Samantha Joo is an independent scholar who has previously taught at Seoul Women’s University (Korea), as well as Coe College and Washington University (USA). This post is a shorter, more conversational version of a forthcoming academic paper.
The post draws on the biblical story of Rizpah, which can be found in 2 Samuel (chs 3 and 21). Rizpah was a concubine of King Saul. After his death she is ‘taken’ by Abner, probably in a bid by Abner to challenge Saul’s son and likely successor, Ishbosheth. This would account for the quarrel that erupts between Abner and Ishbosheth. Abner defects to David who becomes king of Israel after Saul. In order to appease the Gibeonites, David then agrees to execute seven of Saul’s sons. Five of these are the sons of Saul’s daughter Merab; the two remaining sons are Rizpah’s. When the corpses are left exposed, Rizpah spends five months protecting them from scavengers until David relents and they are properly buried.
In this post Rizpah’s story – of sexual exploitation and perseverance in extreme adversity – is read as a counter-narrative that serves to illuminate the contemporary political situation arising from the Japanese government’s objection to commemorative bronze statues of the ‘comfort women’ in Korea.
‘Comfort woman’ is a translation of Japanese ianfu, a euphemism for ‘prostitute’. The designation refers to the many thousands of women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. Most of these enslaved women and girls came from the territories occupied by Japan before and during World War II, including Korea, China and the Philippines. The post explores the insidious efforts of governments who, with their master narratives, seek to suppress stories of and by the women whose bodies bear witness to rape and oppression.
Joo has just completed her second book, Translating Emotions of Invisibility: Cain Through the Gaze of Raskolnikov and Bigger, which is under review for publication with Routledge. Alongside raising two mischievous dogs, a Pom and a ratty-looking mutt, she is currently developing a nonprofit organization, called ‘Platform’ – check it out! https://www.facebook.com/platformforwomen/ – which mentors women who intend to work for the socially marginalized in Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities.
You can find out more about Joo and her publications here: https://independent.academia.edu/SamanthaJoo
As the new government under President Moon Jae-in comes into power in Korea, the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo, has pressured him to remove the bronze statues of “comfort women” in Korea. He has called upon him to honor the December 2015 agreement whereby the Korean government promised to remove the bronze statue (presently in Seoul and now in Busan) in return for an apology and monetary compensation. Since Prime Minister Abe personally gave an “apology” and Japan had paid a mere 1 billion yen ($8.9 million USD) to the survivors through a foundation, the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, Korea now has to keep its end of the agreement. With the rising threat of North Korea under Kim Jong-un, President Moon is feeling the intimidation. The question is, should he yield for political expediency?
Surprisingly, the answer lies in the ancient, biblical story of Rizpah (2 Sam 21:1-14) in which the concubine of Saul challenges King David’s dictates, forcing him to restore justice. When King David slaughtered seven Saulide descendants with the collusion of the Gibeonites, Rizpah dared to expose his wrongdoing. She persisted in her protest which embodied a counter-narrative that questioned and ultimately subverted the king’s royal court story. Similarly, the Korean people must resist until Prime Minister Abe publicly acknowledges Imperial Japan’s systematic sexual enslavement of girls and women during WWII. They need to continue to challenge the master narrative that intends to obliterate the story of the “comfort women.” (1)
Imperial Japan systematically setup “comfort women” stations for their soldiers during WWII. Since men have sexual needs, some including the former mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, have argued that the government had the right and authority to force 200,000 women to “service” them, i.e. to violently terrorize and rape girls and women of all ages in Asia, many of whom were Koreans. He maintained that these “comfort women” stations were “necessary at the time [of WWII] to maintain discipline in the army.” While the former Mayor Hasimoto provides a horrific justification for sexual slavery (2), he nevertheless acknowledged the government’s institutionalization of the stations. Even with the mounting evidence of Imperial Japan’s systematic effort, Prime Minister Abe however does not believe that it had any part in the sexual slavery. He has repeatedly rejected all attempts in acknowledging Japan’s direct involvement in setting up the “comfort women” stations. Only recently, on account of the political need to unify against the rising North Korean threat, he had decided to personally apologize for the involvement of some of the “Japanese military authorities at that time.”(3) It was essentially diplomatic talk to absolve the government by blaming a few bad seeds in the Japanese military.
