Ama Museum

The Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation produced two documentary films about the victims of the Japanese sexual slavery system: A Secret Buried for 50 Years—The Story of the Taiwanese “Comfort Women, which documents the Amas’ experiences during and immediately after the war, and Song of the Reed, which focuses on the local and international struggle for justice and the reparative processes undertaken since 1990s and highlights the Amas’ survival and defiance.(39) The films are directed first and foremost at their Taiwanese recipients but also at the audience beyond Taiwan’s borders. While different in their goals, narrative orientation, and affect, the films have in common that they construct archives of the Amas’ voices, and as such, I suggest, they exemplify artistic and historiographic practices of listening. The temporality of “endangered voices” has provided an organizing frame for the TWRF activities—there is a sense of urgency in both the calls for accountability and recognition and in documenting the victims’ experiences. In my analysis of the films, I use the language of “listening” both in line with the previously elaborated philosophical concept of ethical attentiveness to a testimonial voice and as an idiom for public process of engaging with this cinematic material that, potentially, impacts the meanings and constructions of Taiwanese postcolonial sociality.

The first documentary, A Secret Buried for 50 Years, introduces the Taiwanese Amas and consists of short direct interventions in which they narrate their experiences (it also includes the perspectives of bystanders, such as Lin Chun Chiang, a former Japanese soldier of Taiwanese descent). The key motif in the Amas’ stories is, first, the feelings of shame upon their return to the communities, and silence surrounding their victimization, even in their families (the common phrase used by the survivors was that of “hiding” or “hiding face”).(40) In a particularly poignant moment of the film, a Taruko woman, Hsiu Feng Ho, covers her face with a hand while narrating, in a gesture that is not only evocative of shame (hiding the face from the world) but also that is about the unwillingness or incapacity to see, again, the site of her trauma.

During the art therapy and wellness workshops organized by the TWRF, and which continued for sixteen years, the figure of the face (as a metaphorical idiom and as material “item”) has been the focus of great attention. In one of the exercises, called “Prison, Prohibition, Taboo,” the Amas created dark rectangular masks, through which only their eyes were visible—it expressed what they could not say or show about their experiences through “the customary frame,” that is “the pressure of family, society and custom.”(41) In two other exercises, the Amas were asked to paint white masks to express how they see their faces (“mask of emotion”) and to paint figures of themselves to express how they see their bodies (“a dialogue with your body” and “the body speaks out”). The result was a powerful collection of representations of pain, abjection, and violation, as well as of lost youth and beauty. The therapist noted the contrast between the Amas’ living elderly body and their self-image of a young woman, as if, she suggested, something froze or ossified internally at the time of their violation. For instance, Hsiu-mei said that her mask, with “dark, chaotic lines inside . . . , signified her inner self that went unseen.”(42)

The listening spaces of the therapeutic workshops evolved around practices or rituals of “undoing the past”: some of the iconic images of Amas that have circulated in Taiwan were of their pictures in wedding dresses. This was a 2006 project called “Realizing the Dream of Wearing Wedding Gowns.” Ama Hsiu-Mei had another unrealized dream—of becoming an air hostess—and in result the “TWRF coordinated with China Airlines to arrange for Ama Hsiu-mei, at the age of 93, to work for one day as the oldest flight attendant in the air line’s history.”(43) The workshops adopted the “healing framework” of the Chinese character for “return” in order to “signify healing and companionship.” Further, the “Chinese character [for] ‘mouth’ [and] ‘opening’” was also adopted; it “symbolizes the mental wounds and bodily memories encompassed in the [Amas’] artwork.” Putting “two of these characters together suggests [that] the Amas’ voices have joined forces, demonstrating women’s power and the sisterhood of mutual support.”(44) The drama counsellor, Hung Su-Chen, described such reparative “undoing” as an aporetic attempt to not only relive their lives, but to “live [their lives] backwards . . . to [live] their lives on their own terms . . . [to] create their own life experiences and to re-enact all kinds of possibilities at will.”(45)

