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Encyclopedia > Comfort woman

The term comfort women (慰安婦 ian-fu) is a euphemism for women serving in military brothels in Japanese-occupied countries during World War II. Many surviving women have testified to being tricked, coerced or forced into serving the Imperial Japanese Army during its occupation of Korea, China, and much of South East Asia.

In the Japanese language, ianfu (comfort women) is a euphemism for prostitute. However, now it specifically refers to jūgun-ianfu (従軍慰安婦, "military comfort women"), those who served in Japanese military brothels during World War II in Japanese colonies and war areas. Many "comfort women" were forced, coerced, or tricked into sexual service for the Japanese military. According to research by Dr. Hirofumi Hayashi, professor at Kanto-Gakuin University [1] (http://plaza18.mbn.or.jp/~modernH/eng04.htm), comfort women included Chinese (including Taiwan-born and Overseas Chinese), Malays, Thais, Filipinos, Indonesians, Burmese, Vietnamese, Indians, Eurasians, Dutch, Japanese, Koreans and natives of the Pacific islands. Estimates of the number of comfort women during the war range from 20,000 to 300,000. Most of the brothels where comfort women served were located in Japanese military bases, usually in occupied areas in mainland Asia.


Brothels as part of Japanese military policy

One of the ironies of Japanese military brothel system was that part of the reason the system was introduced was to prevent Japanese soldiers from committing rape. The Japanese military considered that, unless soldiers were provided with access to brothels, the soldiers might commit rape in battlefield, which was counterproductive to their purpose to establish Japan as a new colonial ruler. Another reason for the system was to keep the medical inspection of the prostitutes directly under the control of the military, thus preventing the spread of STDs among soldiers. A third reason was to provide sex as part of recreation to raise the morale of troops; a fourth was to bring the brothels directly to the front line so as to remove the need to grant leave to soldiers.

Initially, a conventional method of procuring prostitutes was used. Middlemen procured prostitutes within Japan and from Japanese colonies in Korea, Taiwan and North-East China. Some were recruited by advertising in newspapers. Most of those who became comfort women by answering advertisements were already prostitutes and offered the service voluntarily. However, it is not correct to categorise all comfort women as voluntary. Many were tricked by fraud or their families were forced to sell these women due to economic hardship, and especially in Japanese colonies some were kidnapped by these middlemen as part of human trafficking. Japanese women who served in foreign brothels are known as karayukisan and these Japanese women often become managers of these military brothels.

However, the supply from these sources soon dried up, especially from Japan, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs resisted issuing visas for Japanese comfort women. They believed the presence of Japanese prostitutes in colonial areas would tarnish the image of the empire. Soon, the military sought supply directly from local sources. This situation is where the rampant abuse of the system occurred. In urban areas, similar methods to those mentioned above were employed to obtain women, that is, using middlemen to procure them or obtaining them from existing brothels. However, once in the front line, especially in the countryside where the presence of middlemen or brothels are rare, the army directly demanded that the local leaders procure women for their brothels. The situation became worse as the war progressed. Under the strain of the war effort, the military no longer provided enough supplies to Japanese units and, in effect, each unit made up the difference by demanding tribute from locals or, more often, by direct looting. Moreover, at this point, when locals, especially Chinese, were considered to be hostile, they carried out the policy known as "purging" (in Japanese 燼滅作戦, in Chinese 三光作戦).

Responsibility and compensation

Japan regards all World War II compensation claims to be settled, with the single exception of North Korea, with which it has not signed any treaty for war time settlement. These treaties settle all claims at the government level. However, as is the case with most treaties concerning the War, they do not cover civilian claims.

Japan regards South Korea's official compensation claim as having been settled by the Treaty on Basic Relations and Agreement of Economic Cooperation and Property Claims between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965.

In 1990 the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery, with help from Japanese organizations, filed suit, demanding apologies and compensation. Independently several comfort women also filed suit, in the Tokyo District Court. More suits followed in the ensuing years. However, it was widely expected from the beginning that the court would reject all of these claims on the basis of the statutes of limitation or on the basis that the state is immune from civil suits in court on the matter of war time conduct. Nevertheless, these suits have helped to revive and keep alive the issue of comfort women in Japan as well as in the international media.