To exacerbate the situation, the US has tried to encourage the former and present Korean governments to move past the issue and think about its future political and economic relationship with Japan. The “comfort women” bronze statue was considered a “thorny issue” which has “proven diplomatic headache for the United States.”(4) But it is not just a “thorny issue”; the pressure to remove the statue is an insidious effort to silence the embodied stories of the oppressed. Aside from the attempt to coerce the Korean government, Prime Minister Abe and other like-minded constituents have campaigned to monopolize all of history with their master narrative. Not only have they whitewashed Japan’s textbooks, they have tried to influence and sometimes intimidate people into changing the textbooks in Korea and the US! In addition, they tried to encourage the removal of bronze statues in Hong Kong, Australia, and the US. This is an all-out international campaign to wipe out the counter-narratives of the “comfort women.”
Biblical Story of Rizpah
A similar event is embedded in the ancient, biblical story of Rizpah; King David tried to cover up his collusion with the Gibeonites to annihilate the Saulide descendants. According to the royal court historian, the land of Israel was struck with a three-year famine. On account of the famine, the faithful king prays to God to ascertain the reason for the famine. Since he had the responsibility to ensure its fertility as the ruler of the land, he needed to remedy the national crisis (though it did take him three years). Based on the narrative, God attributed the reason for the famine to Saul’s zealous attempt to decimate the Gibeonites, the resident aliens whom Joshua protected with a covenant (Josh 9:15). Therefore he asks the Gibeonites for their price; and they are the ones who demand the death of seven Saulides as bloodguilt. The pious King David had to concede to their demand for blood. Though he promised Saul he would never kill his descendants (1 Sam 24:21-22), David needed to think of the welfare of the land. Consequently, he delivers them over to the Gibeonites who impales and leaves their corpses in plain view. This was the historian’s masternarrative. David’s hands were tied; he had to sacrifice them to restore fertility in the land. Yet underlying the master narrative was an attempt to silence David’s opposition. The Gibeonites impaled the bodies in Gibeon which is a central cultic location. Against the Deuteronomic Code (Deut 21:22) in which the hanging corpse should not be kept overnight but buried on the same time, the Gibeonites keep the bodies in full view of the pilgrims who came to sacrifice at Gibeon. The message was clear. This will happen to anyone who dared to kill a Gibeonite. But more importantly, this will happen to anyone who posed a threat to King David. If David only wanted to appease God for Saul’s annihilation of the Gibeonites, he would and should have demanded that bodies be buried. But instead, he left the bodies to instill fear in anyone who would dare to challenge or oppose him. The northern tribes have been warned.
While it was the duty of the men of Gibeah, Saul’s clan, to protect these men from death and their desecration, they were too terrified to do anything. After all, the king had previously squelched Sheba’s rebellion (2 Sam 20:1-22) and wantonly killed seven innocent men. Despite the message of terror, the concubine widow of Saul confronted the king; Rizpah dared to transgress against David. With her silent but powerful presence like the bronze statue of the “comfort women,” she defied the king and shielded the bodies from the natural elements. In a confusing passage, Rizpah takes a sackcloth and either appears to wear or spread out the sackcloth (2 Sam 21:10). The specific wording of the passage is critical. If she wears the sackcloth, she would be mourning the death of her sons and nephews. If she spreads out the sackcloth over the rock, she was essentially protesting the injustice in the prophetic tradition. I argue for the latter translation. She visibly lays the sackcloth over “the rock” (ha-tzur), a large rocky platform from where she weathered the blistering sun and strong winds during the day and cold desert temperature during the night. On top of the boulder where everyone can see her, she shields the bodies from the birds and wild animals for up to six months.
As people went on a pilgrimage to the cultic center, they would have started to ask questions. They would have wondered as to why and who. Why were there dead bodies? Who were they? Why were they not buried during a time of peace? Why and who is the woman guarding the bodies? Whereas before, the pilgrims would have walked away in fear, now they would have been ashamed. Had Rizpah not protested the deaths of her sons and nephews, pilgrims would have just slinked away in fear. They would have wanted to avoid the wrath of King David so that they would not end up like these corpses. However, with Rizpah’s presence, they would have been ashamed for failing to help her, a widow, against the unjust ruler who allowed or perhaps even colluded with the Gibeonites to kill and desecrate her sons and nephews. Their murmuring started to spread so that her deed was reported to David in Jerusalem. Her silent presence in Gibeon with the bodies was on the verge of dismantling the legitimacy of his kingship. He rushed to bury not only the seven innocent men but also the bones of Saul and Jonathan in the tomb of their father/grandfather Kish. He wanted to squelch the murmurs. Precisely at that moment, the autumn rain came, ending the famine. It is as if God responded with divine approval when justice was restored in the land with the proper burial of the Saulide family. Therefore David did not restore fertility with their blood; rather Rizpah, the concubine-widow, with her persistent daring presence, forced him to restore justice to the land, whereupon the land enjoyed the much-needed rainfall.
