Skip to content

Seen and Unseen

Asian women in the international imagination

Traffic in Asian Women by Laura Hyun Yi Kang. Duke University Press Books, 352 pages.

For decades, one of the most prototypical and recognizable figures of sexual injury has been the Asian woman. Victim to military prostitution, wartime atrocity, sex tourism, and trafficking, her body has presented international audiences with reliable opportunity for outrage and inquiry. The Asian woman appears in human rights reports, has been the subject of international conferences, has even flickered through second-wave feminist classics like Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will. This focus on sex workers and rape survivors in Asia has collapsed the two into an ambiguous notoriety. Occasionally, international institutions will invite some of these women to speak about their experiences. Often, the “experts” resolve any ensuing testimony of degradation or inequality by recommending the increased surveillance of, and Westernized development for, the women they intend to save.

Such tensions are meticulously explored in Traffic in Asian Women, a recent book by University of California Irvine professor Laura Hyun Yi Kang. Kang is interested in how Asian women are seen through the lens of sexual violence; she focuses particularly on the survivors of Japan’s WWII-era “comfort system,” which became global news in the 1990s, and their twinned experiences of “atrocious violation and impressive publicity.” How, she asks, “did the privileging of spectacularly and especially sexually violated Asian female bodies foreclose other terms and conditions for making ‘Asian women’ intelligible?” We might have an inkling of an answer if we remember that the latter half of the twentieth century was precisely the period when millions of women in Asia began pouring into factory and sweatshop work, and yet only one (sexualized) image of the Asian woman, one understanding of her (sexualized) exploitation, became a matter of consistent international concern.

Feminist and progressive journalists have long warned us that certain anti-trafficking discourses make use of shoddy data, conflate trafficking with sex work, and peremptorily arbitrate between groups of women “deserving” of rights. Kang’s book shows us how this process has been deeply racialized from the start. Throughout the interwar period, into the Cold War, and then into our era of globalization, international organizations have wielded the power to uplift women or disappear them. Who might count in a campaign like the UN’s Decade of Women (1976-1985) has never been an innocent question; as Kang demonstrates, it remains inseparable from the money, power, and geopolitical jockeying that make the mortar of global governance.

To fully get at the knotted significance of sexual violation and Asian women, Kang first directs us to the League of Nations, which featured sex trafficking—or as some liked to call it then, “white slavery”—in its early agenda. In a reprise of Victorian-era alarm over the phenomenon, the League adopted a series of linked resolutions and drafted reports aimed at eliminating traffic in women; it asked member states to submit reports, deliver statistics on prosecutions, and even assign railway station and port watches to look for “women and girls destined for an immoral life.” In this way, Kang writes, the “cross-border” surveillance of women helped make a new brand of transnationalism “thinkable.”

What did this dubious term “white slave trade” do? What functions, exclusions, and rhetorical slippages did it perform for a toughening—and trenchantly imperial—apparatus of international diplomacy? As Kang shows, the League’s work on trafficking was beleaguered by racist blind spots (“white slavery” itself confidently foreclosed the possibility that other forms of slavery—or their after-effects—still needed addressing). Investigators published two major reports on trafficking in 1927 and 1932, both of them conducted through the American Bureau of Social Hygiene, a Rockefeller-funded organization with ties to U.S. eugenics research (this despite the fact that America was not at the time, or ever, a member of the League). Kang writes that “both reports were unabashedly concerned with the fate of white women,” hewing to an institutional fixation on racial and sexual purity. Even when writing about Asia, investigators demarcated a distinction between “Occidental” and “Asian” women, and privileged the former as the truly unwilling victims of trafficking’s brutality. League reporters were particularly fretful about the fate of Russian women crossing the border into China, and the specter of interracial sexual relations.

