Comfort women in Myitkyina in Burma in 1944

Between 1932 and the end of the war, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 women served as "comfort women" (sex slaves) for Japanese soldiers in huge Japanese-run brothels. The majority came from Korea. Most of the others came from the Philippines, Indonesia and China. The remainder came from Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand and Burma. Even some Dutch women in Indonesia were forced to participate. The Japanese claim there were fewer than 20,000 women in brothels used by Japanese soldiers. No definitive records have surfaced.

Comfort women is a euphemism for prostitutes enslaved to service members of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Some 2,000 "comfort stations" were set up in Manchuria, Burma, Borneo and other places in Asia, where Japanese soldiers were stationed. As of late 2015, 46 known comfort the women were still alive in South Korea.

Japan’s first comfort station, Dai Salon in Shanghai, was established in 1932. A typical “comfort station” serviced 10 to 100 soldiers a day. A typical room was simply furnished with a tatami mat, futon, a washbowl and plaques with the Japanese name given to the comfort woman kept there. Outside, welcome banners for soldiers were sometimes hung. Korean-born, New York-based Lee Chang-jin, creator of the “Comfort Women Wanted” art exhibit, said: “One of the women said they used to get raped by 50 soldiers a day.”

A number of Japanese soldiers have come forward and admitted their role in forcibly taking women and girls on orders of the military. In 1993, documents found in the archives of Japan’s Defense Ministry indicated that the military was directly involved in running the brothels. Reasons offered for running the brothels were; 1) they prevented Japanese soldiers from raping women and committing sex crimes in occupied areas: 2) they prevented the spread of venereal diseases (prostitutes had regular medical check-ups); and 3) they prevented the loss of military secrets by limiting the women soldiers and officers were exposed to.

Book: Legacies of the Comfort Women of World War II, edited by Margaret Setz and Bonnie B.C, Oh (M.E. Sharp, 2003).

How Women Became Comfort Women

Registration of comfort women

Women between 11 and 40 served as sex slaves. Many of the women were kidnapped and raped. Others were tricked and defrauded. Some women claim they were taken from their villages at gunpoint and told they were being taken to work in factoriesThey often had sex with between 20 and 50 men a day in dirty barracks and bare wooden rooms with a sign over the door that read "total heart and physical service by devoted girls." One Korean woman who was taken to a military brothel in Borneo said she was forced to have brutal sex as often as 20 times a day.

Ho Yi wrote in the Taipei Times, “One victim is Chen Lien-hua from Taiwan, who at age of 19 was lured into prostitution by the false promise of a job abroad that could help support her poor family. According to the information compiled by the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, which has worked with survivors in Taiwan since 1992, women were sometimes directly recruited to be comfort women, but were more often the victims of deception or coercion. “They were usually tricked and lied to, believing that they were to work as nursing assistants overseas. Some were recruited by the district offices. You couldn’t say no to the recruitment. It was mandatory,” says Kang Shu-hua, executive director of Taiwan-based foundation that helps comfort women. [Source: Ho Yi, Taipei Times, December 29, 2013 +++]

Korean survivor Lee Oak-seon said she was kidnapped on the street and sent to China at the age of 16. Many Korean girls, some as young as 11, endured similar fates. Those who dared to disobey were tortured and killed at comfort stations. +++

Japanese Government Involvement in the Comfort Women Brothels

comfort station entrance

The brothels were either run by or set up with the cooperation of the Japanese military. . Jake Adelstein wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Historical documents unearthed in the 1990s, along with accounts from soldiers and victims, suggested that military authorities had a direct role in working with contractors to forcibly procure women to work in brothels. Nobutaka Shikanai, the former president of Japan’s most conservative paper, the Sankei Shimbun, and an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army’s accounting department during the war, has acknowledged the government’s role in building wartime sex-trafficking networks.[Source: Jake Adelstein, Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2015 ***]

“When we procured the girls, we had to look at their endurance, how used up they were, whether they were good or not,” he was quoted as saying in a book of interviews and memoirs, “The Secret History of the War.” “We had to calculate the allotted time for commissioned officers, commanding officers, grunts, how many minutes. We also had to fix prices according to rank. There was even a prospectus we learned in [military] accounting school.”

One Comfort Woman's Story

One former comfort woman and slave laborer told the Korean Herald that she was 15 when her Japanese teacher forced her to join a group of Korean girls on a ship bound for Japan. "There was no one who could reject an order from a Japanese teacher," she said. "I was forced to work at a military weapons factory under very harsh circumstances."

