Comfort women

“For the Japanese, it was a house of pleasure; for us, a hell of fear, shame and sorrow.” [1]

      For many years, many tragic stories have been told about World War II such as the Holocaust and the atom bombs. But this war has another dark side, another story that most people have never heard about. The reality of “comfort women” was buried after the war and it was faded from public consciousness by distorting the historical truths. For many years, the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery could not step forward to share their memories because of shame. This agelong silence was finally broken in 1988 and their heartbreaking story began gaining international awareness by vigorous efforts of activist groups. Since that day, former Korean comfort women have been expecting a formal apology from the Japanese government and they have been demanding for a memorial, compensation and historical education involving this human rights violation.

      The term “comfort women” refers women who were coerced to serve Japanese soldiers in the military brothels called “comfort stations” during World War II. It is an example of sexual slavery, a form of enslavement by restricting their sexual autonomy and freedom. It is a continuing offence and in this respect, it is distinguished from the crime of rape.[2] Sexual slavery is regarded as a human rights issue. The story of comfort women began with Japanese Lieutenant-General Okamura Yasuji in China around the time of the Manchurian Incident in 1931. After hundreds of reported rapes by Japanese Army personnel, the first comfort station was established in 1932 to prevent rape crimes, the spread of venereal diseases and the rise of enmity among people in occupied territories. After having seen positive impacts to the combat capabilities of the Army, it was decided to institutionalize these stations in order to “refuel” the soldiers. What started in 1932, speeded up after the Nanking Massacre in 1937. The number of comfort stations increased very quickly after the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937.[3] In the beginning, comfort women were indeed voluntary Japanese prostitutes, but as Japan continued expanding, the number of volunteers became inadequate. Hence, women of the local population began to be forced into serving in these stations. For instance, “slave raids” into Korea that trapped women for comfort stations and men for factories and mines, were not uncommon.[4] For soldiers, these stations were an opportunity to blow off steam and to escape from war facts. Although the initial purpose was to prevent rape, it had an opposite impact, and thereby, rape in the stations has increased: “If you went twice, your salary was gone. But we had needs, so we resorted to the plan. When we went to the village, there were women everywhere. You didn’t need to pay for rape. It was free to participate in the plan of raping.”[5]. The Japanese Forces used comfort stations till the end of the War in 1945.

Korean comfort women who survived. September 3, 1945. (Source: the US National Archives)

      Because of lack of official documentation, the exact number of comfort women is still a mystery. Even though most of the evidence were destroyed by the Japanese government after the war, there are various guesses ranging from 20,000 to 410,000.[6] Majority of the comfort women were from Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines. Besides Japan, Japanese-occupied territories such as China, the Philippines, Malaya, Burma, New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and French Indochina were used for comfort stations as well.[7] Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi, who handled this subject as an academic study for the first time, supposes that there were about 2,000 centers where more or less 200,000 Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Taiwanese, Burmese, Indonesian, Dutch and Australian women were confined.[8] Another view assumes that their number was some 20,000 and they were 40% Japanese, 20% Koreans, 10% Chinese and the remaining 30% from other countries.[9]

      Comfort women are victims of the sex slave trade across Asia, known as the “Yellow Slave Traffic”, and they suffered from countless rapes and tortures for many years.[10] Girls at the age of twelve and over were coerced to meet Japanese soldiers’ sexual needs and when they were exhausted from their never-ending “service”, they were beaten: Serve, sleep with them. Soldiers in the morning, NCO’s in the afternoon and officers at 7 or 8 pm. Commanding officers came around 10 pm. It was a long line. They came in and out. At the comfort station, one person had to have sex with 5 people, 10 people or even 15 people a day… At times I served 50 men a day…” [11] As a former Japanese soldier indicates there were usually 1,000 soldiers in one unit, but only one comfort station. One comfort station had five of six houses and in each house; five or six women lived to serve soldiers. On Sundays, 300 to 500 soldiers were there, but there were only five or six women.[12] Maybe the following calculation can show the severity of the situation more explicitly: “Taking the lowest figures, at any given time, there were about 20,000 sex slaves. Each of them was raped at least 5 times per day. That means that there were at least 100,000 rapes per day arranged by the Japanese authorities and 100,000 rapists per day. 100,000 times at least five days per week equals at least 500,000 rapes per week or 2 million per month or 24 million per year. Even assuming only 5 years of the programme, there were at least 125 million rapes; 125 million rapes against the women of Korea, Philippines, Burma, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Netherlands… Let’s look at the statistics from the point of view of a single victim. At an average of 10 rapes per day (still a low figure), and a five-day workweek, each comfort girl was raped 50 times per week or 2,500 times per year. For three years of service, a comfort girl was raped 7,500 times.” [13]