At the same time, the League allowed member-states to sign onto regulations around trafficking that carved out exceptions for colonial holdings and territories. Colonies, and the non-white women living in them, were cast beyond the League’s resources in a move that both minimized and abetted long histories of punitive imperial control over prostitution: Britain, for example, had subjected prostitutes in Madras to “lock hospitals” and fortnightly compulsory exams as early as the 1860s. In Hong Kong, where the explicit goal was to provide what an 1883 ordinance called “clean native women” for foreign military men, colonial officials enacted regimes of brothel registration and medical examination. Already, an incipient human rights apparatus was defining certain women as inconsequential or irrelevant, slotting humanitarian concerns into a colonial racial hierarchy.

Nudged along by the American social hygiene bureau, the League drifted from a position of surveilling traffic to calling for its comprehensive end. Partially based on the League reports, the organization passed a far-reaching convention in 1933 that advocated punishing those who brought a woman across borders for “immoral” purposes even with “her consent.” The legacy of this declaration would trail through the United Nations, whose 1949 convention on the same issue equated traffic with prostitution and described the latter as “incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person.”

Asian women remained subjects of fleeting import during this moment, but their visibility began to sharpen as the League dissolved and the United Nations formed under the looming sign of global decolonization. Between 1945 and 1965, as the UN more than doubled in membership, “slavery” became a suddenly capacious term: in response to a survey for a UN report in 1966, an independent Mali defined colonialism itself as a “new system of general slavery.” The same year, representatives including Algeria and Iraq also lobbied to have colonialism and apartheid defined as slavery-like practices in an official resolution. Among member-states, the freshly admitted and the postcolonial were pursuing real, rhetorical sovereignty across the UN’s international platform, but this institutional belonging also made them available to novel systems of monitoring and surveillance. When Laos admitted through a form questionnaire that “sexual slavery” persisted in the country, it suggested a reformed labor code might go some way toward mitigating the poverty that encouraged trafficking; the UN’s final report on the issue somehow cast this as “clearly” an example of Laos requesting UN intervention.

Sex trafficking is a horrific crime, and for that reason, discourse and writing around the issue is often emotive, pumped up with moral urgency. Writers sometimes lose important distinctions of consent, occupation, and biography, as well as attention to which women actually become priorities—choice “victims”—and when. In Kang’s book, race is the liquid dye that suddenly makes these decisions visible; “Asian women,” at first a monolithic but invisible category, became in the twentieth century the suddenly sensational “beneficiaries of global civil society.” It’s no coincidence that this happened as transnational organizations like the UN were attempting to assert their relevance and expertise, and the lives of Global South women became available as a new metric for measuring the non-West’s non-development.

As interlocking architectures of human rights regimes and sensationalized press coverage became all the more influential, Global South trafficking, sexual tourism, and domestic violence were raised as examples of both sexual slavery and the overall lag of women’s advancement in the non-West. Kang describes how, as these emotional discourses “routed” slavery “through the category of women,” other possible connotations of the term—such as imperial relations or compulsory labor—dropped out of view. This process occurred as a classic case-study of Foucauldian discourse formation: a body of experts—which included NGOs, the UN working group on slavery, the Rutgers Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and feminist authors from around the world—claimed legitimacy by citing each others’ studies and bolstering the network’s authority. Drawing on League of Nation reports, the author Sean O’Callaghan followed up his 1965 book The White Slave Trade with, fittingly, The Yellow Slave Trade in 1968, marking a new form of global concern for sexual abuse in Asia. Since the spaces of expertise were Western, and the problems they identified ostensibly predominant in the Global South, a “clear division” of epistemological labor began to materialize: not so much white women saving brown women as Western organizations constantly studying and hailing non-Western women as transparent, knowable subjects.

Trafficking is very mobile and difficult to observe. Yet Kang shows how throughout the decades there was “little, if any, critical feminist interrogation” of these organizations’ “methodological and epistemological grounds for expertise.” This is where the Asianization of traffic and sexual slavery became important: as sexual abuse grew increasingly associated with Asia and Asian women, trafficking took on the “assured cultural-regional delineation” of a monolithic and supposedly retrograde continent. This (at times Orientalist) positioning gave trafficking solid geographic contours, linking instances of sexual abuse with clear bodies and faces. The premier example of this may be the case of Asian “comfort system” survivors.

