There has been a troubling lack of understanding of the comfort women issue. Indeed, given the refusal in many quarters to see the comfort women in any light other than the mythological, it is a very welcome development to see two scholars attempt to understand comfort women “park statue politics” from a fresh, non-ideological perspective.
This is the self-imposed remit of Thomas J. Ward and William D. Lay’s book, Park Statue Politics: World War II Comfort Women Memorials in the United States, namely: to clear away the historiographical static and present an easy-to-understand guide that city leaders in America can use when deciding whether to approve comfort women statues in a given municipality.
Unfortunately, Ward and Lay fail to break free of the mytho-historiographical fog surrounding the issue. However, their book still serves as a guidepost for understanding why the comfort women ideology has gained such a stronghold on the American imagination.
Ward and Lay — both professors at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut — make an attempt to provide context for the comfort women issue before wading into full-blown “statue politics” in the last third of the book. But already, in the beginning, we can see that obfuscating elements pervade the Ward and Lay volume.
The ideological filter is in effect from page one, and the blinders of the comfort women narrative — the mytho-historiography voiced by activists and echoed throughout American academia and the American press — very clearly prevent Ward and Lay from digging down into and exposing the real historical humus beneath the ideological overgrowth.
A balanced scholarly tone, analysis, and proper citations are lacking from the beginning.
For example, the very first footnote on the very first page is from the Korea Times, an English-language newspaper based in Seoul. The next two footnotes are from the Japan Times, which until very recently hewed to essentially the same editorial (activist-centric) line as the New York Times. The fourth footnote is from the English-language edition of another Korean newspaper, the heavily left-leaning Hankyoreh, and the fifth and sixth footnotes are from UNESCO, which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has long been using as a platform for attacking Japan.
Left-wing newspapers and U.N. documents, all apparently in English. This is hardly the stuff of rigid, or original, scholarship in a contentious topic with roots very deep in the East Asian past.
From the outset, then, the tone of the book biases the reader. Ward and Lay are triply trapped: first, by an apparent unwillingness to meticulously consult original historical documents; second, by an apparent inability to read pertinent languages (most relevant records are in Japanese and Korean); and, third, by an apparent reluctance to seek out voices from beyond the academic-journalistic complex which was instrumental in creating the comfort women mytho-historiography in the first place.
There is Also Good News
To be fair, Ward and Lay do stretch much farther outside the usual academic circles than almost any of their American peers. They are to be very much credited, for instance, for making good use of the research of C. Sarah Soh, who has done very important work in contextualizing the comfort women issue within the larger East Asian, and even world, milieu.
Ward and Lay also provide a space for Koichi Mera, famous for his dissenting views on the comfort women issue in the United States, to have a say. One gets the overall impression from the volume that they sincerely tried to find ways to balance the relentless homogeneity of the U.S. academy and media with information not necessarily toes-down on the party line.
If only they had tried harder. Koichi Mera has certainly been vocal in his opposition to “park statue politics” in the United States, but there are careful historians who have done much more, and much better, actual research on the comfort women. To be sure, many of these historians write in Korean and Japanese — Park Yuha and Tsutomu Nishioka come immediately to mind.
But doyen of modern Japanese history Ikuhiko Hata’s definitive book on the comfort women issue became available in English a year before this short volume of Ward and Lay’s came out. The first version in Japanese had been published in 1999. How did the two Connecticut professors miss it?
Further, other Korean academicians have spoken out against the false historiography, but I looked through the book in vain for leading lights, such as Young-hoon Lee, Byeong-jik An, Joseph Yi, and many others.
Same Recycled Errors
Objective analysis requires interrogating the validity of source material. So it is disappointing that Ward and Lay spent page after page virtually reproducing passages from Yuki Tanaka and George Hicks, whose books on the comfort women are riddled with outright falsehoods. On page 15, for example, Ward and Lay cite Hicks in asserting that Japanese troops “executed the Korean comfort women when they retreated from losing battles with Allied forces,” although there is not a shred of corroborated evidence that this happened.
On the same page, Ward and Lay again cite Hicks in asserting that comfort women “serviced troops along the Japanese Imperial Army’s frontlines.” It takes very little imagination or common sense to realize that setting up brothels next to foxholes would have been either suicidal or farcical, or both — to put it bluntly, how would men hunkering down under withering mortar and machine gun fire find time for sex, and how would they manage to defend unarmed women if they could barely hold their own line in the dirt?
This is where scholarly due diligence would have come in very handy. The questionable veracity of Hicks’s book should have been clear, as Hicks clearly acknowledges that most of his book was based on the findings of one woman of Korean descent living in Japan who worked with activists. Further, Hicks fails to explicitly specify (that is, page number, author, etc.) the sources for many of the claims made in his book — a red flag for every serious scholar.
Even More Serious Problems Await
Because Ward and Lay have made little effort, it seems, to question the anecdotal claims about and by the comfort women in the sources they cite, they can hardly be held responsible for repeating others’ wild untruths. However, given the gravity of this issue, Ward and Lay really should have done more than just a modicum of homework when investigating the present state of “park statue politics,” which is the title of their book and the overall theme of their investigation.
To give just one example, Ward and Lay assert that “Michael Honda, the unflagging U.S. Congressional proponent of a more assertive Japanese apology, was named ‘Honorary Curator’ of the [WWII Pacific War] museum [in Chinatown in San Francisco].” This uninterrogated sentence fairly staggers the mind. First, he is known everywhere as “Mike” Honda, not “Michael.” Moreover, Mike Honda was long under investigation by a House ethics committee for allegations that he shunted taxpayer money into his own campaign coffers, the kind of corruption central to “park statue politics.”
But it gets worse. Honda was later photographed — in South Korea — with Russell Lowe, who was United States Senator Dianne Feinstein’s driver and assistant for 20 years. Lowe was fired after the Federal Bureau of Investigation discovered that he had been working as a spy for the People’s Republic of China while he was in the employ of the senator. Undeterred, Lowe immediately began working at the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, which was the organization instrumental in bringing the comfort women statue to San Francisco.
The public face of that drive was provided by Lillian Sing and Julie Tang, two judges who retired in order to carry out their anti-Japan propaganda full-time.
The Final Word
There is one more serious flaw in the “park statue politics” book. In their work, Ward and Lay give scant mention of the dismay, frustration, and pain felt by those Japanese Americans and Japanese residing in the U.S. who know comfort women history.
These Japanese Americans and Japanese in America, who hold visible positions, are fearful of speaking out, lest they be labeled “denier,” “apologist,” “misogynist,” or, worse, and possibly suffer retaliation. This is the human cost of an inaccurate historiography, spread to evoke outrage and hatred toward an entire nation and ethnic group.
Park Statue Politics is, unfortunately, an unwitting testament to the power of the comfort women myth in the United States. But it is still a much better book than nearly anything else available from American university researchers on the subject.
Park Statue Politics, it is hoped, will be the beginning of a long-overdue reassessment of the history that underlies the historiography and the politics that distort our understanding of the past.
Publisher: E-International Relations Publishing, 2019
Authors: Thomas J. Ward and William D. Lay
To learn more: Follow this link to learn more about the book at the publisher’s website or to learn how to purchase a copy.
Author: Jason Morgan