Comfort Women During World War II

By Ena Kajiya

Introduction

The Japanese government had established facilities for women to provide sexual services to the men of the Japanese army. Many women from Japanese-occupied countries, such as Korea and China, were forced into these so-called comfort stations which were located all over Asia; the first comfort station was established in Shanghai in 1932. Japanese women were first recruited, however, due to the shortage of Japanese, they began to recruit women from the local population. Most of the women were tricked and abducted into sexual slavery, instead of work and income the women were expecting. At the comfort station, women were raped numerous times a day, beaten and suffered from sexually transmitted diseases. Those who have survived the incarceration by the military described the treatment by the Japanese soldiers and doctors of the stations as horrifying. Since the 1990s, former comfort women have raised their voices to share their story of what had actually happened during the time that comfort stations existed. These women have been fighting to be heard and demand an apology from the government of Japan.[1] They said that they had been lied to and coerced into performing sexual services and left them traumatized. On the other hand, the argument has been made that comfort women system used by the Japanese military was not problematic. Though the Japanese government is denying the use of force, the issue is still problematic, having recruited underage women to work in comfort stations. This was a violation towards the international law and is considered a crime. It is difficult to state whether coercion existed during the time of comfort stations, and many argue that it cannot be proven through historical documents. However, those who have experienced being comfort women and are survivors have raised their voices to share their experiences and bring awareness around this issue.

General Information: Establishment and Origin

Comfort stations were established in 1932, when the Shanghai incident had occurred, and were closed when Japan surrendered the war in 1945. Prostitution had already existed in Japan, and the Japanese government and army had provided sexual services to the officers and soldiers. According to Japanese military documents, there were four main reasons for the establishment of the comfort stations.[2] Prevention of rape by Japanese soldiers was one goal for the facility. It was necessary to create a system which would prevent the Japanese soldiers from raping local citizens. Therefore, confining the rapes to only the military controlled facilities. Before these stations were established, China had confronted the military that incidents of rape had been occurring frequently by the Japanese soldiers, which provoked the civilians. In order to appease the Chinese, the Japanese chief of the expeditionary army in China instructed to immediately create sexual recreation facilities. Despite the system’s aim of reducing rape crimes, it did the opposite where it stimulated the soldiers’ sexual desire and lead to more rape. Women taken into the comfort stations were sexually abused daily and accordingly this idea of comfort stations did not prevent rape. Reduction of sexually transmitted diseases was another goal for this service. Sexually transmitted diseases were thought to be possibly prevented since the facilities would be run by the military, and soldiers would not go to local brothels where diseases were usually acquired. Although there were military doctors who made sure the women and soldiers were in good health, the spread of venereal diseases could not be prevented. Records that were kept by the central command show that the number of people who were infected by sexually transmitted diseases slowly increased: 11,983 in 1942, 12,557 in 1943, and 12,587 in 1944.[3] The Japanese military continued to expand as years went by, so it could be said that the percentage of sexually transmitted diseases dropped, yet the number of people infected by the diseases had grown. A reason for their spread may be the sentiment that a soldier being infected was considered to be disgraceful, so soldiers kept it a secret amongst each other. This is thought to be what lead to the quick spread throughout the comfort stations. Though the two mentioned goals of the comfort station system failed, it continued to be facilitated, so that the disgruntled soldiers who fought on the battlefields could be satisfied by the women. The women provided “comfort” to the men; it helped to relieve the stress from frustration and from battlefields. The final reason for why the Japanese government had begun the comfort station was to prevent military secrets from leaking. If the soldiers had gone to brothels other than the military controlled comfort stations, there would be a risk of information being shared with the women, with whom they may had formed a close relationship with. Yet, at the comfort stations which were controlled and supervised by the military, soldiers were not able to do so. So, the implementation of the comfort women system avoided such risks and did not have to worry about private information to be spread by civilians.

Recruitment of Comfort Women

It is said that there is little documentation on how the Japanese military recruited the women for the comfort station, however, there is evidence from the testimonies of former comfort women. When the first comfort station was established in Shanghai in 1932, Korean women from a Korean community in Japan were sent to the province by the Nagasaki prefecture governor. This implies that officials were also involved in the recruitment of these women and they cooperated with the Japanese military in doing so.[4] There is firsthand evidence of there being many cases of rape by officials during the process.[5] The Japanese officials took part in the recruitment, but also local police and mayors supported them. For instance, the Korean police went around villages to find girls and trick them by promising well paid employment, not knowing that they would be put in military brothels. School teachers have also been involved in the recruitment process, who coerced young school girls between the age of fourteen to eighteen with trust in their teachers without understanding of what prostitution was. Another incident of force being used was recorded in a diary by a Japanese military surgeon, in which he reported on medical checkups of local Chinese women. They were examined for venereal disease; the women were crying during the process, which caused the surgeon to think that they seemed to have come to the examinations against their will.[6] At first, the recruited women were usually those who had experience in prostitution and over the age of twenty-one from poor families. However, as the stations were running short of women, the recruiters began to kidnap and rely on girls in the local area, opposing a treaty called the International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children. This addressed the problem of international trafficking of women and children under the age of twenty-one. So, the Japanese have gone against this with the many cases of coercion used in putting women and underaged children in the comfort stations.

