The Politics of Trauma

Yi Ok Seon finds herself – Gallery of ‘Comfort Women’, Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace, Tokyo, Japan

Introduction:  The Politics of Trauma

Welcome to the Politics of Trauma, a learning, teaching and awareness-raising resource which explores the ongoing trauma experienced by women forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military during the Asia Pacific War (1932-1945) from a multifaceted, interdisciplinary perspective.  This perspective, drawing from historical accounts and analysis, the stories and testimonies of the survivors, insights from trauma research and practice, feminist and human rights-based analytical frameworks, and the ongoing activist movement to support survivors, looks at the mass mobilization of at least 200,000 women from throughout Asia into sexual slavery as both an individual and social experience which was not isolated in time, but which is temporally situated within a web of personal, social, historical and political circumstances that frame both the shared and individual experiences of the so-called “comfort women.”  In seeking to integrate these perspectives, this resource aims to draw connections between particular experiences of violence and trauma and wider systemic oppression that shapes, exacerbates and magnifies the traumatic experiences of survivors of trauma, and thus to support the understanding of the many ways one can approach truth-building, healing and reconciliation.  By considering the intersection of these many factors, this resource also seeks to transcend limited understandings of this issue, and of sexual violence against women in general.

What is trauma?  How is trauma political?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines trauma as:

  1. A serious injury or shock to the body, as from violence or an accident.
  2. An emotional wound or shock that creates substantial, lasting damage to the psychological development of a person, often leading to neurosis.
  3. An event or situation that causes great distress and disruption.

This definition of trauma is a starting point for beginning to understand the impact of violence and oppression on an individual, particularly in consideration of the way that a major violent event can alter one’s life irrevocably, shifting one’s relationship to the body, mind and emotions.  However, feminist and radical trauma practitioners (Burstow, et al) have sought in recent decades to expand our understanding of trauma by resisting the isolation of a traumatic experience to a particular point in time or event, seeking instead to understand trauma (and violence) as woven into the very fabric of life, experienced not as an isolated individual but within the framework of family, society, culture, personal and collective history.  These same radical and feminist practitioners also sought to break down the false dichotomy between the personal and the political, and to demonstrate the role of multiple oppressions in shaping one’s likelihood of experiencing trauma, and how one is able to integrate and respond to that trauma.  Expanded categories and ways of understanding trauma in context enable us to look at the politics of trauma, making crucial links between individual experience and structural or systemic violence that create and perpetuate trauma.  Some of these particularly important to understanding the “comfort women” issue include:

1. Recognizing structures that create and perpetuate trauma:

Radical trauma practice is necessarily based on an awareness of the centrality of oppression in the traumatizing of human beings, communities, and the earth itself. (Burstow 2003:1310)

Traumatic experiences, whether individual in nature, or major events that affect an entire community, do not happen in a historical vacuum and should not be looked at in isolation.  Social and cultural structures of systemic oppression, such as patriarchy and sexism, racism and racist oppression, class oppression, homophobia, and many others, shape the parameters of who is more likely to be subjected to trauma, how that trauma is understood and dealt with or rendered invisible and left unaddressed by those in power at the family, community, national or international level.  Each person experiences systemic oppression in a particular way based on multiple threads of identity woven together to create her/his lived reality.  Intersectionality, or the interplay of these multiple identities, is an important analytical tool for making visible the way differently located people within one particular community or identity group experience or are targeted for oppression or trauma.

In addition, these structures of oppression do not only operate during times of acute trauma, but underpin life experiences over the long-term, creating insidious trauma based on constant exposure to violence, domination, discrimination and marginalization.  An understanding of insidious trauma urges us to look at the way that normalized aspects of daily life create trauma in individuals and communities, and the way in which acute experiences of trauma can be magnified by oppression that is part of daily life.  This magnification of trauma, or process of retraumatization, is often experienced by trauma survivors whose trauma is not given importance or recognition, or is denied outright by power holders.

2. Collective nature of trauma: historical, community or group trauma:

By collective trauma…I mean a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality…(involving) a gradual realization that the community no longer exists as an effective source of support… (Erickson, 1995: 187)

Trauma is not only an individual experience, but is something that can happen to and be experienced by communities or groups of people.  This can include trauma which is spread throughout an oppressed social group (i.e. based on ethnicity, race, religion etc.) or within a group of people who live together as a community and experience a profound disaster or violence together.  Communities or nations targeted for genocide through overt war or colonialism carry a kind of collective trauma that is increasingly understood to have intergenerational effects which pass on and perpetuate traumatic responses, which in turn continue to be affected by insidious trauma related to marginalized identity/ies that framed the original trauma. (Auerhahn 1995, Gangne 1995, Laub 1995)  Just in the way that an individual’s sense of integrity can be shattered through trauma, entire communities can become fragmented through targeted violence, and effort is required to enable healing and reintegration.  Collective trauma can serve to separate and isolate community members from one another, or in some cases, can create a sense of solidarity that can support healing or that can sometimes render invisible the diversity of experience within a community by only recognizing or privileging one facet of identity.

Historical trauma affecting particular groups, such as indigenous communities still living out the consequences of colonization and long-term oppression, often forms the backdrop through which a particular or acute traumatic event is experienced.  Historical oppression and context must be taken into consideration when looking at any particular traumatic event, be it individual or communal in nature.

How to use this website:

This website can be used by anyone interested in exploring the complex nature of trauma, oppression, and the quest for healing and reconciliation.  It will be of particular interest to those wanting to understand the complex nature of the “comfort women” issue, but the insights gained from analyzing this particular issue have important implications for understanding other examples of widespread sexualized violence both during and outside of recognized wars.  By utilizing a broad-based analytical framework informed by feminism, human rights discourse and the above facets of understanding trauma, this resource aims to situate the example of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery within a wider social and historical context of oppression, and in doing so, reject facile ways of understanding this issue as an isolated historical event, or reducing it to an ‘ethnic conflict’ within Asia.  In addition, this exploration is meant to raise the question of how one must respond to widespread trauma and human rights violations of this nature, and the role of botched or half-hearted attempts at reconciliation in re-traumatizing victims and perpetuating intergenerational trauma.

Teacher Resources

For teachers:  this website can be used as a resource for studies on the history of World War II, genocide, gender studies, women and war, among others. This is intended to be a user-friendly resource through which students can explore the lived reality of the “comfort women” and come to understand the wider context in which this particular series of events played out.  Feel free to utilize these materials according to your curricular needs.   If you wish to assist your students in navigating and interacting with this website, you can download a study guide with a glossary of terms and questions for reflecting on the website content.

Politics of Trauma Student Website Guide

Resources:   You can find a bibliography of resources referenced or drawn from to form this website below.  The author of this webpage also has worked for several years with survivors of Japanese sexual slavery in the context of South Korea, including having worked collectively with the Women’s Global Solidarity Action Network on activism and education about this issue.  She draws from testimonies published but also those heard from and reproduced with the permission of survivors with whom she has a personal relationship.  For more information, see the WGSAN website:

Resources on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery and Trauma for web

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