Suffering from extremes exhaustion and hunger, she tried to escape from the factory but was caught and raped by a Japanese soldier. After that she was forced to serve two years as a comfort woman. "I was raped, and raped and Japanese military forces," she said.

When the war ended she returned to South Korea, and spent most of her life drifting from city to city performing menial jobs. She had difficulty saving money and getting ahead because she spent most of her "money visiting hospitals to cure venereal diseases" which she "contacted from the Japanese soldiers."

After the war many former comfort women were crippled from syphilis and beatings, psychologically scared from their ordeal and shamed for life. Those that survived were ostracized and humiliated by their own people when they returned to their homes after World War II.

Comfort Women in Cambodia and the Philippines

sex slave memorial in Manila

Filipino women were forced into sexual slavery as comfort women for Japanese soldiers during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Some half Japanese children in the Philippines were the result of unions between these women and Japanese soldiers.

One Filipina told William Branigin of the Washington Post that she was abducted from her village when she was only 14 and raped day and night for a week before she escaped. Another said she was raped repeatedly for three weeks after being abducted in Manila when she was 18.

There have been demonstrations in Manila on the comfort woman issue, some of them by Japanese-Filipino children who want child support from their Japanese "dead beat dads." The Japanese government didn’t admit until 1992 that comfort women brothels existed in the Philippines. The next year they admitted the brothels were organized by the military but said there was no evidence that women were forced to work in them. In 1994, Japanese apologized, offered $1 billion compensation payment to several nations, and built a vocational training center in Manila.

The most well-known comfort woman is South Korea is Grandma Hun, a woman who was discovered in Cambodia in 1997 when she 73 years old. She said she had been taken to Cambodia when she was a teenager and eventually became the mistress of a Japanese soldier who fathered her child. The soldier eventually abandoned her in Cambodia, where she married a Cambodian man and had two children. She was survived the Khmer Rouge reign of terror and was brought back to Korea after being discovered by a Cambodian newspaper.

Comfort Women in Indonesia and East Timor

Jan Ruff O’Herne, a Dutch woman who spent her childhood in Indonesia, became a Comfort woman. In a film called “Comfort Women Wanted” made Korean-born, New York-based Lee Chang-jin, O’Herne said: ““The first night we didn’t know what we were there for. We thought that perhaps we would work there. We were so scared ... The next night we realized we were in a brothel for the sexual pleasure of the Japanese officers ... We were dragged back and it started again. To think that this is going to happen every night. I can never describe the fear every day when it starts to get dark. Fear, all over your body. There is nothing you can do about it.” In 2007, O’Herne and other victims went to the U.S. House of Representatives, requesting that the US demand the Japanese government’s acknowledgment of the sexual enslavement of comfort women. [Source: Ho Yi, Taipei Times, December 29, 2013]

Comfort station

Stephanie Coop wrote in the Japan Times, “Ines de Jesus was a young girl during World War II when she was forced to become a sex slave, or “comfort woman,” for Japanese troops in the then Portuguese colony of East Timor. By day, de Jesus carried out various kinds of menial labor, and each night was raped by between four to eight Japanese soldiers at a so-called comfort station in Oat village in the western province of Bobonaro. While horrific, de Jesus’ experience with sexual abuse under military occupation is by no means unusual among East Timorese women, as a special exhibition at the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward makes clear. [Source: Stephanie Coop, Japan Times, December 23, 2006 |::|]

Twenty-one comfort stations were identified by a team led by Kiyoko Furusawa, an associate professor of development and gender studies at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University. “Japanese landed in East Timor in February 1942 to oust a contingent of Australian troops that had entered the neutral territory the previous December, it ordered “liurai” (traditional kings) and village heads to supply women to serve the troops. Some of those who refused to comply were executed. “Women enslaved in comfort stations were forced to serve many soldiers every night, while others were treated as the personal property of particular officers,” she said. “Some women were specifically targeted for enslavement because their husbands were suspected of aiding the Australian troops. “As well as being physically and psychologically traumatized by the sexual abuse, the women were also made to work at tasks such as building roads, cutting wood, growing and preparing food, and doing laundry during the day, so they were constantly exhausted. They were also forced to dance and were taught Japanese songs to entertain soldiers,” Furusawa said. |::|

