What happened when a teacher assigned a book on "comfort women" shocked herHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Japan, comfort women, WW2
... The presentation on Comfort Woman began disarmingly enough, with four of the five speakers covering elements of the author’s victimization. Then the fifth speaker, Mohammad (not his real name), stepped up to the lectern. “Because this is a Japanese history class, I need to give the Japanese side,” he began. I scribbled a note to remind myself to issue a gentle but firm rebuttal of both the assumption of a univocal “Japanese side,” and the premise that we as historians owed partiality to our subject of study.
From that point, however, the presentation took an even more alarming turn, as Mohammad proceeded to recapitulate apologist arguments for sexual slavery. “Most of the women were Japanese prostitutes,” he began. “They were given three meals a day and tea whenever they wanted, even in the middle of the night. The ones who served officers were raped only once or twice a day. When they got sick, they got a break and doctors took care of them.”
Mohammad was a senior math major. He had joined the course after the enrollment deadline with special permission, and I had regretted making the exception ever since. I braced myself each time I saw his hand in the air. Over the years I had grown accustomed to exoticizing statements about Japanese valor, diligence, and bloodthirstiness, as well as more troubling rhetoric about the Japanese “species.” “Before you turn in a paper, replace ‘Japan’ with ‘United States’ and ‘Japanese’ with ‘American,’ and check that you’re still comfortable with what you’re saying,” I routinely advised. But Mohammad tended to take essentialism a step further than most students. When we covered the significance of the Opium War to Japan, he speculated that “bushido prevented the Japanese from becoming addicts like the Chinese.” During a lecture on Japan’s colonization of the South Sea Islands, he asked if the indigenous population was inferior because they were smaller in stature than the Japanese. For the most part, I strained to tactfully redirect the discussion. For example, I used the above provocation to discuss the collection and manipulation of physical anthropological data to support the racial hierarchy of Japanese imperialism, which followed Euro-American models in equating height with superiority. Inwardly cringing, I had nonetheless tried to avoid embarrassing Mohammad. I was acutely aware that he was Pakistani, or of Pakistani descent, in a class in which Caucasian students tended to dominate discussions. Did I make allowances to ensure that he felt welcome in the classroom?
There was also the matter of my white skin. In my department I have two colleagues in Japanese history, one born and educated in Korea, the other Japanese-American, both women. Neither had experienced this kind of revisionism in the classroom. Did students think I might be more receptive to it because I was visibly non-Asian?
While I deliberated if and how to intervene, Mohammad’s fellow presenters jumped in to challenge him by pointing out ways in which he had misconstrued the text. One female speaker, who was generally quiet in class, observed that the author of Comfort Woman had not “gotten a break” during her illness, but was raped by her doctor. Another student gave page references where the testimony contradicted Mohammad’s claim that the women were given enough to eat. I might have begun from a wider premise, denouncing the exploitation of women regardless of national origin, sexual history, or “working” conditions. Yet it was a start, and I could not have been more proud of the students for using their knowledge of the reading to stand up to propaganda.
At the end of the period, I announced that we would resume discussion of the comfort women atrocity in our next meeting. Mohammad left quickly, while the other four members of the group surrounded me. “We had no idea what he was going to say,” one began. “That’s not what we think at all. We didn’t want to contradict him in front of the whole class.” I was honest with them. “I understand,” I reassured them. “I wasn’t expecting this either. I’m really proud of you all for challenging what he said. I’ll address this with the class on Wednesday.”...
Though I would not thank Mohammad for his outspokenness, he nonetheless gave his fellow students a memorable opportunity to respectfully yet resoundingly repudiate a particularly brutal form of colonialism, as well as the racism and sexism that feature so prominently in today’s world. Since our discussion of Comfort Woman, our president has moved to exclude certain individuals from the United States based solely on their national background, amnestied a police officer convicted of racial profiling, and denounced African-American football players for peacefully protesting the contemporary state of race relations. He has made excuses for a white supremacist/neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville that culminated in the murder of a young counter-protestor. He has moved to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), President Obama’s extension of legal status to certain immigrants who entered the U.S. without authorization prior to age 16. The list of assaults on inclusivity and freedom goes on. In this moment, it is more important than ever that our students do not simply accept diversity as a passive condition, but that they understand the stakes of conscious, articulate, and active commitment to developing a pluralist and open-minded society. That is the lesson I hope they take away from our course.
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