5. Conclusions

I have argued in this essay that philosophic discussions about “listening to trauma” offer unique insights into the ethical stakes of the public engagement with the narratives of the Taiwanese victims of the Japanese military sexual slavery system, produced either within a quasi-juridical framework of the people’s tribunal in Tokyo or within the commemorative space of the Ama Museum. The philosophy and ethics of “listening to trauma” capture an attitude of collective receptiveness towards these first-hand accounts of marginalized and stigmatized history. Emphasizing the temporal-political urgency of such happening in the present moment and capturing the Amas’ voices as “endangered” because of their social, bodily and mnemonic vulnerability, it also offers a glimpse into a more radical notion of justice in a situation when the formal juridical processes have failed to hold the state actors to account.

The conclusions from linking philosophy and ethics of listening to trauma with the analysis of the recent public attention to Amas in Taiwan are twofold. First, the philosophical insight into trauma listening suggests the Taiwanese publics’ intimate relation to the marginalized history of “comfort stations” due to its important and frequently unrecognized colonial and authoritarian context, or what I have referred to as “trauma environment” of the “event” of sexual slavery. The practice of such listening includes, but is not identical with, the production of knowledge about the atrocities; rather, it also concerns what I have called an unconscious resonance between different histories of violence and trauma. As such, the Amas’ victim testimonies of sexual enslavements offer a unique prism into the larger history of colonial appropriation and subjugation of Native populations, of militarization and imperial power that violently objectified and “thingified” bodies of the Taiwanese women in the service of its goals and prerogatives.

Second, an important aspect of the Amas’ story is that it was silenced and/or marginalized in post-1949 Taiwan during the Chinese nationalist one-party rule, and that, in the present, the relevant actors continue to struggle to receive appropriate restitutive responses. Philosophical discussions of trauma suggest that there is no straightforward relationship between listening and justice but that ethical listening “radicalizes” justice by locating it beyond the economy of retribution and reparation. The Amas’ narratives complicate what justice is and how it can be achieved, as well as what comes after a failure of justice; rather, in spite of the fact that the juridical process has not achieved the desired aims, the practice of listening to Amas reveals gestures or glimpses of a more radical justice.


My great thanks to Nic Cottone and Annie Fukushima for the open collaborative review of my article and extremely helpful suggestions for improvement, and to Taylor Elyse Mills, Kurt Milberger, and Andrea Walsh of the Public Philosophy Journal for their work on this issue, as well as to SaeHim Park for her comments.


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Magdalena Zolkos is a Humboldt Research Fellow at the Frankfurt Memory Studies Platform at Goethe University. She works in the field of contemporary political theory and political philosophy. She is the author of Restitution and the Politics of Repair: Tropes, Imaginaries, Theory, published in 2020 by Edinburgh University Press, and coeditor of Contemporary Perspectives on Vladimir Jankélévitch: On What Cannot Be Touched, published in 2019 by Lexington Press.


