“Comfort Women.” The very name conjures up an image of a kindly grandmother lovingly hugging and cuddling her sick or upset grandchild. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, “Comfort Women” were young women and girls, usually inexperienced and naïve from rural areas (some of which were even prepubescent) who were coerced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII. The current term for this practice is “military sex slaves.” In both Japanese and Korean the term, “comfort women,” is a euphemism for “prostitute,” which tells you all you need to know.
According to Japanese Imperial Army records the cw system, which also included designated “comfort stations” where the sexual activities occurred, was planned, established, and operated with the concurrence and assistance of both the government and the military. The avowed purposes of them were to (1) provide comfort to soldiers who were fighting in foreign lands, (2) provide a controlled environment to prevent indiscriminate raping of the civilian populace and the resultant spreading of venereal disease, and (3) prevent espionage. If that sounds like a weak justification to you, if not outright “BS,” I would agree. There is no factual basis to support those assertions.
Much of the records with respect to cw was destroyed by Japanese officials after the War, but it appears that the first comfort station was established in Shanghai in 1932. In any event, they spread rapidly, soon appearing everywhere Japanese soldiers were fighting. One might say they followed the army much like “hookers” followed General Hooker’s army during the Civil War. One difference, however, was that, for the most part, these were not volunteers.
Initially, many of the cw were Japanese prostitutes who actually volunteered. Soon, however, there were not enough volunteers, so the Army resorted to other recruitment methods.
- They advertised falsely in local newspapers claiming to seek women to work in factories.
- Paid brokers to find women.
- Most commonly, coerced women and girls through threats and other means.
According to multiple sources, such as SUNY Buffalo professor Yoshiko Nozaki, Korea and China were the primary sources, but CW were taken from any and all lands the Japanese had conquered – Taiwan, the Philippines, Burma, and even some Dutch from that country’s Asian colonies. Estimates of the total number of CW vary widely due to incomplete records, but they range as high as 200,000. Although that number appears to be shockingly high, it is surpassed by their barbaric and atrocious treatment. Most were seized against their will and basically imprisoned in so-called “comfort stations.” They were forced to work as sex slaves for the soldiers. They were systematically beaten, raped, and starved.
Over the last 70 years, despite the Japanese government’s continued attempts to deny or soft-pedal the aforementioned abuses, information has surfaced that is undeniable, for example:
- Kakou Senda, a Japanese writer, was the first to shed light on this matter. In 1973 he wrote a book about Japanese cw, which was widely criticized in Japan as being inaccurate and distorted. However, with the passage of time he has been vindicated, and his book has become an important source for subsequent activist groups.
- Hank Nelson, a professor emeritus at the Australian National University’s Asia Pacific Research Division has written extensively about the cw brothels in New Guinea. He cites a diary account of one Gordon Thomas, a POW who was incarcerated in New Guinea, that some cw were required to service as many as 35 soldiers per day! Approximately 75% of them died in captivity, and most of the rest became infertile as the result of sexual trauma and/or abuse. Other survivors have exhibited emotional problems, internalized anger, and PTSD.
- In 2014 China disclosed some 90 documents, including some from Japanese Army archives and the national bank of Japan’s puppet regime in Manchuria that provided “ironclad proof” of abuses.
Unbelievably, after the War, very few soldiers were punished for this enterprise.
The cw issue has received much attention. In addition to the foregoing:
- In Korea the surviving cw have become public figures. They are known as “halmoni,” which is an affectionate term for “grandmother.” Every Wednesday many of them as well as various civic and religious groups and supporters hold so-called “Wednesday Demonstrations” in Seoul in front of the Japanese Embassy. In addition, a “House of Sharing” was founded in 1992 to provide a home for needy survivors.
- In the Philippines surviving cw are affectionately called “Lolas,” or “grandmothers.” Similar support groups have been formed. They are enlisting the support of their government and the UN in their pursuit of legal action against the government of Japan.
- In 2007 the US House of Representatives passed a resolution calling the treatment of cw “unprecedented in its cruelty” and “one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th Century.” It urged the Japanese government to “formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility…” for the cw system. The Japanese replied that it had already apologized in 1992, but that statement is generally considered to be inadequate as it did not accept any legal responsibility.
- International human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have been lobbying in support of redress.
Today, some 70 years after the end of WWII, the cw system remains a stain on the legacy of Japan and an irritant with respect to relations between Korea and it. The issue has received much attention. It was a heinous war crime and a severe violation of human rights. Rape, sex slavery, and similar atrocities are still being perpetrated against women to this day.