Cornell Law Review Volume 102 Issue 4

Space, Time, and Historical Injustice: A Feminist Conflict-of-Laws Approach to the “Comfort Women” Agreement

After more than twenty years of worldwide feminist activism, transnational litigation, and diplomatic stalemate, on December 28, 2015, Japan and South Korea announced a historic agreement intended to provide closure to the so-called “Comfort Women issue”—the issue of what Japan must do to atone for the sexual enslavement of up to 200,000 women from throughout Asia in service to the Japanese troops before and during World War II. Reactions to this landmark agreement continue to be mixed, and the question for many is whether it will hold. One challenge is how to respect the scale and systematicity of the crimes without imposing a single narrative, or without projecting an overdetermined understanding of the gendered past onto the future. We offer an analysis of this question in a wider lens: how to address grave historical injustices when legal claims and advocacy goals spread and metamorphose not only over time, but also across jurisdictions.

Focusing on one high profile and particularly contentious provision of the agreement, concerning a privately erected statue honoring the Comfort Women outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, we first show that the usual questions about settlements for historical injustices—whether they will achieve closure and what kind—can productively be traded for attention to where and when closure and reopening occur.

Borrowing our analytical lens from conflict of laws, we refine the problem as a manifestation of a pervasive issue for feminist justice in a globalized world that we call “spatio-temporal diffusion.” We argue that a novel response to this diffusion of historical injustices can be grounded in conflict-of-laws techniques. Using the hypothetical of a case brought by Korean Comfort Women in California, we redescribe the field’s techniques for dealing with time across space as a matter of what we term the “sequencing” of different spatio-temporal horizons. This approach resonates with, but also goes a step beyond, the arguments of certain feminist social theorists that feminist politics must be polytemporal. In the mode of an interdisciplinary experiment, we deploy the conflicts technique of sequencing spatio-temporal horizons as a more specified and hopeful approach to a feminist future.

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