“Comfort women received no payment for their work and little or no food, she added. Family members either brought food to the comfort stations or the women were sent home to obtain it. There was little likelihood of women trying to escape at such times, she explained. “There were around 12,000 Japanese troops in a country with a population of only about 463,000, so the whole island was like an open prison. There was nowhere for the women to go, and at any rate, they were terrified about reprisals against their families if they did try to escape.” |::|

Comfort Women in Taiwan

In Taiwan, over 2,000 women are believed to have been comfort women. According to Kang Shu-hua, executive director of the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, of the 58 former comfort women the foundation has found in Taiwan and worked with since 1992, only five were still alive in 1992.

Ho Yi wrote in the Taipei Times, “One victim is Chen Lien-hua from Taiwan, who at age of 19 was lured into prostitution by the false promise of a job abroad that could help support her poor family. According to the information compiled by the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, women were sometimes directly recruited to be comfort women, but were more often the victims of deception or coercion. “They were usually tricked and lied to, believing that they were to work as nursing assistants overseas. Some were recruited by the district offices. You couldn’t say no to the recruitment. It was mandatory,” says Kang Shu-hua, executive director of the foundation, which organized the Comfort Women Wanted exhibition. [Source: Ho Yi, Taipei Times, December 29, 2013]

Japan’s Efforts to Address the Comfort Women Issue

Comfort women in the Andaman Island

Jake Adelstein wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The legal controversy over former comfort women began in late 1991 when a group of South Korean women filed a lawsuit with a Tokyo court, demanding that the Japanese government formally apologize and compensate them for their suffering. During a visit to Seoul in January 1992, then-Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa officially apologized to South Koreans for the suffering inflicted upon comfort women by the Japanese army. In 1993, Japan issued a formal apology for the wartime network of brothels and frontline stations that provided sex for the military and its contractors. [Source: Jake Adelstein, Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2015 ***]

Japan’s more conservative politicians have criticized the 1993 apology, despite substantial evidence that the Japanese government was involved in trafficking the women. In June 1995, the Japanese government announced details to creating a special fund to provide allowances to former comfort women. However, many South Koreans criticized the fund — which consisted of money raised from private donors — for glossing over the Japanese government’s role in perpetrating wartime atrocities. The fund was dissolved in 2007.

Comfort Women Compensation

In 1993, the Japanese government formally apologized to the women described as comfort women. Since then, the government stances seems to have been to admit moral but no legal responsibility. A private fund was set up to compensate comfort women, and two Japanese prime ministers wrote formal letters of apology to women who received the payments. Some women found this arrangements unacceptable and refused to accept compensation.

Japanese courts have recognized that women from Korea were brought to Japan under false pretenses and forces to work in military factories but dismissed claims for damages and compensation, citing the 1951 U.S.-Japan San Francisco Treaty and the 1965 compensation rights treaty between Japan and South Korea.

Japan helped established the Asia Women's Fund to raise money from businesses to compensate comfort women from South Korean and Taiwan. The women were scheduled to receive $23,000 a piece over five years while those from the Philippines were scheduled to receive $9,200. The difference in payments was due to the fac t that the Philippines has a lower cost of living. The fund had trouble raising money.

In April 1998, the South Korean government said it would end its effort to win compensation from the Japanese government on the comfort women issue. Instead the South Korean government promised to pay 152 registered comfort women in South Korea $22,700, which would be supplemented by $4,700 from victims rights organizations. A poll found 70 percent of Japanese believe Japan didn't pay enough compensation for victims of war crimes.

In 2000, a Tokyo District Court dismissed a case brought by 46 former sex slaves from the Philippines who accused Japan of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2001, a reparations claim by South Korean women who had been held as sex slaves failed in a Hiroshima High Court on the grounds that coerced sex was not illegal when it was carried out.

Comfort women

The Japanese government fears that acknowledging the comfort women will open it up to claims from other victims---British prisoners of war, Koreans forced to work in Japanese factories or Koreans force to fight against the US army. The Japanese defense is that: 1) even if the women were held involuntarily there was no law against that at the time; 2) if coerced sex was illegal these laws did not apply in military-occupied territories; and 3) whatever misconduct occurred was settled by peace treaties at the end of the war. The Japanese have stood by these arguments even though it has signed four treaties barring forced labor and sexual trafficking of women.

