The so-called comfort women of World War II are a dark and sometimes overlooked footnote in history. Everything began in 1932, when Japanese military began recruiting women for work in the newly established comfort stations. Most of the women were Korean. They were promised jobs, but what they found out was that these stations were brothels for use by the men of the Japanese military.
During the 1930s and World War II, more than 200,000 women were shipped off and became comfort women. Only around 20% of them survived. Girls were as young as 11, and they were forced to service up to 50 different men per day. If they refused, they were subjected to beating.
The Japanese government has issued several verbal apologies, but they have refused monetary compensation to surviving comfort women and their families.
The meaning of the term
The Japanese called them comfort women. It was a term derived from the Japanese word “ianfu”, combining the Chinese characters for “comfort of solace” and “woman”.
The places where they were forced to have sexual intercourse with soldiers were called comfort stations.
Nowadays, comfort women is a linguistically warped categorization of the thousands of women and girls, mainly from poor communities.
But the term hides the untold abuse the victims suffered under the Japanese Imperial Army and denies them the dignity they deserve.
Some advocates nowadays urge authorities to change the term to “survivors of the wartime female slavery system”.
For decades, survivors of the system did not share their stories. They remained in pain, hidden, and concealed from the outside world. Things started changing in the early 1990s, when survivors lobbied for Japan to offer a public apology and financial compensation.
History and how it began
In the early 20th century, Japan began establishing its power and control over East Asia. That included Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria. Taiwan was colonized in 1895, Korea was made a protectorate in 1905, and a puppet government was set up in Manchuria in 1932.
After the Second Sino-Japanese War, Asia was constantly at war. That escalated with World War II. During the period of the 1930s and 1940s, the Japanese Imperial Army established the system of comfort women.
The first stations were established in the Shanghai area in 1932. Senior staff officers of each army issued orders to establish comfort stations. They were used exclusively for troops and officers.
At the time, there were a series of explanations by the army for the purpose of the system. For example, they claimed it was used to boost army morale, control the behavior of the soldiers, contain veneral diseases among the troops, and prevent rapes by Japanese soldiers.
In the 1930s and 1940s, comfort stations were established in Shanghai, Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaya, Thailand, Burma, East New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, French Indochina, and many more regions. Basically, wherever the Japanese troops went, they established a comfort stations.
These stations were filled with prostitutes who voluntary came from Japan. But the army soon began to utilize Japanese or local brokers to recruit women, mainly in Korea and Taiwan.
These contractors would go from one city to another, recruiting up to fifty young girls at once. Once they secured enough women, they would send them to war zones.
The most common way of recruitment was deceit. They would make false promises of employment as factory workers, nurses, laundry workers, or even kitchen helpers. Young girls in poor peasant families were easily fooled by the promise.
By the end of World War II, the military used the police force to procure women. Young girls were forcibly taken.
One of the survivors, and one of the loudest advocates nowadays is Yong Soo Lee. She was one of the three survivors who testified before the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee about violations of their civil liberties by the Japanese Government.
Lee lived in Taegu, Korea, a city under Japanese occupation in the early 1940s. Her family was poor, and she received only one year of formal education. At the age of 13, she began working in a factory to support her family. Then, in the autumn of 1944, at the age of 16, she and a friend were taken to Taiwan and forced to work as sexual slaves. A Japanese man came to her house and soldiers took her away.
On the way and at the comfort station, she was raped, beaten, and tortured. According to her testimony, she served four or five men a day. Some victims served up to 50 soldiers a day. And neither she nor any other woman was paid for these services.
The Japanese military was controlling the system. The policy at the time, which was the so-called Rules of Use for Military Comfort Stations, was that acts of abuse against comfort women were prohibited. Yet, daily violence was common.
The regulations were not enforced on-site. There was no strict supervision. Another problem was the insufficient supply of condoms. Soldiers refused to use them, and medical staff was not always available. Some women were forced to work even after being infected with sexually transmitted diseases. In some stations, they received injections to prevent syphilis.
Refusal to serve meant immediate punishment and torture. Women were given Japanese names and were not allowed to speak in Korean. Doing so would result in a beating.
The birth of brothels
These comfort stations served as brothels. But the difference was that in a brothel people pay for services. In the comfort stations, soldiers did not. Women were rounded up on the streets of occupied territories and purchased from their parents.
At the brothels, they were forced to have sex with their captors under brutal and inhumane conditions. The testimonies of the women share similarities, repeated rapes that increased before battles, agonizing physical pain, pregnancies, sexual transmitted diseases, and more.
The worst part is that the end of World War II did not end military brothels in Japan. Authorities allowed these stations to operate well past the end of the war.
According to most reports, Douglas MacArthur shut the system down in 1946. By then, between 200,000 and 400,000 women had been enslaved in more than 100 brothels.
According to the UN’s Global Tribunal on Violations of Women’s Human Rights, at the end of WWII, more than 90% of the comfort women had died.
Documents on the system were destroyed by Japanese officials after the end of the war. Numbers are based on estimates by historians, not on extant documents.
As Japan rebuilt after the War, the story of the enslavement of women was downplayed as a distasteful remnant of a past people would rather forget.
For decades, these women went undocumented and unnoticed. Things changed when in 1987, the Republic of South Korea became a liberal democracy. Women started discussing their ordeals publicly.
Demanding Justice to this Day
To this day, comfort women all around the world have been lobbying for justice and recognition of their history. Narcisa Claveria is one of them. She turned 90 years old in 2021, living outside Manila in the Philippines. She is one of the last survivors of the system set up by the Japanese imperial troops.
While the women of South Korea were first to organize comfort women into a national movement, the Philippines followed as well.
In the Philippines, women are organized in The League of Philippine Lolas. Lola is the term for “grandmother”, which is what the public often refers to these women.
Founded in 1994, the organization included more than 150 women, with a goal of enabling women to have a direct voice in the direction of their campaign for justice.
The last time Japan talked on the issue was a 2013 Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement. It declares, “On various occasions, Japan has clearly expressed feelings of remorse and apology, and its resolve to ensure that such an unfortunate history is never repeated, as shown in the statement by the then Prime Minister on August 15, 1995,”.
It is a reference to Tomiichi Murayama, who went further than any previous prime minister when he expressed his “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” for the suffering that Japan inflicted during the war.
In December 2015, the first memorial hail dedicated to Chinese comfort women was opened in Nanjing. It was built on the site of a former comfort station. It stands next to the Memorial Hall of the Victims of Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders.
In June 2016, the Research Center for Chinese Comfort Women was established at Shanghai Normal University. The museum exhibits photographs and items related to the issue.
In December 2011, a statue of a young woman was erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to honor the comfort women. Every Wednesday, there are demonstrations of groups in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The first one was held on January 8, 1992.