Comfort women in Myitkyina in Burma in 1944

Between 1932 and the end of World War II in 1945, 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 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. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: The so-called “comfort women” (the term is a translation of a Japanese/Korean euphemism) were sexual slaves who were often recruited by trickery and forced to serve the Japanese military in the field in Asia and the Pacific during the Pacific War. These women were drawn from throughout the Japanese empire, though many were Korean. [Source:Asia for Educators Columbia University <|> ]

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

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.”

Comfort Women in Korea

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."

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: "The hairy middle-aged man held down my arms and legs," said one of the women, Yun Soon Man, describing the night a Japanese soldier violated her 14-year-old body in a military-run brothel. Yun, 77, shut her eyes and trembled with both fists clenched as her mind traveled back to the three-story brothel in southern Japan, up to the second floor, down the hall to a third room where she and another Korean woman wearing nothing but kimonos were assigned to the room's two beds to provide "comfort" for Japanese soldiers. When she opened her eyes with a sigh, she raised her crooked left arm and pointed at her bared teeth. "You see I had a strong set of teeth. I bit his ear with all my strength left," she said. "The man screamed and went wild. He grabbed my arm and snapped it until it broke." [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 15, 2005]

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: As a teenager a former comfort woman named Kang recalls “she was lured from her home by Japanese soldiers who offered her caramel candy....Without prompting, Park Ok-ryun, 86, launches into an account of how, as an 18-year-old, she was abducted by two Japanese soldiers. She and a friend had gone to a stream to get water. "Don't cry," she remembers the soldiers saying. "If you go with us, you can get some nice food and nice clothes." Park grabs a listener's arm. "I was thrown into the truck and covered with a red-and-blue fabric," she says. She begged to be released, explaining that she had to return home to make dinner. "But they said, 'Jackass, stop nagging,' and kicked me," she says, showing a jagged scar on her leg. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2009]

Story of Kim Tokchin

comfort station entrance

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: The story of Kim Tokchin has many elements common to the experiences of “comfort women,” including the initial promise of factory employment, the role of recruiting agents (Korean in this case), the initial rape by a Japanese officer, and the arrangement of the brothel in which she was forced to serve. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University <|> ]

“It was the middle of January or perhaps a little later, say the beginning of February, 1937. I was 17 years old. I heard girls were being recruited with promises of work in Japan. It was said that a few had been recruited not long before from P’y.ngch’on where we had lived with my uncle. I wished that at that time I had been able to with them, but I suddenly heard a Korean man was in the area again recruiting more girls to work in the Japanese factories. I went to P’yongch’on to meet him and promised him I would go to Japan to work. He gave me the time and place of my departure and I returned home to ready myself to leave. In those days people were rather simple, and I, having had no education, didn’t know anything of the world. [Source: “True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women,” edited by Keith Howard and translated by Young Joo Lee (London: Cassell, 1995), 42.

“All I knew — all I thought I knew — was that I was going to work in a factory to earn money. I never dreamed that this could involve danger. … We arrived at Kunbuk station and transferred to a train. It was a public slow train, and traveled slowly down to Pusan, where we boarded a boat. The man who had brought us this far left us, and a Korean couple who said their home was in Shanghai took charge of us. The boat was huge. It had many decks, and we had to climb down many lights of stairs, right to the bottom of the boat to find our bunks. It was a ferry and took many other passengers. The crew brought us bread and water, and we sailed to Nagasaki. At Nagasaki, a vehicle resembling a bus came and took us to a From that moment on we were watched by soldiers. I asked one of them: “Why are you keeping us here? What kind of work are we going to do?” He simply replied that he only followed orders. On the first night there I was dragged before a high.ranking solder and raped. He had a pistol. I was frightened at seeing myself bleed and I tried to run away. He patted my back and said that I would have to go through this experience whether I liked it or not, but that after a few times I would not feel so much pain. We were taken here and there to the rooms of different high.ranking officers on a nightly basis. Every night we were raped. On the fifth day, I asked one of the soldiers; “Why are you taking us from room to room to different men? What is our work? Is it just going to be with different men?” He replied: “You will go wherever orders take you. And you will know what your job is when you get there.” We left Nagasaki after a week of this grueling ordeal.

