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Comfort women: girls forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army

Comfort Women: Girls Forced Into Sexual Slavery By The Japanese Army

Comfort women or comfort girls were women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied countries and territories before and during World War II. The term “comfort women” is a translation of the Japanese ianfu (慰安婦), which literally means “comforting, consoling woman.”

Estimates vary as to how many women were involved, with most historians settling somewhere in the range of 50,000–200,000; the exact numbers are still being researched and debated. Most of the women were from occupied countries, including Korea, China, and the Philippines. Women who were used for military “comfort stations” also came from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya, Manchukuo, Taiwan (then a Japanese dependency), the Dutch East Indies, Portuguese Timor, New Guinea and other Japanese-occupied territories. Stations were located in Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, then Malaya, Thailand, Burma, New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, and French Indochina. A smaller number of women of European origin were also involved from the Netherlands and Australia with an estimated 200–400 Dutch women alone, with an unknown number of other European females. Some women of Papuan origin including Japanese-Papuan girls born to Japanese fathers and Papuan mothers were also conscripted as comfort women. The number of Papuan comfort women from New Guinea is unknown.

Captured_comfort_women_in_Myitkyina (1)
Comfort women from Korea being questioned by the US army after the Siege of Myitkyina in Burma, on August 14, 1944.

Outline of the comfort women system

In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, Japan’s military closely regulated privately operated brothels in Manchuria.

Comfort houses were first established in Shanghai after the Shanghai incident in 1932 as a response to wholesale rape of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers. Okamura Yasuji, the chief of staff in Shanghai, ordered the construction of comfort houses to prevent further rape. After the rapes of many Chinese women by Japanese troops during the Nanjing Massacre in 1937, the Japanese forces adopted the general policy of creating comfort stations in various places in Japanese occupied Chinese territory, “not because of their concern for the Chinese victims of rape by Japanese soldiers but because of their fear of creating antagonism among the Chinese civilians.” According to Yoshiaki Yoshimi, comfort stations were established to avoid criticism from China, the United States of America and Europe following the case of massive rapes between battles in Shanghai and Nanjing.

As Japan continued military expansion, the military found itself short of Japanese volunteers, and turned to local populations—abducting and coercing women into serving as sex slaves in the comfort stations. Many women responded to calls to work as factory workers or nurses, and did not know that they were being pressed into sexual slavery.

In the early stages of World War II, Japanese authorities recruited prostitutes through conventional means. In urban areas, conventional advertising through middlemen was used alongside kidnapping. Middlemen advertised in newspapers circulating in Japan and in the Japanese colonies of Korea, Taiwan, Manchukuo, and China. These sources soon dried up, especially in metropolitan Japan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs resisted further issuance of travel visas for Japanese prostitutes, feeling it tarnished the image of the Japanese Empire. The military turned to acquiring comfort women outside mainland Japan, mostly from Korea and from occupied China. An existing system of licensed prostitution within Korea made it easy for Japan to recruit females in large numbers.

Treatment of comfort women

Based on a statement made by Representative Seijuro Arahune of the Japanese Diet in 1975 in which he claimed to cite numbers provided by Korean authorities during the 1965 Korea-Japan Treaty negotiations, as many as three-fourths of Korean comfort women may have died during the war, although the validity of this statement has since been brought into question as the number does not seem to be based on an actual investigation on the matter. It is estimated that most of the survivors became infertile because of the multiple rapes or venereal diseases contracted following the rapes.