Anger and Legislation on the Comfort Women Issue

Members of the Korean Council of Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan want Japan to release records of military sexual activity, officially apologize, revise textbooks, give compensation to victims, punish those responsible for organizing the system and build a memorial to honor the victims.

Singapore's former Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew told Newsweek in regard to the comfort woman issue, "There is no willingness to face up and say, 'Let's close it.' Psychologically the Japanese are not prepared to close that chapter as the Germans have tried to do." The Dutch lower house has passed a resolution urging Japan to apologize for its exploitation of “comfort women” in World War II and called on the Japanese government to pay compensation to victims and victims’ families.

In July 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed non-binding legislation demanding the Japan apologize for exploiting comfort women in World War II. The bill was submitted by Rep. Michael Honda, a California Democrat of Japanese descent. Honda said, “What they said today in their vote was that, yes, there were victims, there were women who were used as sex slaves, yes there was a systematic military program that captured, coerced women and girls to be used as sex slaves...It is about time the Japanese government approach and acknowledge it, take full responsibility and apologize in an unambiguous formal way.”

In June 2007, prominent right-wing Japanese journalists and politicians took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post claiming there was no evidence that women were forced into sexual slavery and insisted they were licensed prostitutes embedded with the Japanese army. They said the women in question were not sex slaves and the brothels that employed them were run as businesses for profit by non-military groups that employed “professional prostitutes,” and insisted they was little different between them and brothels run in military zones in other parts of the world. The right wingers went on to claim that Honda was a disgrace to his Japanese ancestry and he pushed the forward comfort women legislation to pander to Chinese-Americans and Korean-American in his voting district.

US document related to comfort women

U.N. Report Criticizes Japanese Politicians' Remarks on 'Comfort Women'

In June 2013, the Asahi Shimbun reported: “A U.N. report criticized Japanese politicians and local leaders for denying the facts about “comfort women” and urged Tokyo to take measures to prevent "re-traumatizing" the victims. The Japanese government should "refute attempts to deny the facts by the government authorities and public figures and to re-traumatize the victims through such repeated denials,” the report of the U.N. Committee against Torture said. [Source: Asahi Shimbun, June 1, 2013 ==]

The report did not mention Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto by name. But during the examination process, three of the four committee members who raised the comfort women issue referred to his recent remarks, such as, “Anyone can understand that the comfort women system was necessary,” and, “There is no evidence to prove that the Japanese government forcibly took the women (to frontline brothels).” The report not only criticized Diet members and high-ranking local government officials, but it also expressed concern that public compensation or relief measures have not been provided to former comfort women and that those involved in setting up the comfort women system have not been prosecuted. ==

The report also called on the Japanese government to accurately describe the comfort women issue in history textbooks. In addition to the comfort women issue, the U.N. report referred to the “substitute detention” system in Japan, in which suspects are detained in police jail cells instead of legally stipulated detention houses. ==

Lack of Recognition of the Comfort Women Issue

Ho Yi wrote in the Taipei Times, “It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the survivors began to come forth. Gradually, a global human rights action took shape, with victims calling for legal reparations and a formal apology from the Japanese government, which has yet to unequivocally acknowledge that forced prostitution occurred.” The issue made “the front page of the New York Times in 2007 when the House of Representatives was handling Resolution 121 — a call on Japan to apologize to comfort women.” [Source: Ho Yi, Taipei Times, December 29, 2013]

Stephanie Coop wrote in the Japan Times, “Despite the gravity of the human-rights abuses documented in the exhibition, justice has yet to be achieved for the survivors. Japan’s system of sexual slavery was largely ignored in the war crimes trials conducted by the Allies after World War II, and a special court established by Indonesia to punish the atrocities committed by its troops and militias in 1999 failed to get a single rape indictment. [Source: Stephanie Coop, Japan Times, December 23, 2006 |::|]

US document on comfort women

“Citizen groups concerned about the lack of accountability for the wartime sex-slave atrocities convened a people’s tribunal in Tokyo in 2000 that found the late Emperor Hirohito and high-ranking Japanese military officers guilty of crimes against humanity. The verdict was later censored from an NHK documentary on the trial amid allegations by a major daily newspaper that two heavyweight Liberal Democratic Party politicians — Shoichi Nakagawa and Shinzo Abe — paid a less than comfortable visit to the public broadcaster before it was aired. Furusawa said that while the tribunal helped restore some dignity to victims by publicly acknowledging that the acts they were subjected to constituted violations of international law, only an official apology and compensation from the Japanese government will satisfy the survivors’ demands for justice.” |::|

