Comfort women

From Academic Kids

Template:Chinesename koreanname

Comfort women is a euphemism for women forced to serve in military brothels in Japanese-occupied countries during World War II. Most comfort women were from Korea, with a significant fraction from China, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other Japanese-occupied countries/regions.

In the Japanese language, ianfu (慰安婦, comfort women) is a euphemism for prostitute. jūgun-ianfu (従軍慰安婦, "military comfort women"), those who served in Japanese military brothels during World War II in Japanese colonies and war zones, is also used. However, it is seldom used these days.

According to research by Dr. Hirofumi Hayashi, a professor at Kanto Gakuin University, comfort women included Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Malays, Thais, Filipinos, Indonesians, Burmese, Vietnamese, Indians, Eurasians, Dutch, and natives of the Pacific islands. Estimates of the number of comfort women during the war vary widely, ranging from 20,000 to 300,000. Testimony by surviving comfort women suggests the actual number to be on the higher end of the scale. Most of the brothels where comfort women served were located in Japanese military bases, usually in occupied areas in mainland and southeast Asia.

Moreover, according to research of Dr. Ikuhiko Hata, a professor at Nihon University, the number of comfort women during the war was about 20,000. The Japanese who subscribed in the licensed pleasure quarter made up 40%. Koreans made up 20% and the Chinese 10%. The women who were forced to join in Japanese-occupied countries except Korea and China or the battlefield formed the remaining 40%.


Brothels as part of Japanese military policy

Historical research into Japanese government records documents several reasons given for the establishment of military brothels. First, Japanese authorities hoped that by providing easily accessible prostitutes and sexual slaves, the morale and ultimately the military effectiveness of Japanese soldiers would be enhanced. Second, by institutionalizing brothels and placing them under official scrutiny, the government hoped to keep the spread of STDs under control. Lastly, creating brothels in military bases directly on the front line removed the perceived need to grant leave to soldiers.

In the early stages of the war, Japanese authorities recruited prostitutes through conventional means. Middlemen advertised for prostitutes in newspapers circulating in Japan and the Japanese colonies of Korea, Manchukuo, and mainland China. Many who answered the advertisements were already prostitutes and offered their services voluntarily. Others were sold by their families to the military due to economic hardship.

However, these sources soon dried up, especially from Japan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs resisted further issuances of travel visas for Japanese prostitutes, feeling it tarnished the image of the Japanese Empire.

Hence, the military turned to acquiring comfort women outside of mainland Japan, especially from Korea and occupied China. Many women were tricked or defrauded into joining the military brothels. Others were outright kidnapped. Those Japanese prostitutes who remained in the military brothels often became karayukisan, the managers of their respective brothels, leaving it to the non-Japanese comfort women to suffer serial rapes.

The military also sought comfort women from local sources. In urban areas, conventional advertising through middlemen were used alongside kidnapping to furnish brothels with comfort women. However, in the front line, especially in the countryside where middlemen were rare, the military often directly demanded local leaders to procure women for their brothels.

The situation became worse as the war progressed. Under the strain of the war effort, the military no longer provided enough supplies to Japanese units; in response, the units made up the difference by demanding or looting supplies from the locals. Moreover, when the locals, especially Chinese, were considered hostile, Japanese soldiers carried out the policy known as "purging" (in Japanese 燼滅作戦, in Chinese 三光作戦), indiscriminately massacring and raping local civilians.

Accounts from surviving comfort women paint a grim picture of Japanese military brothels. Women were divided into three or four categories, depending on their length of service. The freshest women were the least likely to suffer from STDs and were placed in the highest category. However, as time went on, the comfort women were downgraded as the likelihood of their acquiring STDs became more certain. When they were considered too diseased to be of any further use, they were finally abandoned. Many women reported having their uteruses rot off due to the disease acquired from being repeatedly raped by thousands of men over the course of several years.

As the Japanese war effort suffered reversals, the military evacuated their positions in South-East Asia but often left comfort women behind. Room was made for Japanese prostitutes, but not for Korean, Chinese, and other non-Japanese comfort women. Many comfort women starved to death on desert islands thousands of miles away from home. A few managed to make incredible treks thousands of miles across mainland Asia to return to their homes in Korea and northeastern China.

Responsibility and compensation

Japan regards all World War II compensation claims to be settled, with the exception of any claims from North Korea, with which it has not yet signed any war settlement treaty.