Rizpah Among the “Comfort Women”
The bronze statue of a young girl represents the “comfort women” who were systematically forced into prostitution by a sovereign nation during a time of war. Therefore, the young girl embodies the story of the embattled women who were forcibly raped and sacrificed for Imperial Japan. Likewise, Rizpah is the silent presence that embodied the story of the senseless death of innocent men who were slaughtered for King David’s ambition. The bronze statue and Rizpah therefore are the countermonuments that embody stories which interrogate and destabilize unjust leaders. At a critical juncture in negotiations over the bronze statues in Korea, what should be done? Well, the story of the daring and persistent Rizpah has the answer.
Koreans and therefore the Korean government should resist the tyranny of the master narrative; they need to persist until Prime Minister Abe acknowledges the counter-narratives of the “comfort women.” Why? Just as Rizpah was able to force King David to restore justice and therefore fertility in the land, Japan would be able to transform its standing in the international community.
Instead of its oppressive history, people would remember the country for its efforts to mend for the injustice committed against the women in Korea and all over Asia. It is not just about the Saulide descendants or the “comfort women.” In forcing King David to acknowledge if not direct collusion with the Gibeonites to eradicate the Saulides, Rizpah makes him and perhaps all his royal descendants accountable to the people. No leader should kill at will. And the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo, could become the exemplary voice in Japan and the international community. By including stories of the “comfort women” about the Imperial Japan’s systematic enslavement of women during WWII in its history textbooks, they will be sending a clear message. No government and its military should ever violate a child or a woman.
This is not be a political but a moral dilemma. The present president of Korea, Moon Jae-in, should not demurely respond:
The comfort-women agreement that we made with Japan during the last administration is not accepted by the people of Korea, particularly by the victims.
They are against this agreement. The core to resolving the issue is for Japan to take legal responsibility for its actions and to make an official [government]
It is not just an issue about these victims, or about the people of Korea who may or may not support him politically, but about confronting the injustice perpetuated by a government. Even as I write this short essay, the militant Islamic State, ISIS, is systematically raping girls and women from the Yazidi religious minority. It is outright flagrant violation of human rights that has been masqueraded as some “theology of rape.” (6) If any of us allow a government to deny the injustice of the past or the present by manipulating and perpetuating its master narrative, then we are complicit. We are like the men of Gibeah, who passively watch a king kill seven innocent people. Rather we, like Rizpah, should dare and persist in fighting the master narrative that tries to silence the cries of women who with their bodies incarnate the counternarratives.
(1) The label, “military comfort women,” was been euphemistically coined by post-war Japanese government. I have decided to use the label because of its common usage and more importantly, its demonstration of the Japanese government’s continuous need to deceive the public.
(2) This is the description that Osaka Mayor, Toru Hashimoto, explained for the establishment of “comfort women” stations. See Hiroko Tabuchi, “Women Forced into WWII Brothels Served Necessary Role,” The New York Times, May 13, 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/world/asia/mayor-in-japan-says-comfort-women-played-a-necessary-role.html).
(3) Sam Kim and Maiko Takahashi, “Abe Offers Apology, Compensation to South Korean ‘Comfort Women,’” Bloomberg, Dec 28, 2015 (“https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-28/abe-offers-apology-compensation-to-south-korean-comfort-women-).
(4) “‘Comfort Women’: Thorny Issue That Has Long Divided Japan, South Korea,” The Straits Times, December 28, 2015 (http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/comfort-womenthorny-issue-that-has-long-divided-japan-south-korea).
(5) Lally Weymouth, “South Korea’s New President: ‘Trump and I Have a Common Goal,” The Washington Post, June 20, 2017 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/south-koreaspresident-
(6) Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” The New York Times, August 13, 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/14/world/middleeast/isis-enshrines-a-theology-ofrape.