Former comfort women at a rally before Korean Liberation Day (Source:

      Young women from occupied countries were abducted from their homes or they were deceived with promises of work in factories or restaurants by the Japanese forces [14]: Fighting was pointless… They took 18 or 19-year-old single girls. They picked up bunch of people. We could not ask why we were taken… I thought I would be going to a factory to make silk or something… I didn’t know I was being taken to a place like that. After I was raped I knew why I was here…” [15] Many comfort women died or became infertile because of the terrible ordeal they faced such as continual rapes, physical tortures, sexually transmitted diseases, malnutrition and tuberculosis at comfort stations. Many of them could not marry or could not have children due to the serious physical and emotional traumas that caused permanent health damage. The 87-year-old Kim Bok-Dong, a former sex slave whose nightmare lasted every single day for eight years, explains the bitterness of the conditions: “When a woman objects, they cut her body with knife. Some girls got stabbed, some died by getting a disease. It was a very painful experience. Food was insufficient; sleep duration was very short. There was even no permission to kill myself. I wanted to escape desperately… I was born as a woman but have never had a woman’s life. I was dragged to the foreign army’s battles, and my entire life was ruined.”[16] Another victim Like Niyem who was brought to the station when she was 10 years old, expresses her agony: “I was so young. Within two months my body was completely destroyed. I was nothing but a toy, as a human being I meant nothing.”[17] Some tried to escape, some tried to commit suicide, but the only exit for these women was the end of the War or death. In 1945, as sudden as it started, it was over, but the wounds in their souls were so deep that they would never heal: “I am ashamed of what happened. I feel empty. Why was I born a woman?” [18]

      The issue of “comfort women” is still a hot topic because there are still victims living all across the world and the Japanese government has never made an official apology for its wrongdoings. In 1992, Japanese scholar Yoshiaki Yoshimi found official wartime documents proving that Japanese military’s role in operating comfort stations. After their publication in Japanese newspapers, the government had to admit the involvement of Japanese Forces in 1993, but they have refused to accept its full responsibility for the crime by defending these were recruitments led by middlemen, not directly by the Japanese Army Forces.[19] This issue is still a source of conflict between Seoul and Tokyo. South Korea has been waiting for a formal apology and compensation while Japan has been saying all wartime wrongdoings were cleared by the Normalization Treaty signed in 1965 between two countries. Although the former Prime Minister of Japan Junichiro Koizumi published an apology letter in 2001, the victims and their supporters did not find this apology enough by the reason of being personal. “Anyone can verbally apologize. But this is not an issue that can be resolved by saying sorry. This is a crime that was institutionalized by a country, they forced women into sexual slavery over a long period of time. They need to adopt a resolution at the official level and we need to see legal reparations.” says Yoon Mee-Hyang, director of the NGO called the “Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan” fighting for an apology.[20] On the other hand, Shinzo Abe, the incumbent Prime Minister of Japan, finds  the government’s acknowledgement and Koizumi’s apology unnecessary: “There is no evidence to prove there was coercion, nothing to support it.”[21] Some Japanese historians agree with Abe and in reply to testimony of former comfort women and Japanese soldiers, they suggest their recruitment was voluntary: There is no legal evidence showing that police forcibly took women. It couldn’t have happened. Technically they weren’t kidnapped. It was a chain. The women and their families were on one side, and the military was on the other side. Between them were brokers and traders. Traders bought women through brokers who paid parents for their daughters. So the contract of employment existed between the traders and the women.”[22]

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, right, and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida at the start of their meeting on December 28, 2015. (Source:

      On December 28, 2015, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida held a meeting at Foreign Ministry in Seoul, and consequently, both South Korean and Japanese governments announced they reached a settlement that included an official apology and financial restitution. Concerning the longstanding dispute, Kishida stated, The comfort women issue is an issue whereby many women under the then-military’s involvement bore deep scars to their honor and dignity, and from this perspective, the Japanese government acutely feels responsible.”[23] In addition, Abe changed his initial stance, and issued a statement of regret saying “As Prime Minister of Japan, Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”[24] Tokyo also agreed to pay 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) to support comfort women as a donation, but not compensation. In return, Seoul agreed to consider the issue permanently settled both in legal and political terms. Japan also requested to remove the statue symbolizing comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Jongno, Seoul where every Wednesday at noon, surviving victims and their supporters demonstrate since January 1992.