Both South Korea and Japan mutually confirm that all claims between the countries and their people have been settled completely and finally by the Treaty on Basic Relations and Agreement of Economic Cooperation and Property Claims between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965.

However, in 1990, the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery, with help from some Japanese organizations, filed suit, demanding apologies and compensation. Several surviving comfort women also independently filed suit in the Tokyo District Court. More suits followed in the ensuing years. However, it was widely expected that the court would reject all of these claims on the basis of the statutes of limitation or on the basis that the state is immune from civil suits in court on the matter of war time conduct. Nevertheless, these suits have helped to revive and sustain the issue of comfort women in Japan as well as in the international media.

Up until 1992, the Japanese government denied any official connection to the wartime brothels. In June of 1990, the Japanese government declared that all brothels were run by private contractors. However, in 1992, the historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki discovered incriminating documents in the archives of Japan's National Defense Agency indicating that the military was directly involved in running the brothels (by, for example, selecting the agents who recruited or coerced women into service). Since then, Japan's official position has been one of admitting "moral but not legal" responsibility. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone famously stated in his memoir published in 1978 that he set up a comfort house for his troops when he was a navy lieutenant in charge of accounting.

In 1995, Japan set up an "Asia Women's Fund" for atonement in the form of material compensation and to provide each surviving comfort woman with an unofficial signed apology from the prime minister. But because of the unofficial nature of the fund, many comfort women have rejected these payments and continue to seek an official apology and compensation.

Clearly time is on the side of the Japanese government. The number of surviving comfort women has dwindled from many thousands to a mere handful of women, all of whom will have passed away in another few years.

Following official admission of a military connection to the brothels in 1992, the debate has shifted to consideration of evidence and testimony of coercive recruitment of comfort women during the war. In a number of mock trials (without cross-examination), surviving women have testified of being subjected to coercion and rape.

The ongoing debate over comfort women

The popular conception of "comfort women" outside Japan is that all comfort women were kidnapped by Japanese soldiers to serve as sex slaves under direct order from the Japanese government. Certain Japanese believe that there are "subtle aspects" to this issue that are missed. Forcible procurement by direct action from soldiers occurred, alongside procurement by private middlemen, and it is often difficult to separate the two.

Prostitution and bonded labour were legal at the time, and they assert that if coercion was done by the middlemen, then much of the blame, whether legal or moral, can be shifted to them. They also argue that many of these middlemen were local Koreans and Chinese, not Japanese, but there is no dispute that the sexual slaves were acquired at the behest of the Japanese, to serve their purposes. The apologists argue that some women were sold to middlemen by their parents out of financial privation and that many local community leaders used trickery or coercion to provide their own local women to the Japanese.

Pointing to the complicity of locals allows those who have an incentive to absolve Japan of its war guilt and to defeat compensation claims to deflect the responsibility away from the Japanese military on whom it should lie. They can claim that Japan had merely taken advantage of an already accepted local practice.

The issue is extremely controversial especially in regard to the case of Korean comfort women.

In 1991, Asahi Shimbun, one of the major newspapers of Japan, ran a series on comfort women for a year. This is often regarded as the trigger of a revived controversy over comfort women in Japan, also coinciding with re-examinations of other wartime atrocities such as the Nanking Massacre. In this series the Asahi Shimbun published excerpts of the book published in 1983 by Kiyosada Yoshida, Watashino sensou hanzai - Chousenjin Renkou Kousei Kiroku (My War Crime; The Record of the Forced Removal of Koreans), in which the author confesses to forcibly procuring women from Jeju Island in Korea under the direct order of the Japanese military. In 1992, the paper also published the discovery of documents in the archives of Japan's National Defense Agency indicating that the military was directly involved in selecting the agents who recruited these women into service. The article implied that the document is a smoking gun, proving the Japanese government's complicity in the forcible kidnapping of women. The publication of the article was just five days prior to a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa to South Korea. Miyazawa made a formal apology during that visit.

However, investigation by Hata Ikuhiko subsequently discovered that the entire Jeju Island episode documented in Yoshida's book to be a fiction, which the author of the book later admitted. Moreover, the supposedly incriminating documents proving the military's involvement in selecting the agents in fact showed that the military issued such directives to prevent abuse, in response to reports of complaints from the colonial police force about the methods employed by these agents. And it was also shown that some of these women were sold by their parents to these agents as bonded labour, a practice not uncommon at the time both in Japan and in Korea. These revelations severely damaged the credibility of the movement advocating for comfort women in Japan.

