Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War

The phrase “comfort women” is a controversial term that refers to an estimated 200,000 girls and women who were recruited as prostitutes by the Imperial Japanese Army during the 1930s and 1940s. Though the majority were Korean and Chinese, Filipina, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Burmese, Dutch, Australian, and some Japanese women were also abducted. The women – many of who were teenagers — were forced to serve in Japanese military brothels throughout Asia. They were recruited by force or deception, and regard themselves as having been sexually assaulted and held captive as sex slaves throughout Asia. They became victims of the largest case of human trafficking in the 20th century.

The significance of the Japanese military comfort stations and the plight of the comfort women have been the subject of an ongoing debate and intense activism in Japan, much if it inspired by historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi’s research investigations. His book, Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II (1995), updated and translated into English by Suzanne O’Brien (2000), is the definitive scholarly account of the subject. Another important scholarly book, Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the U.S. Occupation (2002) by Toshiyuki Tanaka, emphasizes that the crimes committed against the ‘comfort’ women” constituted not only the deliberate objectification and victimization of women but these were “a crime against humanity on an unprecedented scale.” (p. 84)

Both books attempt to personalize the victims; numerous testimonial accounts by victims, as well as the designers and operators of the comfort station system. Their disparate recollections reveal the underlying prejudices that have led the Japanese to regard comfort women as an inconsequential footnote and to dismiss the testimonies of comfort women survivors. The relentless struggle of the surviving aged comfort women is their determination to regain their human dignity. It is a struggle against Japan’s intransigent refusal to recognize its responsibility for unspeakable, multiple war crimes; including the comfort station system in which women were sexually assaulted en masse.

“Comfort Stations,” the creation of future Japan’s Prime Minister
The creation of a military brothel was the brainchild of Lieutenant Yasuhiro Nakasone, then paymaster in Japan’s Imperial Navy, who sought a solution for the unruly misconduct of Japanese troops stationed in the island of Borneo. According to Nakasone’s own 1978 memoir, he organized the first military brothel, calling it a “comfort station.” The model was then replicated in 2,000 Imperial Japanese Army and Navy officers across the Indo-Pacific as a matter of policy; women were provided as “the first reward of conquest.” Nakasone went on to become Japan’s Prime Minister from 1982 to 1987. (Mindy Kotler. The Comfort Women and Japan’s War o Truth, The New York Times, 2014)

“These were not commercial brothels; explicit and implicit force and coercion was used to recruit these women; and once installed in a comfort station, they were brutalized. What went on in them was serial rape, not prostitution.”

A veteran soldier in the Japanese imperial army in World War II, Yasuji Kaneko admitted to an Associated Press reporter that he remembers the screams of the countless women he had raped in military-run brothels and women in villages he and his military comrades pillaged in eastern China.

“the women cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.” (Hiroko Tabuchi. Japan’s Abe: No Proof of WWII Sex Slaves,The Washington Post, March 1, 2007)

A recent article in The Japan Times (November, 2014) reported:

“There are hundreds of documents showing the Japanese military’s involvement in the comfort stations, as well as recent testimony. There are records from Japan’s postwar Ministry of Justice in which soldiers admitted to having been paid money to keep the crimes quiet as the war ended.”

“The greatest denier [of reports about the abuse of comfort women] Nobutaka Shikanai, who had served in the accounting division of the Imperial Japanese Army during the war. He was in charge of staffing and operating “comfort stations,” and described his work in “The Secret History After the War”:

“When we procured the girls, we had to look at their endurance, how used up they were, whether they were good or not. We had to calculate the alloted time for commissioned officers, commanding officers, how many minutes. We also had to fix prices according to rank.”
(Jake Adelstein. The Uncomfortable Truth About “Comfort Women“, November, 2014)

After decades of silence, 234 former Korean comfort women came forward in the 1990s to tell their stories of the torture they had endured. According to reports about 25-30 percent are believed to have survived the ordeal at “comfort stations” where these women testified they had been raped up to 40 times a day.

“Physical abuse was rampant, with soldiers often beating the women to the point of unconsciousness, branding them with hot irons, or cutting them with swords. On top of the physical abuse, the majority of the women acquired infections and sexually transmitted diseases. Those who became pregnant were administered arsenic-based drugs to abort the fetuses, a process that rendered many of the women infertile.” (Michael Solis. Surviving “Comfort Women” Rally at 900the Protest, The Huffington Post, May 25, 2011)

In 1991, Kim Hak-sun became the first of the comfort women to share her story with the world. Shortly thereafter, 35 war victims from Korea, including Kim and two other comfort women, filed a class action lawsuit demanding reparations from the Japanese government. Japan denied responsibility for the occurrence of military sexual slavery. Since Jan. 8, 1992, Korean survivors — “halmoni” as they are called – have held a protest rally outside the Japanese Embassy every Wednesday.

Yoshiaki Yoshimi a professor of Japanese modern history at Chuo University in Tokyo, and a founding member of the Center for Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility, has been a leading scholar documenting Japanese war crimes. On January 12, 1993, he published his research findings showing a direct link between imperial institutions and the “comfort stations.”  The article caused a sensation and forced the Japanese government, represented by Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Koichi, to acknowledge some of the facts that same day.