In 1965, Senda Kakō, a Japanese reporter, was conducting archival research on World War II when he noticed something peculiar: photos taken by wartime journalists that pictured Japanese troops marching alongside unidentified women. Some of the women held trunks over their heads, in what Kakō recognized to be a traditional manner of carrying things in Korea. Kakō’s research led to the 1973 publication of Jūgun-ianfu, one of the most famous early treatments of Japan’s “comfort system,” which before and during WWII led to the conscription and rape of an estimated two hundred thousand women from across such places as Korea, Taiwan, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and China.

The “comfort system” was bound up with Japan’s colonization of Korea, its invasion of swathes of Asia, and its racialized demonization of non-Japanese others. Yet as post-war Western feminists gradually began to call attention to the “comfort system’s” legacy, they were unable to grapple with the intra-Asian violence it represented, or the notion that different Asian women might be oppressed in different ways. Prominent feminists either reverted to culturalist explanations about Confucianism’s supposed devaluation of girls or unproblematically folded Asian women into a totalizing notion of universal female subjugation—in Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller glossed over the atrocities of the Korean War as merely “a stopover” in a “long march through the history of rape and war.” In either case, the specific geopolitical and imperial forces that structured the system and Japan’s sustained denial of its existence went ignored.

Before international publicity elevated “comfort system” survivors in the 1990s, these women were regarded as expendable collateral: the Batavia Court punished and executed Japanese soldiers who raped Dutch women in Indonesia, but the Allies-supervised Tokyo War Crimes Trials neglected to set forth charges on behalf of Asian survivors. This racist double standard echoed the League of Nation’s earlier fault line between Occidental and Asian women, but also benefited America’s burgeoning Cold War crusade. The United States was in the process of overseeing a post-war restructuring of Asia that placed nations like Japan, Korea, and Taiwan into an allied bloc of staunchly non-Communist states. This bloc, which brought together colonial perpetrator and victim, was to cohere tenuously through the new binds of global trade and finance, as well as an additional dollop of historical amnesia.

Spotlighting the injured body or exemplary survivor offers an undeniable emotional impact, but this form of attention obscures the larger imperial histories in the background.

Under the directive of “modernization,” the U.S. occupation of Japan rehabilitated former war criminals and poured funds into the country’s key industries, while also setting limits on the war reparations Japan had to pay to its former colonies. Even after occupation ended, America helped award the position of prime minister to Kishi Nobusuke—a minister who had overseen the imperial conscription of hundreds of thousands of Korean and Chinese laborers. (Nobusuke was incidentally grandfather to future prime minister Shinzo Abe, a reliable contemporary denier of “comfort system” atrocities.) This continuum between Japanese and American imperialisms is central to Kang’s account, which pays careful attention to how Asia’s economic recovery, assisted by the United States, “began to overshadow” any attempt at “postwar reconciliation.” America funneled its spending on the Korean War through Japanese industry, lavishing money on army equipment and Toyota Jeeps; then, after invading Vietnam, it gave South Korean conglomerates a boost by awarding them contracts in construction and military logistics. As the industries of a non-Communist Asian bloc swelled, Japan became a source of consistent aid and loans for recovering nations across the continent. This process, which blurred the “line between reparations and aid,” often required other countries in the bloc to purchase Japanese goods and machinery and open their markets to exports. By 1985, when Japan emerged as the world’s largest creditor, it was neo-colonies and sub-colonies all the way down.