Art Exhibition Brings Attention to the Comfort Women Issue

Korean-born, New York-based Lee Chang-jin, worked for a five years on an art project called “Comfort Women Wanted”. The large-scale exhibition includes two video installations that bear the images and voices of a former Japanese soldier and six surviving comfort women. Lee has traveled to seven Asian countries and interview more than 20 survivors of the Japanese-run brothels. “I wanted to know them personally ... I was worried at first: Were they angry and bitter because of the trauma they went through? But it is amazing to me to find out what loving and caring grandmas they are. One thing I find inspiring is their courage to speak out. These are, after all, very difficult personal experiences,” the artist told the Taipei Times.

Describing the exhibition held near National Taiwan University, Ho Yi wrote in the Taipei Times, “In an effort to generate public discussion, Lee converts original newspaper ads into a series of posters and other displays... Meanwhile, the indoor exhibition at Bopiliao features a reconstructed “comfort station,” where women were raped by 10 to 100 soldiers a day, according to Lee’s gallery statement. Rebuilt based on historical records, the room is simply furnished with a tatami bed, a washbowl and plaques with the Japanese name given to the comfort woman kept there. Video footage of comfort stations in China and Indonesia, including Dai Salon in Shanghai — Japan’s first comfort station, established in 1932 — is projected onto different objects in the room. [Source: Ho Yi, Taipei Times, December 29, 2013 +++]

“In the adjoining room, there are two different videos playing on loop, featuring interview excerpts and black-and-white images of the interviewees. One film is dedicated to six comfort women survivors from different countries. The survivors, speaking in their native languages, recount tales of abduction, extreme violence and death.” +++

South Korea and Japan Make Deal on Comfort Women

In December 2015, Japan and South Korea reached a breakthrough agreement to “irreversibly” end to the controversial “comfort women” issue which refers to women — many of them Korean — forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels. The issue has stirred animosity between the neighbors for decades.Jake Adelstein wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “After a meeting in Seoul, the two countries’ foreign ministers said Japan will contribute 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) to a fund for the surviving elderly comfort women; in return, South Korea will refrain from criticizing Japan over the issue and work to remove a statue representing the victims from in front of the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul. [Source: Jake Adelstein, Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2015 ***]

“South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told reporters that the issue would be “finally and irreversibly resolved” if Japan fulfilled its obligations.The agreement dovetails with the United States’ geopolitical priorities. Washington has long hoped for improved relations between its two major Asian allies to counterbalance an increasingly aggressive China and the erratic behavior of North Korea. ***

“South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to use the agreement to improve bilateral ties. Abe told reporters in Tokyo that Japan apologizes to the women for their pain; yet he added that future Japanese generations should not have to keep on doing so. “We should not allow this problem to drag on into the next generation,” he said, echoing remarks he made marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on Aug. 15. “From now on, Japan and South Korea will enter a new era.” ***

“The agreement was unexpected, especially under the conservative Abe administration. Until quite recently, Abe has been critical of attempts by previous administrations to acknowledge Japanese military involvement in the enslavement of the comfort women before and during World War II. Critics have called him a historical revisionist, but he appeared to be echoing a widespread belief among Japanese nationalists that many of the Korean women were sold by their families, or worked willingly as prostitutes. In 2007, Abe said there was “no evidence to prove there was coercion.” ***

In April 2016, Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye confirmed the importance of implementing the December 2015 agreement to settle the comfort women issue. Kyodo reported: “Abe and Park met one-on-one in Washington on the fringes of the Nuclear Security Summit, following their high-profile meeting in November, the first since the two leaders took office in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Abe was quoted by a Japanese official as telling Park that he is willing to follow up on the deal to help the women, euphemistically called “comfort women,” though some problems remain surrounding the matter in both countries. Park said South Korea intends to implement the deal in a sincere manner, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda. Tokyo has promised to provide the money to a foundation to be set up by the South Korean government. Seoul, however, has yet to create such a body as many former comfort women have criticized the Tokyo-Seoul deal, calling on Japan to admit legal responsibility for compensation. The deal was clinched without any consultation with surviving victims.”[Source: Kyodo, April 1, 2016]

Image Sources: Japan Focus; National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons;

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to, The Good War An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2016

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