“Led by our Korean guides, we boarded another boat for Shanghai. … There was a truck waiting for us at the pier, which whisked us away. There were not rail.tracks, and no buses or taxis to be seen. We passed through disordered streets and arrived in a suburban area. There was a large house right beside an army unit, and we were to be accommodated there. The house was pretty much derelict and inside was divided into many small rooms. There were two Japanese women and abut 20 Koreans there, so with the 30 of us who had arrived from Uiryong there were about 50 women in total. The two Japanese were said to have come from brothels. They were 27 or 28, about ten years older than all the Koreans. The soldiers preferred us Korean girls, saying we were cleaner. Those who had arrived before us came from the south.western provinces of Cholla and the central provinces of Ch’ungch’ong and were of similar age to us. Those of us who had traveled together kept ourselves very much to ourselves. I was called “Langchang” there. From the 50 of us, excluding those who were ill or had other reasons, 35 girls on average worked each day. … We rose at seven in the morning, washed and took breakfast in turns. Then from about 9 o’clock the soldiers began to arrive and form orderly lines. From 6 o’clock in the evening highranking officers came, some of whom stayed overnight. Each of us had to serve an average of 30 to 40 men each day, and we often had no time to sleep. When there was a battle, the number of soldiers who came declined. In each room there was a box of condoms which the soldiers used.

“There were some who refused to use them, but more than half put them on without complaining. I told those who would not use them that I had a terrible disease, and it would be wise for them to use a condom if they didn’t want to catch it. Quite a few would rush straight to penetration without condoms, saying they couldn’t care less if they caught any diseases since they were likely to die on the battlefield at any moment. On such occasions I was terrified that I might actually catch venereal disease. After one use, we threw the condoms away; plenty were provided.

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]

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]

Comfort Women After World War II

Comfort station

Many of the Korean "comfort women" were in their teens when they were captured and decades after the war they were ostracized and humiliated by their own people for the experiences that had been imposed on them. 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.

Japan denied the existence of comfort until 1993, after Chou University history professor Yoshiaki Yoshima went public with documents from government archives that provided details of government complicity in the establishment of "comfort stations" to reduce the number of rapes on local women. Yoshima told Time, "The government is trying to cover up evidence that it broke international law. Otherwise it would be required to pay individual compensation to victims."

In 2009, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Now time is running out for the halmoni, or Korean grandmothers. About 150,000 to 200,000 Korean women served as Japanese sex slaves, most living out their lives in humiliated silence. When activists brought the issue to light in the early 1990s, officials sought out survivors. While many were too ashamed to come forward, officials registered 234 women. Ninety-three are still alive, according to a nonprofit group that looks after them. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2009]

Comfort Women in Their 80s

In 2009, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In 1992, some of the so-called comfort women volunteered to live at a new House of Sharing established by Buddhist organizations and philanthropists. There is a full-time chef and nurse and volunteer caregivers. There are regular art classes, exercise sessions and trips to the doctor. Kang is the youngest of the eight remaining residents. The oldest is 92. They are part Golden Girls, part adamant activists. Holding out hope for closure before they die, they are waging a battle to persuade the world to acknowledge their ordeal. They are seeking reparations and a formal apology from the Japanese government. They have also pressured the South Korean government to speak out. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2009]

“The testimony of the women of the House of Sharing is the riposte to those who say there is no evidence that Korean women were forced to sexually service Japanese troops. They gather every Wednesday outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul or at various South Korean government offices. They unfurl their banners and mostly stand in silence, unflinching as guards snap their pictures. Over 17 years, they have picketed 861 times. Some have traveled to Washington to testify before Congress.

“They are host to 30,000 visitors a year at the House of Sharing, part of a complex that includes the Historical Museum of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery. They have been poked and prodded like laboratory specimens, their daily lives chronicled by sociologists, their rudimentary artwork studied to gauge the long-term emotional effects of trauma. Now, many are tired, their years as rabble-rousers behind them. There's a changing of the guard. With a gruff, drill sergeant's demeanor, Kim Kun-ja calls herself a "troublemaker." For years, she was among the loudest activists. The others call her No. 1. Today the 84-year-old uses a walker. She fell twice recently and rarely gets out of bed. "We are all mentally ill and physically damaged," she says, eating a bowl of soup. "But I don't want to talk about it anymore. It brings up bad memories from the bottom of my insides."

In her place has emerged the indefatigable Kang....On this day, Kang receives a group of 20 mothers who sit in a semicircle on the dormitory floor. Perched on the edge of a couch, dressed in a silk shirt with a scarf wrapped stylishly around her neck, she waves her hands like a veteran politician trying to stir up a crowd... Some residents, never married, have no grandchildren to visit them. They welcome contact with strangers. They hold hands with visitors and seek long hugs as a grandfather clock in the corner ticks away their remaining days.

