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In 1944, Doc Hata, then known as Lieutenant Jiro Kurohata, was deployed as a field medic in Burma. His comrades were all preoccupied with women, and one man in particular, Corporal Endo, had an especially strong obsession with collecting pornographic images of Western women. Doc Hata felt that Endo was more pleased than he should have been by the pictures, but he attributed Endo’s unusual conduct to the growing sense of fear that had saturated the camp.
One day, Endo approached Doc Hata and requested to be among the first to greet the female volunteers who were scheduled to arrive soon. Doc Hata responded that the officer corps would take responsibility for getting the volunteers settled and that enlisted men would receive tickets for the queue later. He encouraged Endo put away his pictures and visit one of the women when his turn came. He also reminded him that he and the other soldiers were there to defend a way of life.
A few days later a convoy arrived carrying provisions as well as a group of five teenage girls, accompanied by an older madam. Doc Hata wondered how just five girls were supposed to serve nearly two hundred men. Captain Ono, the camp’s head physician and Doc Hata’s superior officer, ordered the girls to march toward the “comfort house” that had been constructed for them, and when one of them hesitated, he struck her.
Later that night, Doc Hata walked around the camp and thought about his new duty to look after the girls’ medical needs. Corporal Endo approached Doc Hata wanting to talk about the girls. He and the other soldiers had drawn lots for the visitation queue, and he had drawn the first position. But Endo said that when he saw the girls, he realized he couldn’t visit them.
Doc Hata and Endo reached the hut of the commanding officer, Colonel Ishii. Ishii himself was standing on the porch, naked and trying to coax one of the girls out from under the hut. The girl said she wanted to be with her sister, Kkutaeh—a Korean name Doc Hata knew to mean “bottom” or “last.” Ishii said that Kkutaeh had to stay in the infirmary to make sure her face hadn’t been injured. The girl came out from under the porch and went into the hut, and suddenly Ishii’s demeanor toward her and the other girls in the hut turned violent.
Just then, Endo sprinted into the jungle, and the sentry posted outside Ishii’s door shot in Endo’s direction. Ishii then came out with a pistol and shot the sentry. He ordered corporals to remove the body and told Doc Hata to take care of the matter.
The next day, Doc Hata reflected on Captain Ono, a man of singular resolve who had a knack for innovating new field surgery techniques. Doc Hata considered Ono a model for his own future career.
Doc Hata went to the infirmary in order to examine the girls and ensure each was fit to perform her duties. He notes that the girl named Kkutaeh, whom he later calls “K,” had been housed with Captain Ono. Ono had kept her from Colonel Ishii since she wasn’t a virgin and therefore couldn’t offer him any of the “ineffable effects” of taking her maidenhood. Doc Hata thought that Ono loved this girl but only in the way that a person loves a possession.
Before the examinations commenced, the girls’ caretaker, Mrs. Matsui, explained that the girls would be a bit raw after their night with Colonel Ishii. Doc Hata found their genitals swollen and bruised. Later, Captain Ono entered the infirmary and chastised Doc Hata for his disorderly approach to the examinations. Though Doc Hata had not yet finished examining K, Ono ordered him to leave and help Mrs. Matsui get the rest of the girls settled in the comfort house. K’s sister refused to leave and had to be dragged out of the infirmary by Mrs. Matsui and the other girls.
Outside, Doc Hata watched as Corporal Endo ran up from the jungle’s edge and ordered the women to stop. Endo took K’s sister by the hand and they disappeared into the jungle. When they didn’t reappear after a few minutes, Doc Hata and others went to see what was wrong. They found Endo sitting next to the girl, whose throat he had slit. The next day, Endo was executed.
Although Doc Hata’s relative disinterest in the “comfort women” who arrived in the camp sets him apart from Corporal Endo and the other soldiers in his battalion, the reader already feels suspicious that his disinterest is at least somewhat feigned. Before his deployment to Burma, when he was stationed in Singapore, Doc Hata claimed to his friends Enchi and Fujimori that he had no interest in prostitutes. But this claim proved hypocritical since Doc Hata had, in fact, visited a prostitute multiple times, though he kept it a secret. In Burma, Doc Hata continued to deny any strong desire for women, as when he criticized Endo for collecting and trading pornographic images. And yet, just as in Singapore he had more interest in prostitutes than he let on to his friends, in Burma, Doc Hata found certain parts of Endo’s pornographic collection intriguing. For instance, he felt entranced by an image of one woman giving another woman a sponge bath. This echo of Doc Hata’s hypocrisy creates suspicion for the reader about the contradiction between what Doc Hata says and what he actually feels.
Doc Hata’s latent interest in the comfort women comes into focus during his initial interactions with Kkutaeh, whom he will later refer to as “K.” K had an aura self-composure and rebelliousness that instantly drew Doc Hata’s attention. She stood out to him not only because of the display of resistance that resulted in Ono striking her across the face but also because she was the only one of the girls to meet his gaze when he examined her. Another thing that distinguished K from the other girls was her status as a non-virgin. Doc Hata learned this from Ono, who claimed to have kept her away from Colonel Ishii for precisely this reason. Although he accepted Ono’s explanation for why he kept K separated from the other girls, Doc Hata did suspect that Ono harbored special feelings for her. Specifically, he thought that Ono’s feelings toward K resembled love, but it was not a romantic or sexual love so much as a possessive love, similar to how a child loves a cherished toy. Doc Hata’s critique of Ono suggests that Doc Hata himself feels attracted to K and feels jealous of his superior officer.
The meaning of K’s name has important symbolic implications for the subordinate status of women. When Doc Hata first heard her name, he noted that “Kkutaeh” is a Korean word meaning “last” or “bottom.” This meaning has several implications. Most literally, K was the last of the girls to come out of the truck when it arrived in the camp. K’s status as a non-virgin also places her at the bottom of the hierarchy of men’s desire. According to Ono, taking a girl’s maidenhood has health-giving effects for a man, and since K was no longer a maiden, a man like Colonel Ishii wouldn’t want her. In a third sense, K’s name references the way that women in general occupy a subordinate position in her society, as confirmed by her parents’ willingness to sacrifice her and her sister to save their brother. Finally, the fact that “Kkutaeh” is a Korean word also connotes subordination. As the reader will learn in subsequent chapters, in the context of the war, Korean language and culture existed in a subordinate and therefore feminized relationship to Japanese language and culture.
Doc Hata regards Captain Ono as a role model and holds him in high esteem, but the camp physician’s evident cruelty and violent temperament suggest that Doc Hata’s respect for his superior is problematic and misplaced. Doc Hata does have some good reasons for looking up to Ono. For one thing, Doc Hata clearly respects the chain of command, but he also aspires to become a doctor like Ono. Ono has earned a reputation for his innovations in field surgery, and Doc Hata longs to develop a similarly prestigious reputation. And yet, the fact that Doc Hata places so much stock in a man with such a violent temper might make the reader question his judgment. It appears that Doc Hata’s respect for Ono’s skill as a physician may have caused his career aspirations to outpace his ethical sensibilities. Alternatively, it may be true that Doc Hata’s willingness to look beyond Ono’s personal character simply results from his immersion in military life. Even so, Doc Hata submits readily to the norms of such a harsh culture.