“Comfort” and discomfort: history and the shadows of the past

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The statue at the centre of the controversy resembles this example.

At first glance, it’s a most unlikely statue to ignite a diplomatic row: a barefoot girl sits on a chair, her hands passively in her lap. Nevertheless, the placement of this gentle statue by South Korean activists in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan has set off a storm of controversy and provoked Japan to withdraw its ambassador from South Korea. But why? In Theory of Knowledge, clashing perspectives on this statue take us straight through concepts of symbolic representation and smack into history as an area of knowledge with ethical resonance.

It seems to me that this incident could be immensely useful for a TOK class. There are plenty of images online of the controversial statue, so there’s something visual to anchor abstract discussion. Moreover, students are likely to have their interest (and probably compassion) caught by the story of women forced into sexual servitude – and to grasp quickly both the desire to remember historically, and the desire to forget! The current strong feelings about the issue and how its story is told also help to raise a potent TOK question: Is history really only about the past?

The statue at the centre of the diplomatic storm represents Korean wartime “comfort women”, reportedly “a Japanese euphemism for the females who were forced to provide sex for Imperial troops in Japanese military brothels before and during the war.”  Korean activists placing it in front of the Japanese consulate were confronting Japan with its treatment of an estimated 200,000 Korean women during the second world war. They installed it first on December 28, 2016, on the one-year anniversary of an agreement between Japan and South Korea designed to put the matter to rest “finally and irreversibly”. Although Japan had given compensation and expressed regret, many felt that it had fallen short of full acknowledgement and apology to the handful of former “comfort women” or “sex slaves” still alive. The failure of the South Korean government to remove a similar statue near the Japanese embassy in Seoul had already created tensions in the year since the agreement took force. The dispute is presently unresolved, with continuing impact on economic discussions between South Korea and Japan.

In TOK, three aspects of this incident strike me as particularly interesting to explore:

  • the use of a work of art to condense attitudes, emotions, and implicitly even arguments so that the representation is charged with symbolic meaning;
  • more centrally, the dispute over how the past is acknowledged and recorded, by whom and for whom. How is the truth of what happened in the past established? Can the truth – or how it is spoken about – be decided “finally and irreversibly” by a formal diplomatic agreement?
  • further, what are the ethical responsibilities of those in the present for the actions of those in the past with whom they have a national continuity (or other form of continuity)? Is there an ethical “balance sheet” that enables groups in the present to “make up for” the actions done by others in the past? Is restitution for the past a psychological issue or an ethical issue? Or are the roles of apology and restitution wholly pragmatic – enabling people to live together in the present despite the shadows cast by the past?

Stepping back even further from the particular dispute over a statue, we might be able to prompt our students to muse more broadly about the nature of historical knowledge. What might we lose if we let memories and records be washed away behind us? What can we hope to gain by examining the human record, and trying to understand what happened – and why?

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Selected References
Justin McCurry, “Former sex slaves reject Japan and South Korea’s ‘comfort women’ accord”, The Guardian. December 26, 2016. (article is from a year ago, and gives some background) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/26/former-sex-slaves-reject-japan-south-koreas-comfort-women-accord

Mari Yamaguchi and Hyung-Jin Kim, “Opinions on ‘comfort women’ reveal Japan-South Korea divide”, Stuff. January 13, 2017.http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/asia/88413802/opinions-on-comfort-women-reveal-japansouth-korea-divide

Reiji Yoshida and Ayako Mie, “Japan recalls envoys over new ‘comfort women’ statue in Busan”, The Japan Times. January 6, 2017. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/01/06/national/politics-diplomacy/japan-pulls-envoy-south-korea-comfort-women-dispute/#.WHmmE7YrLNA

Gil Yun-hyung, “Japanese media critical of new comfort woman statue in Busan”, The Hankyoreh. January 2, 2017. http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/777018.html

Image: The statue at the centre of the current controversy resembles this example. https://pixabay.com/en/girl-award-girl-comfort-girl-award-1160088/

2 thoughts on ““Comfort” and discomfort: history and the shadows of the past

  1. Excellent thanks. I have Korean and Japanese students in my class who are very close to this controversial subject and the exploration for all students will be beneficial.

    • Eileen Dombrowski says:

      Thanks for your encouragement, Gerald. A TOK class is a safe place for students who are “very close” to an issue to recognize differing points of view and why they matter to groups in conflict. What we know about the past is so often framed by the interests and emotions of the present.

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