Japan’s Efforts to Address the Comfort Women Issue

Comfort women in the Andaman Island

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Japan's response has been mixed. After the war, the government maintained that military brothels had been run by private contractors. But in 1993, it officially acknowledged the Imperial Army's role in establishing so-called comfort stations. Conservatives in the political establishment still insist there is no documentary evidence that the army conducted an organized campaign of sexual slavery — a contention challenged by many researchers.” [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2009]

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.

Japan: No Documents Confirm Military Coerced Comfort Women

Kyodo, the Japanese news service, reported in 2016: Japan has found no documents confirming that the “comfort women” were forcefully recruited by military or government authorities, a Japanese envoy told a U.N. panel. Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama made that claim during a session in Geneva of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The belief that women were forced into sexual servitude is based on the false accounts of the late Seiji Yoshida, Sugiyama said. Yoshida claimed to have forcibly taken women from the island of Jeju, then under Japanese colonial rule and now part of South Korea, and forced them into sexual labor for the Japanese military before and during World War II. The Asahi Shimbun in 2014 retracted articles that reported Yoshida’s accounts, Sugiyama noted. [Source: Kyodo, February, 2016]

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, : The government has admitted the Imperial Japanese Army's involvement in brothels, saying that "the then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women." The "involvement" refers to giving the green light to opening a brothel, building facilities, setting regulations regarding brothels, such as fees and opening hours, and conducting inspections by army doctors. [Source: The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 1, 2007]

“However, the government has denied that the Japanese military forcibly recruited women. On March 18, 1997, a Cabinet Secretariat official said in the Diet, "There is no evidence in public documents that clearly shows there were any forcible actions [in recruiting comfort women]." No further evidence that could disprove this statement has been found.

“The belief that comfort women were forcibly recruited started to spread when Seiji Yoshida, who claimed to be a former head of the mobilization department of the Shimonoseki branch of an organization in charge of recruiting laborers, published a book titled "Watashi no Senso Hanzai" (My War Crime) in 1983. Yoshida said in the book that he had been involved in looking for suitable women to force them into sexual slavery in Jeju, South Korea. "We surrounded wailing women, took them by the arms and dragged them out into the street one by one," he said in the book.

“But researchers concluded in the mid-1990s that the stories in the book are not authentic. On March 5 this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the House of Councillors Budget Committee that Yoshida's story does not prove that women were forcibly recruited. He said: "I think it was The Asahi Shimbun [that reported the story] that a man named Seiji Yoshida testified about his having searched for comfort women. But later [Yoshida's testimony] was found to have been made up." As the comfort women issue started to take on political and diplomatic dimensions, some people in South Korea and also in Japan confused comfort women with female volunteer corps, strengthening the misbelief that there was coercion.”

“Female volunteer corps were, according to a historian Ikuhiko Hata's book "Ianfu to Senjo no Sei" (Comfort Women and Sex in the Battlefield), single women aged between 12 and 40 who were mobilized to work in factories, starting in August 1944, primarily to secure necessary labor. There were cases in which malicious brokers sweet-talked women with promises of easy money or intentionally concealed from them what life was going to be like in brothels.

“The War Ministry wrote a letter, dated March 4, 1938, to the troops dispatched to China. The letter, titled "Regarding the recruiting of women at the army's comfort stations," said there were malicious brokers who were recruiting women in a way "similar to kidnapping." It said, "Nothing should be overlooked so that the military's prestige and social orders are maintained." The letter indicates how the Imperial Japanese Army tried to make sure that women were not forcibly recruited. However, in the confusion of war, elite Imperial Japanese Army soldiers who were on the fast track for officer status sent detained Dutch women to a brothel in Indonesia. The incident came to be known as the Semarang incident. The Imperial Japanese Army Headquarters closed down the brothel immediately after learning of the incident, and soldiers involved received severe punishment- -some were sentenced to death — at a war crimes court convened by the Dutch Army after the war.

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.

In September 1994, the Japanese government announced it would spend US$1 billion over the next 10 years on a "Peace, Friendship and Exchange Initiative" in Asian counties as way of atoning for hardships endured by "comfort women" before and during World War II. A Japanese cabinet secretary apologized for the actions that "stained the honor and dignity of many women." 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 fact that the Philippines has a lower cost of living. The fund had trouble raising money.