Treatment in the Comfort Stations and Experience of Testimonies

From the experiences which former comfort women shared, their treatment by the Japanese military and station owners is thought to be cruel and horrible. Depending on the location of the comfort stations, they either consisted of buildings, tents, or wooden huts. While some women were not able to go outside at all, some were allowed to go on walks or watch a film offsite. Nonetheless, they were still supervised, their freedom restricted, and barbed wire fences surrounding the comfort stations prevented escape. Women and young girls were to pleasure men everyday even if their bodies were in pain. A former comfort woman shared her story of when she was at the age of 17. She states that she was deceived by being told she would be paid a lot of money for a job, however, she was raped since the first day at the comfort station. The number of sexual intercourse with the soldiers reached high numbers as on average she was forced to perform sexual favors thirty to forty times a day.[7] Not being treated well and abused by the men which they provided service to, they were often left with broken bones, bruises, cuts from blades, and cigarette burns. Doctors would carry out medical checkups, but they were only to examine for venereal diseases, so that they wouldn’t spread them, and the scars or bruises were left untreated.[8] In the testimony of a former comfort woman, she expresses the fear she experienced in the stations. She refused to take her clothes off to a drunk soldier, which then threatened to kill her with a knife. As a result, she was stabbed by him in the chest and left with her clothes soaked in blood. Her wound was treated so it improved, however being put back to work, she received continuous violence that left her with broken bones and scars on her skin.[9] The total number of women who were imprisoned is estimated to be over 200,000, 80 percent being Korean, with only 30 percent of them having survived towards the end of the war.7 The Japanese military had the women in comfort stations to be separated by nationality, so that the soldiers would be able to choose which woman they would like to have sex with at the reception area. Low class soldiers were usually assigned comfort women who were from Korea or other Asian countries, and officers of high rank with Japanese or Dutch women.7 At frontline sites, because soldiers would get wounded, the comfort women were often taken blood to donate by being cut with weapons. Another issue was starvation; the women were not given enough food leaving them weak and often left to die. Also, having sex multiple times a day would lead to pregnancies.

Many testimonies of the survivors expressed their feelings of pain and anger. It was in 1991 when women in Korea identified themselves as former comfort women and filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government. Women from Asian countries had been silent for fifty years, not being able to openly speak about their sexuality. Confucianism had taught women to protect their chastity which is considered more important than their lives.[10] At the 1991 court case, Kim Haku Soon, who was the only plaintiff who had revealed her name, stated, “I was born as a woman but never lived as a woman… I feel sick when I come close to a man. Not just Japanese men, but all men - even my own husband, who saved me from the brothel - made me feel this way. I shiver when I see the Japanese flag. Why should I feel ashamed? I don’t have to feel ashamed”.[11] These words which she expressed show how the aggressive treatment she was given by the Japanese soldiers left her traumatized and how she was finally able to break her silence after fifty years. Surviving women since have shared their own experiences, but also what they have seen happen to their friends while they were in the comfort station, who had died due to violence. Without the testimonies of the surviving former comfort women, the issue of comfort stations during the war by the Japanese government would be left unknown and unable to bring awareness around it.[12]

Conclusion

Former comfort women have been expressing their desire for an apology from the Japanese government for the war crime against women for years. What Japan did admit to the fact that comfort stations run by the Japanese government did exist, and women and girls had been recruited by them against their will. An Asian Peace and Friendship Fund for Women had been set up in 1994 in order to give monetary compensations for the survivors of the comfort stations during the war. The compensations included funds to enact the Japanese people’s “atonement” for the former comfort women, to support medical treatment and welfare for them, to collect historical documents on this issue, and to support on governmental organizations of contemporary human trafficking and prostitution.[13] The Japanese government also expressed its guilt through the fund. It is said that Japan has taken moral responsibility from the establishment of the Asian Peace and Friendship Fund for Women, however, does not take legal responsibility for this issue.[14] The few former comfort women who are still alive today are not yet satisfied with what the Japanese government has done, and state, “just want this issue to be resolved peacefully and done with”.[15]

Figure 1. Captured comfort women in Myitkyina on August 14 in 1944. U.S. Army (14 August 1944).
Figure 2. Lee Yong-soo, a South Korean who worked at a military brothel during World War II, touches a statue of a girl representing the “comfort women” during an unveiling in Seoul last August, August 2019. Associated Press.