Subsequent research proved that Japanese soldiers on the frontline did indeed force women into military brothels. Moreover, the presence of middlemen does not change the simple fact that many women were also kidnapped and coerced into serving as sex slaves. However, apologists for the Japanese suggest that somehow the context in which such acts were carried out changes the nuance of the moral responsibility for the rapes.

A common defence heard in Japan is that there is no document proving that the Japanese military did order those middlemen to procure comfort women by force, that the purpose of military brothel system was to prevent rape, and that the military issued the directive to select agents so that these agents would not get involved in illegal methods of procurement. Moreover, the existence of middlemen makes it difficult for ex-comfort women to pursue compensation claims.

There is a debate over how much blame should be placed on the military hierarchy, or for that matter, the Japanese government. Though those who wish to deny official responsibility might admit that abuse at a local level might have occurred on an individual basis, it is common for them to blame the entire matter on mere failure of oversight, confused policy in regard to a "suspected" guerilla force, and a lack of resources at the front line. For example, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone famously stated in his memoir published in 1978 that he set up a comfort house for his troops of about 3000 when he was a navy lieutenant in charge of accounting. When criticised about this matter, he refused to admit his responsibility, claiming that he was unaware that the women were forced into service.

Military brothels, human trafficking, and sexual slavery in context

One criticism of general reporting on the issue of comfort women in Western countries is that the media buzz has subtly altered the image of the military brothel, making it appear that the concept of the military brothel is uniquely Japanese. Military brothels are not unique to Japan, though it is clear that the Japanese military brothel system was on a scale, organizational sophistication, and brutality rarely seen in history.

However, Western militaries have also utilised such institutions for the same reasons the Japanese military did: to prevent STDs, to maintain the morale of the troops, and to allow soldiers to have sex near the front line. For example, during the American occupation of Japan, the U.S. army used military brothels set up by the Japanese government known as the Recreation and Amusement Association. Many Japanese women worked there under economic hardship and debt bondage. South Korea had a similar system during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. However, the women who worked in those brothels were kidnapped sex slaves, as was the case with the Japanese.

There were also brothels for the exclusive use of U.S. soldiers inside certain camps in the Vietnam War; the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had their own brothels. Reporters witnessed a rapid increase in prostitutes in Cambodia and in Bosnia after U.N. peace keeping forces moved in. There was one highly publicised case where members of the U.N. peacekeeping force were accused of direct involvement in procurement of sex slaves for a local brothel in Bosnia. Setting up such an institution in an economically deprived area is bound to involve a degree of forced prostitution, but the use of agents for procurement and management of brothels has allowed the military to believe itself shielded from the issue of sexual slavery and human trafficking.

Related articles


Some recent work on the comfort women issue include:

  • Tanaka, Yuki Japan's Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the US Occupation, London, Routledge: 2002. ISBN 0415194016.
  • Yoshimi, Yoshiaki Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II, Columbia University Press, 2001. (mentioned RAA too) ISBN 023112032X
  • Molasky, Michael S. American Occupation of Japan and Okinawa, Routledge, 1999. ISBN 0415191947 ISBN 0415260442
  • D. Kim-Gibson, Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women, 1999. (ISBN 0931209889)
  • Hicks, George L. The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, 1997. (ISBN 0393316947)
  • Schellstede, Sangmie Choi. Comfort Women Speak: Testimony by Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military, 2000. (ISBN 0841914133)

A review of the Tanaka text can be found in the academic journal Intersections, Issue 9:

  • Morris, Narrelle. Review of Japan's Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the US Occupation. [1] (

A review of some of these books and a history and historiography of the issue, from a critical viewpoint, can be found in issue 58:2 of Monumenta Nipponica:

  • Wakabayashi, Bob Tadashii "Comfort Women: Beyond Litigious Feminism"


Academic research

Japanese official statements

Historical documents

  • House Concurrent Resolution 226 ( (June 23, 2003, 108th United States Congress), introduced by Rep. Lane Evans (Illinois 17), referred to House Committee on International Relations; not passed.
  • Japanese Comfort Women ( (1944, United States Office of War Information)de:Comfort women

fr:Femmes de rconfort ko:위안부 ja:慰安婦 zh:慰安妇


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