  1.  A Secret Buried for 50 Years—The Story of the Taiwanese “Comfort Women” (Taipei: Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, 1998).
  2.  A Secret Buried for 50 Years—The Story of the Taiwanese “Comfort Women” (Taipei: Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, 1998).
  3.  Exhibition on the history of sexual enslavement of Taiwanese women by the Japanese imperial army during the Pacific war, and of the subsequent struggle for justice, Ama Museum. The material was collected during my field-work in Taiwan in 2017.
  4.  The survivors and their supporting activists, legal workers, and local allies have preferred the name “Ama” over “comfort women,” which is a direct translation of the Japanese ian-fu and a euphemism for a female sex worker, as well as the term used by the military policies of sexual slavery during the war. Incorporating within the discourse on the victims of Japanese sexual slavery an alternative name for the survivors (Ama) has been important for reshaping the debate. The language of “comfort women” and “comfort stations” had been detrimentally colored by the Japanese nationalist and reactionary depictions of the survivors as voluntary profiteers of the economic “opportunities” of the system (perhaps most scandalously, Yoshinori Kobayashi’s manga books “On War” and “On Taiwan”). Since 1996, the UN has used the name “military sexual slaves” to refer to the victims, which has been a mark of international recognition of the issue as a war crime and as a gross human rights violation; however, some of the survivors expressed their unease with a terminology that, they argued, reduced and solidified their identity as (solely) the victims of oppression, and sought to depict themselves instead as (also) “refractory subjects”—survivors of oppression and agents of history. Scholars and activists have acknowledged the importance of the term “sexual slavery” as a historical descriptor of the program, rather than older term “enforced prostitution,” but have also pointed out the limitations stemming from the UN and ICC definitions of slavery, which emphasize primarily the commercial exchange and monetary profit as characteristics of slavery, and only mention sexual violence as its secondary aspect, thereby excluding the victims’ experience of “the loss of control over their bodies” from the definition of sexual slavery. C. Sarah Soh, “Japan’s National/Asian Women’s Fund for ‘Comfort Women,’” Pacific Affairs 76, no. 2 (2003): 209-33. 
  5.  For reasons of Taiwan’s history and geopolitical situation, the Taiwanese survivors had far less success with arguing their case internationally than, for instance, the Korean survivors. See Tina Dolgopol, “Searching for Justice: The Tokyo Women’s Tribunal,” Open Democracy 12 (May 2015), https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opensecurity/searching-for-justice-tokyo-womens-tribunal.
  6.  Christine M. Chinkin, “Women’s International Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery,” The American Journal of International Law 95, no. 2 (2001): 335-41.
  7.  See, for example, Roger Luckhurt, The Trauma Question (London: Routledge, 2013).
  8.  Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996).
  9.  Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996), xiii, xvi.
  10.  Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996), 3.
  11.  Chou Ching-Yuan, “A Cave in Taiwan: Comfort Women’s Memories and the Local Identity” in Places of Pain and Shame: Dealing with ‘Difficult Heritage’, ed. L. William et al. (London: Routledge, 2008), 114-127.
  12.  Christine M. Chinkin, “Women’s International Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery,” The American Journal of International Law 95, no. 2 (2001): 335-36.
  13.  C. Sarah Soh, “Japan’s National/Asian Women’s Fund for ‘Comfort Women,’” Pacific Affairs 76, no. 2 (2003): 209-33. See, also, Yuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women (London: Routledge, 2002); Yoshimi Yoshiaki, Comfort Women. Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military during World War II (New York: Columbia UP, 2002).
  14.  See, for example, Irene Visser, “Trauma Theory and Postcolonial Literary Studies.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 47, no. 3 (2011): 270-82; Michael Borzaga, “Trauma in the Postcolony: Towards a New Theoretical Approach,” Trauma, Memory, and Narrative in the Contemporary South African Novel, ed. Ewald Mengel and Michael Borzaga (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012), 65-9; Jennifer Yusin, “Postcolonial Trauma” in Trauma and Literature, edited by Roger Kurtz (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2018), 239-54.
  15.  See, for example, Yoshihisa Amae, “Pro-Colonial or Postcolonial? Appropriation of Japanese Colonial Heritage in Present-Day Taiwan,” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 40, no. 1 (2011): 19-62.