According to the UN, over 200,000 women and girls were imprisoned and only 30 percent of them survived. The treatment by Japanese soldiers left them traumatized and in pain. The survivors are advocating for this issue to not be forgotten and that any kind of trafficking cannot be accepted. 

Figure 3. Charles H. Hatfield. (1944), Seoul National University.

The issue of comfort women has become known when former women who were imprisoned by the Japanese government for sexual labor during the war became vocal about their experiences after fifty years. The victims broke their silence to fight for an apology from Japan. The women now are in their nineties and express their desire for an apology before they die. Without these women raising their voices on their experiences during the war, the issue of comfort stations and sexual abuse would be left unknown. They raise awareness for this issue, for the victims and Japan to reconcile.

 

[1] Constable, “70 years later, a Korean ‘comfort woman’ demands apology from Japan”, The Washington Post, 2015.04.22.

[2] Bellows and The United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, American Journal of Chinese Studies, “An Analysis of the Legal Liability of the Government of Japan for ‘Comfort Women Stations’ Established During the Second World War”, p. 77.

[3] Fight for Justice: the Japanese Military “Comfort Women” –– Resistance to Forgetting & Responsibility for the Future. Were the “Comfort Women” actually treated well?.

[4] Bellows and The United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, American Journal of Chinese Studies, “An Analysis of the Legal Liability of the Government of Japan for ‘Comfort Women Stations’ Established During the Second World War”, p. 78.

[5] United Nations, Report on the mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the issue of military sexual slavery in wartime.

[6] Fight for Justice: the Japanese Military “Comfort Women” –– Resistance to Forgetting & Responsibility for the Future, How were the women enlisted.

[7] Watanabe. “Trafficking in Women’s Bodies, Then and Now: The Issue of Military ‘Comfort Women’”, pp. 19-20.

[8] United Nations, Report on the mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the issue of military sexual slavery in wartime.

[9] Asian Women’s Fund, Testimonies of the Victims, Testimony I Kimiko Kaneda.

[10] Watanabe. “Trafficking in Women’s Bodies, Then and Now: The Issue of Military ‘Comfort Women’”, p. 24.

[11] Cited by Watanabe. “Trafficking in Women’s Bodies, Then and Now: The Issue of Military ‘Comfort Women’”, p. 20.

[12] United Nations. Report on the mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the issue of military sexual slavery in wartime.

[13] United Nations. Report on the mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the issue of military sexual slavery in wartime.

[14] Bellows and The United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, “An Analysis of the Legal Liability of the Government of Japan for ‘Comfort Women Stations’ Established During the Second World War”, p.100.

[15] Cited by Constable. “70 years later, a Korean ‘comfort woman’ demands apology from Japan”, The Washington Post, 2015.04.22.

References

Asian Women’s Fund. Testimonies of the Victims. Retrieved from http://www.awf.or.jp/e3/oralhistory-00.html.

Bellows, Thomas J., The United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights. “An Analysis of the Legal Liability of the Government of Japan for ‘Comfort Women Stations’ Established During the Second World War.” American Journal of Chinese Studies 6:1 (1999), 73–102.

Constable, Pamela. “70 years later, Korean ‘comfort woman’ demands apology from Japan.” The Washington Post (22 April 2015). Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/70-years-later-a-korean-comfort-woman-demands-apology-from-japan/2015/04/22/d1cf8794-e7ab-11e4-9767-6276fc9b0ada_story.html.

Fight for Justice: the Japanese Military “Comfort Women” –– Resistance to Forgetting & Responsibility for the Future, How were the women enlisted. Retrieved from http://fightforjustice.info/?page_id=2764&lang=en.

Fight for Justice: the Japanese Military “Comfort Women” –– Resistance to Forgetting & Responsibility for the Future. Were the “Comfort Women” actually treated well?. Retrieved from http://fightforjustice.info/?page_id=3367&lang=en.

United Nations. Report on the mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the issue of military sexual slavery in wartime, 52nd Session, ECOSOC, E/CN.4/1996/53/Add.1 (4 January 1996), 1–37.

Watanabe Kazuko. “Trafficking in Women’s Bodies, Then and Now: The Issue of Military ‘Comfort Women’.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 27:1/2 (1999), 19–31.