This oscillation between violence and economic entanglement helped suppress “comfort women’s” perspectives and needs, as countries remained hesitant to push the issue when their fates were so caught up with Japan’s regional leadership and the “Asian economic miracle” more broadly. Indeed, South Korean survivors won their first legal victory only this year, when a local court ordered Japan to pay reparations to the families of twelve  women—Japan, of course, rejected the ruling outright, claiming the issue had long since been resolved. Kang’s description of this bind resonates with scholarship by the famous Taiwanese intellectual Kuan-Hsing Chen, who, in his seminal work Asia as Method, describes how Asia’s decolonial movements “were interrupted by the formation of a cold-war structure.” Chen suggests that “colonization, imperialization, and the cold war have become one and the same historical process,” and that American occupation stopped Japan, specifically, “from grappling with its historical relations with its former colonies.”

For Kang, viewing the continent’s cohesion through financial and political domination means letting go of any understanding of a natural unified “Asia.” She describes how institutional efforts “to make Asian women visible” fold them into a racial monolith, glossing over the specific ways Asians hurt and control other Asians. The lesson here is not that the visibility of Asian survivors and victims of sexual abuse is bad—or that the horrors of the “comfort system” should never have been publicized—but rather that we have failed to fully question the ways we “know” and perceive these women. Spotlighting the injured body or exemplary survivor offers an undeniable emotional impact, but this form of attention obscures the larger imperial histories in the background, and the ways Asian states have still refused to reckon with them; it allows politicians to use the self-congratulatory premise of philanthropy or regional leadership to make oblique recognitions or small monetary donations, while ignoring how Asia has remained a site of economic and sexual exploitation long after WWII’s end. What if, instead of reading this purely as a horrifying and inflammatory story of sexual violence, we also understand that these abuses funnel into a less salacious, classically neoliberal narrative: one of states failing to advocate for their citizens and right their historical wrongs?

This dilemma may be why descriptions of individual “comfort system” survivors are rare in Traffic; unlike many works on the subject, which claim access into survivors’ feelings, Kang resists the desire for a “model figure” of either victimization or resistance. It is not just white feminists who have been guilty of this type of probing, psychologizing narrative: as “comfort women” became more visible in the 1990s alongside the legitimation of ethnic studies departments in the United States, some Asian American scholars claimed unique insight into the subject, suggesting, at times, that a loose racial affiliation automatically meant authenticity, sympathy, and expertise.

This is a familiar cautionary tale for Kang, whose earlier book, Compositional Subjects, also described fraught moments in which Asian American documentarians and reporters traveled to Asia to interview and sometimes speak for the women they found there. And yet, there are moments within this specific history when Asian and Asian American subjects do collide, moments in which “Asia” as a transnational concept seems revivified once more. As Kang demonstrates in one of Traffic’s most stirring chapters, Senda Kakō’s book was far from the first account of the “comfort system’s” brutality: U.S. army forces had discovered evidence of the system during the war, when, in 1944, the Office of War Information encountered and interrogated actual “comfort women” in Burma. And because these women were processed as POWs, and because the OWI often required on-site interpretation in its interviews with captured prisoners, many of the officers who first met these women were Asian American—specifically, Japanese American men pulled from internment camps back home to serve overseas.

Here we come to one of history’s sunspots—a moment in time that seems at once blinding and inscrutably dark, whose coincidental brutalities are so disorienting that one fails to sustain one’s gaze. Asian American men, previously interned by their own government, encounter Asian survivors of sexual violence on the peripheries of what we still commonly understand to be a European war. Two groups of people subject to different imperial formations and cruelty, and different modes of racist confinement. The spot burns—eludes the eye. What mutuality is present there? What mutuality is possible?

