“Museums are historically colonial; modern museums are expressions of colonial desires to put the world in order,” says Dr. Hee-Jung Serenity Joo. In her talk on curatorial decision making regarding violence against women on Nov. 30, 2015, Joo went on to say that the act of collecting and putting into order through curation perpetuates ideas of colonial superiority. Similarly, it is the act of putting art in museums that gets it recognized as “good art.” The associate professor in the department of English, Film, and Theatre focused on museum politics, comfort women and the subsequent anticolonial activist movement, and thin description, a literary analysis term originally used in the social sciences.

The term “comfort women” refers to the women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese army during the Second World War. Most of the women were from Korea and other East and Southeast Asian countries. Approximately 20 years ago, the comfort woman redress movement began, specifically targeted at addressing comfort women as a postcolonial issue and a war crime committed by colonial Japan. The conservative patriarchal South Korean state was reluctant to support the movement, so the comfort woman movement turned to human rights discourse for legitimacy. While the movement has been embraced as part of the global human rights discourse on violence against women, the discussion shifted away from the Japanese colonization of Korea and other countries to a more universal and abstract idea of human rights. Thus, the predominant “first-world” model of global human rights fails to acknowledge the role of systems and political actors in conflicts and decontextualizes issues.

Dr. Joo recounted her visit to the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in Seoul, South Korea. The museum is a non-governmental organization, which Joo compared to the state-funded and ideologically driven Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). The South Korean government was reluctant to support the comfort woman movement because that would mean admitting they had been colonized by Japan and could not protect their people, especially women. Joo asserts that “the fact that the redress movement stayed an NGO is why it has been successful because it is unwilling to be co-opted into state interests,” unlike the CMHR.

Joo then talked about thin description, which is contrasted with “close reading” that assumes meanings are hidden within a text or visual work. Thin description, or surface reading, is the idea that what you see is what is there – that there are no hidden meanings to be found. It is a literary strategy that Joo applies to some representations of comfort women. Thin description does not speculate on interiority or depth, thus creating distance and anonymity that, Joo says, “helps preserve the agency and autonomy of the victims and resists the reiteration of victimhood and violence.”


What were comfort women?

It is a system of sexual slavery that was condoned by the Japanese government during the Second World War. There were comfort woman stations and stalls where women were kept. Women were kidnapped, taken unwillingly, lured or did not know where they were being taken. The term “comfort woman” is translated from Japanese. It is a euphemism for prostitute or sexual slave.

What are the goals of the comfort women movement?

The Korean council had seven demands for the Japanese government: admission of guilt by the Japanese government for forced sexual slavery of Korean women; economic redress; inclusion of comfort woman history in Japanese textbooks; apology by the Japanese government; fact gathering and investigation; building of a memorial and a museum; and punishment for those who committed crimes. [Since Joo’s talk, Japan and South Korea have reached a controversial agreement on the issue.]

Audio podcasts are also available for seminars in this series.