      These developments brought about domestic criticism. Most South Koreans were disappointed at the agreement because for them, it serves for political expediency, rather than for the interests of the victims or their demand to hold Japan accountable for its past wartime abuse. While some comfort women told  they would accept the compromise, some rejected it by questioning the sincerity of the Japanese government’s apology, and saying that Japan should have directly compensated the women instead of creating a fund. Furthermore, victim supporters also objected to Seoul’s promise that it would discuss with the local groups and organizations about removing the statue in front of the Japanese Embassy.

People protest the deal between the South Korean and Japanese governments at the statue symbolizing “comfort women” in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. December 30, 2015. (Source: The Wall Street Journal)

      In conclusion, “comfort women” is one of the world’s biggest cases of human trafficking.[25] In terms of practice of law, the Rome Statue comprehending four core international crimes like genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression and establishing the International Criminal Court, describes sexual enslavement as a war crime.[26] Moreover, Geneva Conventions that establishes the standards of international law for basic wartime rights of prisoners and protections for the civilians, also deals with the issue of sexual slavery and prohibits wartime enforced prostitution since 1949 by its Article 27.[27]

Contrary to what is believed, comfort women are not limited with Korean people or Asia, and thus, it is a global issue that has to be solved by international alliances. Unfortunately, the exploitations that comfort women experienced during World War II are not unique. Besides World War II, there are dozens of examples that have included women as a part of the war and have abused them by the system of institutionalized sexual slavery and enforced prostitution. Through long ages, it was accepted that all people, including unarmed women and children, were still the enemy with the belligerent having conquering rights over them.[28] Today, all over the world, violence against women continues with systematic rapes, assaults and violence both in warfare and in peacetime. And they are usually ignored and go unpunished. Saying “stop” to this crime against humanity and to the massive violation of human rights is in states’ hands. They should recognize these violations as crime, speak out against these abuses and punish the offenders, as living free from violence is the basic right of each person.

[1] “Comfort Women” One Last Cry. Dir. Park Tae-yeul. Arirang TV. 2013.

[2] Wikipedia. Web<>.

[3] “The ‘Comfort Women’ Issue and the Asian Women’s Fund”, Asian Women’s Fund. p.3.

[4] Hicks, George L, “The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War”, The American Historical Review, Vol.102, No.2, Oxford University Press, April 1997. p.503.

[5] Behind Forgotten Eyes, Dir. Anthony Gilmore, Nameless Films, 2007.

[6] Wikipedia. <>.

[7] “FACTBOX – Disputes over Japan’s wartime “comfort women” continue.” Reuters. Mar 5, 2007. Web<>.

[8] Yoshimi, Yoshiaki, and Suzanne O’Brien. Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. p.91-93.

[9] Drea, Edward (2006). Researching Japanese War Crimes Records. Introductory Essays. Washington DC: Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group. 2006. p.41. Web<>.

[10] Nelson, Hank. “The Consolation Unit: Comfort Women at Rabaul”. The Australian National University. May 17, 2007. Web<>.

[11] Ibid.9.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Parker, Karen. “War Rape”. United Nations Commission on Human Rights. 1995. Web<>.

[14] Ibid.11.

[15] Ibid.9.

[16] Durukan, Ayse. “ ‘Rahatlatici Kadinlara’ Ozur, Tazminat Borcu”. Bia Haber Merkezi. October 28, 2005. Web<>.

Hancocks, Paula. “Time running out for ‘Korean comfort women’ “. CNN. March 7, 2012. Web<>.

[17] O’Neill, Claire. “Comfort Women: Untold Stories Of Wartime Abuse”. Npr. June 4, 2011. Web<>.

[18] Ibid.9.

[19] Ibid.1.

[20] Ibid.21.

[21] “Japan refuses sex slave apology”. BBC News. March 5, 2007. Web<>.

[22] Ibid.9.

[23] Padden, Brian. “Japan, South Korea Agree to ‘Comfort Women’ Settlement”. VOA. December 28, 2015. Web<>.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Stop Violence Against Women: Comfort Women”. Amnesty International. Web<>.

[26] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Rome, 1998, Article 7.

[27] International Humanitarian Law – Treaties & Documents. Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Geneva, 1949, Article 27).

[28] Askin, Kelly Dawn. War Crimes against Women. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1997. pp.26-27.

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