Many former comfort women said that the "initiatives" were not nearly enough and demanded to be compensated directly. In Seoul, South Korean women hurled eggs at the Japanese embassy and members of the Korean Council of Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan said they wouldn't be satisfied until Japan released records of military sexual activity, officially apologized, revised textbooks, gave compensation to victims, punished those responsible for organizing the system and built a memorial to honor the victims. The Japanese government was wary of awarding larger compensation directly to individuals partly out of fear that the families of prisoners of war and people used for forced labor would also want to be compensated.

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.” |::|

South Korea Steps Up Pressure on the Comfort Women Issue

In December 2011, the Asahi Shimbun reported: “South Korean President Lee Myung-bak derailed Japan's efforts to steer bilateral relations to a more neighborly footing with his insistence that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda exercise his personal initiative to resolve the thorny "comfort women" issue. "South Korea is the most important neighbor to Japan. I would like to discuss bilateral economic issues and then the security situation," Noda told Lee at the outset of summit talks in Kyoto. [Source: Asahi Shimbun, December 19, 2011]

Lee had a different matter on his mind, though. "We have to take up the pending history issue (of Korean women forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II) before them," he said. The two leaders spent more than half of the hour-long meeting on the comfort women issue. Lee said: "I hope the prime minister will personally stand at the forefront in resolving the issue. I expect a political decision from a higher dimension, instead of working-level thinking.” [Ibid]

Japan tried to lighten the atmosphere by presenting a birthday cake for Lee, who turned 70 on December 19, at a dinner party on December 17. "We hope that Noda and Lee will have only one round of exchanges on the comfort women issue," said an aide to Noda before the summit. But Lee spoke only about the comfort women issue "from start to finish," according to the South Korean presidential office. Because Lee was uncompromising, Noda felt the need to fight back. He asked Lee to immediately remove a statue built by supporters of former comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Dec. 14. But Lee wouldn't give an inch. "The (statute) issue would not have come up if Japan had paid a little more attention," he said. "Without a sincere response (from Japan), second and third statues will be put up every time (the women) die." A Japanese official who sat in on the meeting recalled, "I felt like fleeing (because it was so contentious)." After the meeting, Noda told his aides: "I had expected that the comfort women issue would be raised. But it took up a large chunk (of the summit).” [Ibid]

Noda, seeking to counter China's growing influence, has made it a priority to put relations with South Korea on a stronger footing. South Korea was his first overseas destination as prime minister, except for trips to attend international conferences. Lee's visit to Japan was the first under an administration headed by the Democratic Party of Japan. It was also the first time Lee raised the comfort women issue in a meeting with a Japanese prime minister since he took office. [Ibid]

Many DPJ lawmakers said that Lee, by raising the comfort women issue, was clearly pandering to domestic voters ahead of the presidential election next year. But a close aide to Lee denied the president had any such intention. "The situation has become more serious (because Lee was not politically motivated)," the aide said. "Lee, based on his own judgment, decided where to draw the line. Given Lee's personality, he will stick to this demand until Japan changes its stance.” [Ibid]

Later Lee said, "It was a breach of women's rights committed during wartime as well as a violation of universal human rights and historic justice. We urge the Japanese government to take responsible measures in this regard.” Japan says the matter was closed under a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties. In 1993, Tokyo issued a statement in the name of its then-chief cabinet secretary apologising to the women and two years later set up a fund to make payments to the women, but South Korea say those moves were not official and so not enough.Speaking at a ceremony marking the war's end in Japan on Wednesday, Noda acknowledged the "enormous damage and suffering" caused by Japan to other countries, especially in Asia. "We deeply reflect upon [that] and express our deepest condolences to the victims and their families," he said, vowing that Japan would never go to war again. [Source: Reuters, August 15, 2012]

Korean-Americans have been promoting the movement to build such cenotaphs in various parts of the United States. The movement is apparently aimed at generating pressure on Japan from the United States. A cenotaph for the comfort women was installed at a public library in a small town near New York City in 2010. An inscription on the plaque reads: "In memory of the more than 200,000 women and girls who were abducted by the armed forces of the government of Imperial Japan.” [Ibid]

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]

Korean Professors Imprisoned and Fined for “Insulting” Comfort Women

In November 2018 a district court in Gwangju sentenced former Sunchon National University professor Park Yu-ha to six months in prison for defaming the comfort women, overturning the defendant’s appeal and reinforcing the original sentence once again. Lee Tae-hee wrote in the Korea Herald: “The court ruled that the professor insulted the sex slaves with remarks such as, “(The comfort women) were taken for sexual slavery, or they voluntarily followed, because they were ‘seductive.’ In my opinion, they probably had a clear idea what they had to do.” The professor reportedly made the controversial remarks during a university lecture on April 26, 2017. [Source: Lee Tae-hee, Korea Herald, November 15, 2018]