  16.  See Emma Dolan, “The ‘Comfort Women’ Apologies: Gendered Victimhood and the Politics of Grievability” in Re-Writing Women as Victims: From Theory to Practice, ed. by María José Gámez Fuentes, Sonia Núñez Puente, Emma Gómez Nicolau (London: Routledge, 2018), 26-38.
  17.  While I wasn’t able to interview any of the surviving Amas for this research, I have exchanged emails with Henry K. M Chunag in October 2018. Mr. Chunag was one of the founders of the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation and one of the providers of legal counsel to the Taiwanese victims of Japanese military sexual slavery system in 1990s.
  18.  Cathy Caruth, “Apocalypse Terminable and Interminable: An Interview with Arthur S. Blank Jr.” in Listening to Trauma: Conversations with Leaders in the Theory and Treatment of Catastrophic Experience, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2014), 271-96, 274.
  19.  Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis (London: W. W. Norton, 1973), 118.
  20.  Focusing on a photographic archive from Berlin in 1945, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay reinterprets photographs conventionally read as a documentation of the destruction of German cities in the end of the war as an “affective and sonic register” of the erased history of the mass rape of women by the Allies’ soldiers. Azoulay argues that the invisibility of women and of rape in these photographic representations of the destroyed Berlin (which she sees as an urban topography of rape) has to do with “the Allies’ post-war efforts to present themselves as saviors, thus legitimizing their continued imperial dominance.” Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, “The Natural History of Rape,” Journal of Visual Culture 17, no. 2 (2018): 166-76, 166.
  21.  See, for example, Leah Bassel, The Politics of Listening: Possibilities and Challenges for Democratic Life (London: Palgrave, 2017); Tanja Dreher and Anshuman A. Mondal, “From Voice to Response: Ethical Responsiveness and the Politics of Difference” in Ethical Responsiveness and the Politics of Difference, ed. Tanja Dreher and Anshuman A. Mondal (London: Palgrave, 2018), 1-19.
  22.  Jacques Derrida, Sovereignties in Question (New York: Fordham UP, 2005), 75-76.
  23.  Jacques Derrida, Sovereignties in Question (New York: Fordham UP, 2005), 75.
  24.  Jacques Derrida, Sovereignties in Question (New York: Fordham UP, 2005), 142.
  25.  Jacques Derrida, Sovereignties in Question (New York: Fordham UP, 2005), 74.
  26.  Kuei-Ying Tsai in Faces of Ah-Ma (Taipei: Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, 2005).
  27.  Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1992), 70.
  28.  Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1992), 70-71.
  29.  Dori Laub in Cathy Caruth, “A Record That Has Yet to Be Made: An Interview with Dori Laub” in Listening to Trauma: Conversations with Leaders in the Theory and Treatment of Catastrophic Experience, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2014), 57.
  30.  Lena Herzog on Robert Harrison, Entitled Opinions, February 2, 2018, https://entitledopinions.stanford.edu/lena-herzog-dying-languages.
  31.  Christine M. Chinkin, “Women’s International Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery,” The American Journal of International Law 95, no. 2 (2001): 339.
  32.  Christine M. Chinkin, “Women’s International Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery,” The American Journal of International Law 95, no. 2 (2001): 339.
  33.  Tina Dolgopol, “The Judgment of the Tokyo Women’s Tribunal,” Alternative Law Journal 28, no. 5 (2003): 242-49.
  34.  Christine M. Chinkin, “Women’s International Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery,” The American Journal of International Law 95, no. 2 (2001): 337.
  35.  C.M. Argibay, quoted in Alexis Dudden, “‘We Came to Tell the Truth’: Reflections on the Tokyo Women’s Tribunal,” Critical Asian Studies 33, no. 4 (2001): 592.
  36.  Alexis Dudden, “‘We Came to Tell the Truth’: Reflections on the Tokyo Women’s Tribunal,” Critical Asian Studies 33, no. 4 (2001): 593, emphasis mine.
  37.  Alexis Dudden, “‘We Came to Tell the Truth’: Reflections on the Tokyo Women’s Tribunal,” Critical Asian Studies 33, no. 4 (2001): 593.
  38.  Song of the Reed (Taipei: Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, 2015).
  39.  A Secret Buried for 50 Years—The Story of the Taiwanese “Comfort Women” (Taipei: Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, 1998).
  40.  Faces of Ah-Ma (Taipei: Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, 2005).
  41.  These quotations are from the inscriptions at the Ama Museum.
  42.  Ama Museum.
  43.  Ama Museum.
  44.  Ama Museum.

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