Statement by the Chief  Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono
On January 17, 1993, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa presented formal apologies for the suffering of the victims, during a trip in South Korea. And on August 5, 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohel Kono acknowledged, in what is known as –the Kono Statement – that Japan’s military forced Korean women to work at “comfort stations” as prostitutes.

“comfort stations were operated in extensive areas for long periods, it is apparent that there existed a great number of comfort women. Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day. The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of the women.

“The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.

“Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honor and dignity of many women. The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” (Kono Statement. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Aug. 4, 1993)

The controversy was re-ignited in 2007 when the government back-tracked
The Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe backtracked from the Kono Statement — even as additional documentation has shown the active recruiting and administrative role played by the Imperial Japanese Army. The harrowing testimony in 2007, by several surviving comfort women before a Congressional committee, re-ignited the controversy: Koon Ja Kim:

“Many women believed they were being recruited by the army for other types of labor, only to learn they were to be used as sex slaves to calm the nerves of Japanese troops.

“I remember the day that changed my life forever. I was wearing a black skirt, a green shirt, and black shoes. It was March of 1942, and I was 16 years old. I had been sent out of the house by police officer Choi and told that I needed to go and make some money. I found a Korean man wearing a military uniform and he told me that he would send me on an errand and I would be paid for this errand. I followed him and he told me to board a train –- a freight car. I did not know where I was going but I saw seven other young girls and another man in a military uniform on this freight train. There were other soldiers in different cars on the train, but I didn’t see them until we came to a stop and I got off the train. A Japanese soldier with a ranking badge was waiting for us by a truck. The soldiers got on the truck and the other girls and I were put on the back of the truck.

Eventually the truck stopped in front of a house that looked like an old inn. I was later told that the name of the town was Hunchun, China. The next evening, a Japanese officer came to the house. He spoke Japanese, which I did not understand. I did not know what he was saying or what he wanted until he raped me. When I refused and fought back, he punched me in the face and the blow split my eardrum. That was the first of many days and nights that I was raped. On a daily basis, I was raped by Japanese soldiers, and it was common to be raped by 20 different soldiers a day, and on some days, it was as high as 40. If we fought or resisted the rapes, we would be punished, beaten or stabbed by the soldiers.

There were soldier overseers to make sure that we complied and, if we resisted, they would punish us. My body is forever marked and scarred with those beatings and in some cases stabbings with a knife. Many soldiers refused to wear condoms. We would be beaten for insisting that they wear condoms. It was common for girls to become pregnant and to contract sexually transmitted diseases. But if a girl became pregnant, she was forced to have an abortion. I was one of those girls. Eventually, we were moved to the front lines of the war to a town called Kokashi (Japanese name for a town in China). I did not believe it could get worse, but it was. The soldiers on the front lines believed they were going to die and so they acted out their fears and stress on us by being more violent than one can imagine.”

Despite Japan’s “lavishly funded Beltway lobbying operation,” that usually succeeded in blocking Congressional resolutions, in 2007, the U.S. House of Representative Resolution 121, urging the Japanese government to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces’ coercion of young women into sexual slavery, known to the world as ‘comfort women.'”

“Japan’s ruling government is fast becoming detached from reality” 
On March 1, 2007, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe categorically denied that Japan’s military force the women in comfort stations: “There is no evidence to prove there was coercion, nothing to support it.” Nariaki Nakayama, chairman of the group of about 120 lawmakers who sought to play down the government’s involvement in the brothels facetiously compared the brothels to outsourced college cafeterias.

“Some say it is useful to compare the brothels to college cafeterias run by private companies, who recruit their own staff, procure foodstuffs, and set prices. Where there’s demand, businesses crop up … but to say women were forced by the Japanese military into service is off the mark. This issue must be reconsidered, based on truth … for the sake of Japanese honor.” (Tabuchi. Japan’s Abe: No Proof of WWII Sex Slaves, Associate Press, 2007)

In 2013, ten years after the Kono Statement, Prime Minister Abe created major discord when he denied that Japan’s military had any role in coercively recruiting women for sex when he visited the Yasukuni Shrine commemorating war dead. Elderly Korean “Comfort Women” survivors held a protest rally outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. (BBC, 2013)

The Japanese military coercive involvement in comfort stations continues to be bitterly contested by Abe and his government; they are engaged in an all-out battle, dismissing the documented historical record as “a tissue of lies designed to discredit the nation.” Most recently, The New York Times noted that the “official narrative in Japan is fast becoming detached from reality, as it seeks to cast the Japanese people — rather than the comfort women of the Asia-Pacific theater — as the victims of this story.”

“Mr. Abe’s administration denies that imperial Japan ran a system of human trafficking and coerced prostitution, implying that comfort women were simply camp-following prostitutes.

“with no intended irony, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party appointed Mr. Nakasone’s own son, former Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone, to chair a commission established to “consider concrete measures to restore Japan’s honor with regard to the comfort women issue.” (Kotler. The Comfort Women and Japan’s War on Truth, The New York Times, Nov. 14, 2014

See Timeline of Japanese Military “Comfort Women” System