“A few months after the incident on Sept. 26 of the same year, human rights group Sunchon Nabi accused the professor of spreading false information and defaming the comfort women. After the first court ruling the professor appealed, saying that his words were not ill-intended. The defendant said that “considering the overall context of the class, I did not intend to say that the victims voluntarily participated in sexual slavery.” The Gwangju High Court dismissed the appeal Thursday and issued a six-month prison term. The court said, “In spite of his position as a national university professor, the defendant committed a serious crime of spreading false information and defaming the comfort women. Also, there had been no attempt to repair the damage.” After the incident, Sunchon National University officially expelled the professor from his position on Oct. 12, 2017.

On a different professor, Andrew Salmon of Forbes wrote: A South Korean professor who has questioned key elements of an explosively emotive national narrative has been ordered by a Seoul court to pay nine former “comfort women” KRW10 million (US$8,262) each for defaming them in a book. It was the second court action against Park Yu-ha, the author of 2013’s “Comfort Women of Empire,” who was, in February 2015, ordered to redact 34 passages in the book. The latest judgment, found her guilty, in a civil case, of defaming surviving Korean “comfort women“ who toiled in Japanese military brothels during World War II. [Source: Andrew Salmon, Forbes, January 14, 2016]

Park, a professor of Japanese literature at Seoul’s Sejong University and a former resident of Japan wrote a previous book, “For Reconciliation,” designed, she told foreign reporters last month, to bring Japan and Korea closer. “Comfort Women of Empire,” she said, was written to provide “different perspectives” on the issue. Those perspectives – drawn from research in both Korea and Japan – have generated a storm of controversy in Korea where the comfort woman issue represents hair-trigger sensitivities.

“Park suggests that there were different comfort women had a range of experiences; not all were forced, tricked or coerced into service; some even volunteered to do work in military brothels as their patriotic duty. Her research also indicates that the recruiters of comfort women were Japanese and Korean “agents” engaged in human trafficking, rather than government officials. Widespread opinion in Korea, on the other hand, holds that they were forcibly recruited or kidnapped by the Japanese Imperial Army or police. Park says some comfort women were well paid. In Korea, and elsewhere, they are widely portrayed as “sex slaves.” She also questions a vaguely sourced figure of “200,000 comfort women, mostly Koreans,” that is widely quoted in Korean and international media. She stated her belief that the actual number of was closer to 50,000.

“Park’s “perspectives” have not been welcomed in Seoul. The Seoul Eastern District Court said Wednesday that the findings in her book were invalidated by previous research and governmental statements, and turned down her plea for academic freedoms. “Considering the fact that the victims are still alive, her right to academic freedom does not supersede that of the victims’ right to dignity,” the court said, according to local news reports. The court indicted Park for defamation last November, and reached a swift verdict on January 13. By contrast, a landmark libel case bought to a British court by Holocaust denier David Irving lasted from September 1996 to April 2000 and the court only found against Irving after hearing detailed evidence from an international team of historians.”

‘Comfort Women’ Groups Accused of Embezzling Millions

In May 2020, a support group for South Korean comfort women were accused of embezzling millions of dollars worth donations meant for the comfort women. Julian Ryall wrote in The Telegraph: “A manager and six staff at the House of Sharing have claimed that around $5 million in donations has been siphoned off for unrelated projects and that the residents of the facility do not receive the care that they require. [Source: Julian Ryall, The Telegraph, May 20, 2020]

“The accusations come just days after the other major support organisation for former comfort women was similarly accused of embezzling donations. Those allegations have lead to demands for an official investigation into Yoon Mee-hyang, a former head of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Ms Yoon was elected as a member of the ruling Liberal Party to the South Korean parliament in last month’s elections, but opposition parties are now claiming that the organisation and Ms Yoon personally exploited surviving comfort women and embezzled donations.

“Korean media have reported that Ms Yoon is suspected of pocketing donations and government subsidies and using those funds for her own purposes. One outlay that has attracted attention was the payment of more than £22,000 to a bar for an event allegedly to promote the council’s work. The operator of the bar has stated, however, that the cost of the event was only £6,440 and that it returned more than £3,500 as a donation.” Further questions are being raised over a large house that was purchased in 2013 with the organisation’s funds to serve as a mountain retreat for the former comfort women. According to the reports, the women never visited the property and the organisation paid Ms Yoon’s father nearly £50,000 over six years to live at the house as a “caretaker”.”

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.

Last updated December 2020

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