‘Comfort Woman’ by Nora Okja Keller


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240  pages; 1998.

During the Second World War the Japanese military introduced a programme to provide sexual services for its troops. Young, often ethnic, women were kept prisoner in special camps where they were employed as “comfort women”, a euphemism for being systematically raped and beaten.

American-Korean writer Nora Okja Keller explores this abhorrent practise in her astonishing debut novel Comfort Woman, which, upon its release in 1997, attracted critical acclaim from far and wide.

Through twin narratives, which jump backward and forward in time, we learn the secrets and private struggles of two women: Akiko, a Korean refugee living in Hawaii, who has the unnerving ability to channel spirits; and Beccah, Akiko’s daughter by an American missionary, who loves her mother deeply but is unable to fully accept her cultural and ethnic heritage.

What Beccah does not know is that her mother was once a comfort woman. This deeply hidden secret manifests itself in Akiko’s often insane — and embarrassing — behaviour that plagues Beccah for much of her childhood. When most teenage girls are having fun, Beccah is haunted by her mother’s absurd kowtowing to the spirits of the dead.

It is only when the secret is revealed that Beccah comes to some kind of understanding of her mother’s strange ways…

While this is a confidently written and eloquent tale about the horrors of war and its far-reaching impact on its survivors and their children, it’s also a testament to the strength of the mother-daughter relationship even when it is dominated by unexplained pain and fear of both the real and imaginary kind.

I very much enjoyed reading this book, although the dual narratives in which Akiko and Beccah take it in turns to tell their story grated slightly and hindered the overall flow of the book.

The emphasis on the spirit world was also slightly overdone, so that it came to suffocate the rest of the story. I wanted to know more about Akiko’s traumatic past — the hub of the novel — and less about her traumatic present.

Finally, the discovery of Akiko’s secret came too close to the end, so that there was very little exploration of how this bombshell impacted on the rest of Beccah’s life.

Despite these flaws Comfort Woman is a disturbing yet moving story, and one that resonates long after the book draws to a close.

6 thoughts on “‘Comfort Woman’ by Nora Okja Keller

  1. Great minds must read and think alike! Just finished ‘Comfort Woman’ a day or two ago.
    A disturbing book which left me uncomfortable not only because of the horror inflicted on the ‘comfort women’ but also because the perpetrators and the Japanese nation were not held accountable. Compare this to the Germans who still pay millions in reparations for the horrors committed in their govt’s name.


  2. The Japanese acted like savages throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Only being soundly trounced by the U.S. brought them to their senses. They have recently tried to wriggle out of their moral obligation to remember their past crimes. They must never be allowed to have such power again. Ever.
    We must remember however that they only recently emerged from a feudal existence. No renaissance. No enlightenment. No romanticism. Old habits die hard.
    As to spirits: despite their renown as great manufacturers, the Japanese are extremely taken by the spirit world. It might be a throwback to their pagan origins, I’m not sure. But their scary movies are tremendous goose-flesh generators.


  3. “Dean”‘s comment is typical U.S. supremacist babble by someone who clearly hasn’t read Keller’s fantastic novel. Because “Dean” forgets that American soldiers USED comfort women during the postwar occupation of Japan, and that American soldiers raped and plundered in Vietnam, Korea, and the Philippines just as they’ve been doing in Iraq. And “Dean” forgets that romanticism and “enlightenment” are outgrowths of True Feudalism: the everyday institutions of rape and savagery that characterized not the Japanese in the 20th century, but the United States during slavery, and maybe after too. And “Dean” conveniently forgets the holocaust, too, which is perhaps Romanticism taken to its logical conclusion. Korea and China are lucky that Japan didn’t have “enlightenment”–if it did, things may have been much, much more atrocious…


  4. I don’t think Japanese didn’t try to enlighten Korean. It is hard to believe that how much Japanese put effort to eliminate Korean culture on a land, which is not their territory. For instant, Japanese did force people in Korea to change their names by only using Japanese. Korean who did not follow it couldn’t possess any land to farm for their living and at times Korean had to be ready to give up their lives because of the Korean name. Also, they did not let Korean wear white clothes, which are a sort of traditional clothes to Korean for a long time, in terms of the reason that the white things are not clean and inefficient. Moreover, Japanese military even invaded in school with their swords and guns in other to infuse Japanese way of mind and thoughts to the young Korean. What I want to say to make up “babs” words is enlightenment did happen at that time between two countries unfortunately.
    Also, the issue of “comfort women” is still going on Korea and Japan because of the fact that Japan government did just feel sorry toward the women who are still alive after the tragic trauma.
    Anyhow, I do think that this book is absolutely worthwhile to read for not only Korean and Japanese but also people in different conturies like American. We should open our mind toward the world maybe.. to build a better world.


  5. This is really good book.
    There are many Japanese who can’t see the truth about their past generation. By the name of Korea-Japan annexation, they really think their ancestors helped Korea, not colonized the country. They believe the war criminals as good people…
    Also, Japan government is not admitting their fault of “Nanjing Massacre” or “Unit 731”. Compare this to German government, I can see how those two governments are completely different.
    This book can open our eyes to see what was happened exactly.


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