According to an account by a survivor, she was beaten when she attempted to resist being raped. The women who were not prostitutes prior to joining the “comfort women corps”, especially those taken in by force, were normally “broken in” by being raped. One Korean woman, Kim Hak-sun, stated in a 1991 interview about how she was drafted into the “comfort women corps” in 1941: “When I was 17 years old, the Japanese soldiers came along in a truck, beat us [her and a friend], and then dragged us into the back. I was told if I were drafted, I could earn lots of money in a textile factory … The first day I was raped and the rapes never stopped … I was born a woman but never lived as a woman … I feel sick when I come close to a man. Not just Japanese men, but all men-even my own husband who saved me from the brothel. I shiver whenever I see a Japanese flag … Why should I feel ashamed? I don’t have to feel ashamed.” Kim stated that she was raped 30–40 times a day, every day of the year during her time as a “comfort woman”. Reflecting their dehumanized status, Army and Navy records where referring to the movement of “comfort women” always used the term “units of war supplies”.

Military doctors and medical workers frequently raped the women during medical examinations. One Japanese Army doctor, Asō Tetsuo, testified that the “comfort women” were seen as “female ammunition” and as “public toilets”—as literally just things to be used and abused—with some “comfort women” being forced to donate blood for the treatment of wounded soldiers. At least 80% of the “comfort women” were Korean, who were assigned to the lower ranks, while Japanese and European women went to the officers. For example, Dutch women captured in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia) were reserved exclusively for the officers. Korea is a Confucian country where premarital sex was widely disapproved of, and since the Korean teenagers taken into the “comfort women corps” were almost always virgins, it was felt that this was the best way to limit the spread of venereal diseases that would otherwise incapacitate soldiers and sailors.

Sterility, abortion and reproduction

The Japanese Army and Navy went to great lengths to avoid venereal diseases with large numbers of condoms being handed out for free. For example, documents show that in July 1943 the Army handed out 1,000 condoms for soldiers in Negri Sembilan and another 10,000 for soldiers in Perak. The “comfort women” were usually injected with salvarsan, which together with damage to the vagina caused by rape were the causes of unusually high rates of sterility among the “comfort women”. As the war went on and as the shortages caused by the sinking of almost the entire Japanese merchant marine by American submarines kicked in, medical care for the “comfort women” declined as dwindling medical supplies were reserved for the servicemen. As Japanese logistics broke down as the American submarines sank one Japanese ship after another, condoms had to be washed and reused, reducing their effectiveness. In the Philippines, “comfort women” were billed by Japanese doctors if they required medical treatment. In many cases, “comfort women” who were seriously ill were abandoned to die alone.

The Survey of Korean Comfort Women Used by Japanese Soldiers said that 30% of the interviewed former Korean comfort women produced biological children and 20% adopted children after World War II.

History of the issue

In 1944, Allied forces captured twenty Korean comfort women and two Japanese comfort station owners in Burma and issued a report, Japanese Prisoner of War Interrogation Report 49. According to the report, Korean women were deceived into being used as comfort women by the Japanese; in 1942, there were about 800 women trafficked from Korea to Burma for this purpose, under the pretence of being recruited for work such as visiting the wounded in hospitals or rolling bandages.

In Confucian cultures such as those of China and Korea, where premarital sex is considered shameful, the subject of the “comfort women” was ignored for decades after 1945 as the victims were considered pariahs. In Confucian cultures, traditionally an unmarried woman must value her chastity above her own life, and any women who loses her virginity before marriage for whatever reason is expected to commit suicide; by choosing to live, the survivors made themselves into outcasts.[119] Moreover, documents such as the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, as well as the 1965 treaty which normalised relations between Japan and South Korea, had been interpreted by the Japanese government as having settled issues related to war crimes, despite the fact that none of them specifically mentioned the comfort women system.

In 1982, a dispute over history textbooks sprang up after the Ministry of Education ordered a number of deletions in history textbooks related to Japanese wartime aggression and atrocities. This ignited protest from neighbouring countries such as China and also sparked interest in the subject among some Japanese, including a number of wartime veterans who began to speak more openly about their past actions. However, the comfort women issue was not a central topic and instead most of this resurgence in historical interest went towards other themes such as the Nanjing Massacre and Unit 731. Nevertheless, historians who had studied Japan’s wartime activities in-depth were already aware of the existence of comfort women in general.


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