Up until 1992, the Japanese government denied any official connection to the wartime brothels. In June 1990, the Japanese government declared that they were run by private contractors. However, since 1992, when the historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki discovered incriminating documents in the archives of Japan's National Defense Agency indicating that the military was directly involved in running the brothels (by, for example, selecting the agents who recruited or coerced women into service), Japan's official position has been one of admitting "moral but not legal" responsibility. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone famously stated in his memoir published in 1978 that he set up a comfort house for his troops when he was a navy lieutenant in charge of accounting.

In 1995, a Japanese semi-governmental "Asia Women's Fund" was set up for atonement in the form of material compensation and to provide each surviving comfort woman with an unofficial signed apology from the prime minister. Because of their unofficial nature, many comfort women have rejected these payments and continue to seek an official apology and compensation.

Following official admission of a military connection to the brothels in 1992, the debate has shifted to consideration of evidence and testimony of coercive recruitment of comfort women during the war. In a number of mock trials (without cross-examination), surviving women have testified of being subjected to coercion and rape.

The Japanese debate over comfort women

The popular conception of "comfort women" outside Japan is that all comfort women were kidnapped by Japanese soldiers to serve as sex slaves under direct order from the Japanese military or the government. This simplified picture misses certain important aspects of the issue. Military comfort women were part of the military brothel system which was not uniquely Japanese. As with any other military brothels, procurement was largely done through middlemen. The issue is extremely controversial in regard to the case of Korea.

In 1991, Asahi Shinbun, one of the major quality newspapers in Japan, ran a series about military comfort women until the following year. This is regarded as the start of the comfort women controversy in Japan, which coincided with the re-examination of other wartime atrocities such as the Nanking Massacre. Such re-examinations were prominent through out 90s. In this series the Asahi Shinbun published excerpts of the book published in 1983 by Kiyosada Yoshida, Watashino sensou hanzai - Chousenjin Renkou Kousei Kiroku (My War Crime; The Record of the Forced Removal of Koreans), in which the author confesses to forcibly procuring women from Jeju Island in Korea under the direct order of the Japanese military. In 1992, the paper also published the discovery of documents in the archives of Japan's National Defense Agency indicating that the military was directly involved in selecting the agents who recruited these women into service. The article implied that the document is a smoking gun, proving the government's complicty in the forcible kidnapping of women. The publication of the article was just five days before Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa paid a visit to South Korea. Miyazawa made a formal apology during that visit. However, the investigation by Hata Ikuhiko subsequently discovered that the entire Jeju Island episode documented in Yoshida's book to be a fiction, which the author of the book later admitted. Moreover, the supposedly incriminating documents proving the military's involvement in selecting the agents in fact showed that the military issued such directives to prevent abuse, in response to reports of complaints from the colonial police force about the methods employed by these agents. And it was shown that some of these women were sold by their parents to these agents as bonded labour, a practice not uncommon at the time both in Japan and in Korea. These revelations severely damaged the credibility of the movement advocating for comfort women in Japan — though subsequent research did indeed prove that Japanese soldiers in the frontline did indeed force women into military brothels. Moreover, the existence of middlemen does not change the fact that many women were coerced or sold against their wills. However, the context in which such acts were carried out would change the nuance of the moral responsibility.

A common defence heard in Japan is that there is no document to show that Japanese military hierarchy did order those middlemen to procure comfort women by force, that the purpose of military brothel system was to prevent rape, and that the military issued the directive to select agents so that these agents would not get involved in illegal methods of procurement. Moreover, the existence of middlemen makes it difficult for ex-comfort women to pursue compensation claims. Prostitution and bonded labour were legal at the time and if the coercion was done by the middlemen much of blame, whether legal or moral, can be shifted to them. And for those who were directly kidnapped by Japanese soldiers, it is necessary for them to prove such incident took place which may be very difficult at this point in time. As is the case for the Japanese war guilt issue, focusing on the existence of middlemen allows those who wish to deny responsibility to deflect part of blame back to the Korean or Chinese if not to the actual victims themselves. Many of these agents were locals, not Japanese, and some comfort women were sold to middlemen by their parents for economic reasons. This kind of bonded labour was not uncommon in Japan as well as in the rest of Asia and is still common in some parts of the world. Those community leaders who provided comfort women under threat from Japanese army often had to use tricks or coercion. Pointing to the complicity of locals allows those who wish to deny guilt to claim that Japan merely took advantage of what locals were already doing as an accepted practice at that period.