There are photographs and memoirs left behind by the encounter, what Kang describes as a “cruel and astounding trace” of history: in one picture, a group of captured comfort women kneel next to four U.S. soldiers. Barbed wire hangs in the background; the Asian American soldiers are identified in the caption, the women are not. Another trace appears in an official report by OWI Sergeant Alex Yorichi, who described with staggering hostility the “comfort women” he interrogated: “The average comfort woman is uneducated, childish, and . . . not pretty either by Japanese or Caucasian standards.” It is impossible to say whether Yorichi’s words were the product of angry disavowal, a bizarre creative license, or a desire to boast of some privileged cross-racial viewpoint (“Japanese or Caucasian”). Kang is careful when describing all of this; she refuses to guess at the thinking of the human actors in her book beyond what their written testimonies can tell us. Nevertheless, even as we try to avoid essentializing these individuals—or collapsing them into a vague “Asian” identity—there is something about their meeting that makes “Asia” feel, once more, like a meaningful or forceful structure.

The refrain you will commonly hear in certain leftist and progressive discourses about Asian Americans is that we are an unstable and largely artificial coalition—that one group of Asian Americans has nothing to do with another. It is a fashionable—if pretty correct—viewpoint that resonates with Kang’s insistence on avoiding monoliths and unities. But this moment in the book, to me, felt like a sticky patch for an otherwise strong commitment to trouble “any certain emplacement” of Asia or Asian women. The belief that in America we have “nothing to do with each other” can feel unconvincing when, as Kang’s book partially illustrates, Asians in Asia have, for centuries, had everything to do with each other. And, too, there are those moments of ephemeral overlap between two continents, two empires, through which Asia emerges as another thing entirely: a feeling of a structure that cannot be defined but nevertheless means. In these moments, the relation between Asian Americans and Asians is no longer diasporic or exotic but painfully close. If Asia was only a vacant concept, an epistemological mirage, then the OWI photos would maybe not feel as cruel and astounding as they do.

All this is likely an irrational feeling: one I have as someone who identifies vaguely as Asian, who has circulated between both continents, who has searched for their strange moments of convergence mostly as a strategy for wrenching a confusing personal biography into sense-making shape. The sort of emotional pull a concept like “Asian” has, its instinctual tug, is often not conducive to addressing material and political questions of justice and compensation—and yet it’s there for me, for many others. This is perhaps the problem the book implicitly raises but cannot answer. The hazardous categories Kang points out—Asian woman, global feminist, universal woman—have power, not just because of the hefty international systems behind them, but because many ordinary people have been made to feel emotionally invested in their existence.

So where to go from here? How does one seek knowledge or justice without truncating history and reverting to emotional grabs at identification? The very structure of institutions like the UN, which prioritize translation, reportage, and the selection of representative “voices,” produces an inevitable tapering of the perspectives that attend “comfort women.” But there are other ways of talking about this history, ways that don’t alternate between figuring Asian women as a victimized unity or arbitrarily calling on them as witnesses. Kang describes how, in the 1970s, a coalition of Japanese and Korean feminists protested an exploitative post-war network of Japanese sex tourism, partially by connecting it to the “comfort system” and Japan’s capitalist influence over Asia. Instead of the nation-based competition that so regularly rules global diplomacy, these women adopted a definitively anti-nationalist orientation; as renowned Japanese feminist Yayori Matsui put it: “Japanese women must continue to expose Japanese male chauvinism in all its forms.” In the 1990s, too, a transnational coalition of Japanese and Korean trade unions lobbied the International Labor Organization to recognize the “comfort system” as a violation of its 1930 Forced Labor Convention, approaching its violence through the paradigm of labor and, perhaps, making more visible the other ways women in Asia have historically faced and survived abuse.

Kang describes another moment when some of the “comfort women” captured by U.S. forces in Burma pleaded with their interrogators to not publicize their arrest, for fear that Japan would punish other women still in the system. If we cannot know these women, Kang writes, we can still “honor the grace of their caring and concern.” This is a mode of feminist writing that rejects faith in the twinned powers of exposure and expertise, that moves beyond the “wishful telescoping of knowledge to justice” which subtends so much of humanist discourse. Kang’s deft history skips a stone across regimes of visibility and governance, alighting on their connective systems instead of laying claim to the subjects inside. Even amid the litany of representations and misrepresentations, exceptional moments of care and solidarity still, occasionally, flash to the surface.