Beyond the reading of colonial oppression (or subjugation) parallelism between Akiko’s marriage and the Japanese occupation of Korea in Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman, resides the important parallel results of the same. The effects of the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 (Mukherjee, 197) are mirrored in the experiences both Akiko and Beccah have in the United States. Keller’s representation of Akiko’s life in the “public restrooms” (108) (or comfort camps) helps to pull the stitches tight between these two images by presenting the reader with one character who experiences the results of both occupation and immigration. Keller reinforces the immigrant experience parallel through Akiko’s daughter, Beccah, who observes her mother’s unraveling. In addition to witnessing her mother’s “craziness,” Beccah manages to experience much of the immigrant condition despite living in Hawaii. If the reader were to understand Akiko and the other women and girls of the comfort camp as embodying the Korean nation, Beccah quite literally combines Korea and the U.S., resulting in a young woman who cannot quite locate her place of belonging. Although not as savagely abused as her mother, Beccah also experiences a dislocation, ironically only discovering place after Akiko dies.
In Comfort Woman, place seems almost ephemeral, and grounded more by the characters’ experience with the spiritual world (represented by water) than any central geographical or secondary character experience. If geography and surrounding people do not hold things together, then one may ask how the feminine body could represent a nation or state without a geography to stand on. One answer may lie in the idea that a nation is compiled of more than borders, more than ground. The ease with which Keller represents occupation of and emigration from countries seems to rely on the internal relation to cultural and spiritual roots to the home country, roots which expand the idea of “country” to beyond the geography previously mentioned. Akiko’s marriage clearly mirrors the Japanese subjugation of Korea: her religious beliefs are oppressed, her bodily movements restricted, she is indiscriminately moved about the country, and finally, she is sexually dominated and abused.
In terms of emigration/immigration, Akiko’s (and later mirrored by Beccah’s) experience comes as a result of the colonial subjugation’s psychological damage, and represents the larger body of asylum-seekers’ experience. In this, too, Akiko can be read to be metonymic of Korea. Her psyche is split in two by the camp experience, just as Korea becomes two separate nations. Furthermore, the Korean War during the 1950’s places those two halves in opposition as pawns in the East/West, Communist/Democratic struggles in the larger world. The struggle between Akiko’s birth religion and culture and the Reverend’s Western Christianity commences at the end of WWII, just as the same occurs in Korea. Even when the “western savior” returns, the result is war, conflict, and occupation, just as the Reverend “occupies” Akiko. As the Reverend states, “ye cannot serve God and mammon” (116), reinforcing the ideological battle for Akiko’s psyche.
Beccah seems to rebel against her mother’s attempts at instilling traditional values by westernizing herself. In addition, against the occupation of her mother and Korea, she becomes a sexually empowered woman who prefers to determine the course of her relationships. While Beccah’s voice inserts a foil of groundedness and agency to Akiko’s dislocation and lack of agency, she too is ironically ungrounded as a result of colonial subjugation and immigration. In this way, Beccah mirrors the experience of Korea, still separated into two halves. Despite her upbringing in America (the West), Beccah exhibits the dislocation and split consciousness immigrants often face, which is further exacerbated by Akiko’s condition. Just as South Korea has recently become economically successful and yet is still impeded by its separation from the North, Beccah becomes more cohesive once she learns about Akiko’s experience and yet still suffers the consequences of colonial subjugation and immigration.
Keller, Nora Okja. Comfort Woman. New York: Penguin, 1997. Print.