There is a debate over how much blame should be placed on the military hierarchy, or for that matter, the Japanese government. Though those who wish to deny official responsibility might admit that abuse at a local level might have occurred on an individual basis, it is common for them to blame the entire matter on mere failure of oversight, confused policy in regard to a "suspected" guerilla force, and a lack of resources at the front line. For example, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone famously stated in his memoir published in 1978 that he set up a comfort house for his troops of about 3000 when he was a navy lieutenant in charge of accounting. When criticised about this matter, he refused to admit any responsibility, insisting that he was never aware that the women were forced into service.

Military brothels, human trafficking, and sexual slavery in context

One criticism of the general reporting on the issue of comfort women in Western countries is that this reporting has subtly obscured the idea of the military brothel, making it appear that the concept of comfort women is uniquely Japanese. Military brothels are not at all unique, though the direct involvement of soldiers in procurement, as was sometimes the case in the Japanese military during World War II, is rare in the 20th century.

British, French and German forces have all utilised such institutions for the same reason the Japanese military did: to prevent STDs, to maintain the morale of the troops, and to allow soldiers to have sex near the front line. During the occupation of Japan, the U.S. army utilised military brothels set up by the Japanese government known as the Recreation and Amusement Association. Many Japanese women worked there under pressure because of economic hardship or coerced by the use of debt bondage. South Korea had a similar system during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. There were brothels for the exclusive use of U.S. soldiers inside certain camps in Vietnam War. As for the U.N. army, a rapid increase in prostitutes occurred in Cambodia and in Bosnia once U.N. peace keeping forces moved in. There was one highly publicised case in which members of the U.N. peacekeeping force were accused of direct involvement in procurement of sex slaves for a local brothel in Bosnia. Setting up such an institution in an economically deprived area is bound to involve a degree of forced prostitution, but the use of agents for procurement and management of brothels has allowed the military to be shielded from the issue of sexual slavery and human trafficking.

Related articles


Some recent work on the comfort women issue include:

  • Tanaka, Yuki Japan's Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the US Occupation, London, Routledge: 2002. ISBN 0415194016.
  • Yoshimi, Yoshiaki Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II, Columbia University Press, 2001. (mentioned RAA too) ISBN 023112032X
  • Molasky, Michael S. American Occupation of Japan and Okinawa, Routledge, 1999. ISBN 0415191947 ISBN 0415260442

A review of these books and a history and historiography of the issue, from a view critical of the above books can be found in issue 58:2 of Monumenta Nipponica:

  • Wakabayashi, Bob Tadashii "Comfort Women: Beyond Litigious Feminism"


  • Asian Women's Fund web site (http://www.awf.or.jp/)
    • (in English) (http://www.awf.or.jp/english/index.html)
  • U.S. Official Wartime Report on  (http://coralnet.or.jp/kakichi/qa-2.ex3.usreport.html)Japanese Comfort Women (http://www.exordio.com/1939-1945/codex/Documentos/report-49-USA-orig.html) (1944, United States Office of War Information)
  • Statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on the occasion of the establishment of the "Asian Women's Fund" (http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/state9507.html) (1995, Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
  • Asian Women's Fund and Government Reach Agreement on Comfort Women Compensation (http://www.fpcj.jp/e/shiryo/jb/j19.html) (1996, Foreign Press Center / Japan)
  • Letter from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the former comfort women (http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/pmletter.html) (2001, Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
  • Hayashi Hirofumi's papers on comfort women (http://plaza18.mbn.or.jp/~modernH/13eng.htm)

These pages mention comfort women of some other nations:

  • Secret Origin of Comfort Women -- What does Bible say about it? (http://homepage3.nifty.com/kadzuwo/comfort.htm) (multilingual version)
  • On Rape and Comfort Women (http://homepage3.nifty.com/kadzuwo/history/Rape.htm) (a mirror of lost page)

  Results from FactBites:
Testimony from Former Comfort (939 words)
One "comfort woman who resisted fiercely was murdered by having her head and limbs tied to horses and being ripped apart in front of others.
A Korean "comfort woman" who contracted venereal disease and, as a result, infected fifty Japanese soldiers was "sterilized" by having a hot iron bar placed in her vagina.
Born in China, Zhu Qiaomei was forced to become a "comfort woman" when a Japanese battalion of sixty to seventy soldiers was stationed in her town after the Japanese invasion.
  More results at FactBites »



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