In Depth

‘Comfort women’: the dark history of Japan’s WWII sex slaves

South Korea launches memorial day honouring the women forced into brothels by Japanese occupiers

Ceremonies are being held in Seoul today to mark South Korea’s first Memorial Day for Japanese Forces’ “comfort women” - civilians who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels.

South Korea and Taiwan unveiled new monuments dedicated to tens of thousands of East Asian women forced into sex slavery during the Second World War.

Meanwhile, crowds of activists joined a sit-in outside Japan’s de-facto embassy in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei. Campaigners are demanded a formal apology and monetary compensation for the surviving Taiwanese victims, according to Al Jazeera.

The masked protesters shouted: “The Japanese government must apologise.” 

Who were comfort women?

The term refers to nearly 200,000 girls and young women from South Korea, China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan who were kidnapped and forced into sex slavery for the Japanese military between 1932 and 1945.

They would often be taken to “comfort stations” - brothels that serviced Japanese soldiers in Japanese-occupied China.

The comfort stations were created in response to a six-week-long massacre that essentially destroyed the Chinese city of Nanking, during which Japanese soldiers raped between 20,000 and 80,000 Chinese women. In a bid to prevent further potentially embarrassing atrocities, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito expanded the network of military brothels to “ensure a steady and isolated group of prostitutes to satisfy Japanese soldiers’ sexual appetites”, says the History Channel.

What were their experiences?

Comfort stations were open nearly all day, the History Channel reports, and women were forced to have sex with the soldiers “every minute”, according to survivor Maria Rosa Henson, a Filipina woman forced into prostitution in 1943.

Soldiers were meant to pay for the women’s “services”, money that was supposed to be divided between the women and the brothel proprietor. However, it is unclear if any money ever reached the women, according to The Asian Women’s Fund, a fund set up by the Japanese government.

“Though each woman’s experience was different, their testimonies share many similarities: repeated rapes that increased before battles, agonising physical pain, pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and bleak conditions,” says the History Channel.

An estimated 90% did not survive the War.

“When the Japanese military began retreating from one place to another in Southeast Asia, the women were either abandoned or destined to share their fate with defeated military,” says The Asian Women’s Fund.

The end of War did not see the end of the comfort stations, however. In 2007, Associated Press reporters discovered that US occupation authorities turned a blind eye to the forced brothels long after peace was declared.

In fact, tens of thousands of American troops are thought to have visited the brothels before General Douglas MacArthur shut down the system in the spring of 1946.

Why is the issue still so controversial today?

For years, Japan tried to cover up the existence of these comfort stations. Documents relating to the brothels were destroyed by Japanese officials, so modern historians can only estimate the number of women involved.

In the absence of records, the plight of the comfort women was ignored for decades - and denied by Japan when victims attempted to speak out about their experiences.

News site The Diplomat says: “Attempts to deny, justify, or trivialise the pursuit of justice for the ‘comfort women’ who suffered systematic war crimes remain widespread, including labelling survivors as ‘professional prostitutes’ and attacking the validity of the testimonies and other evidence.”

Japan has “repeatedly said the issue was resolved by a 2015 deal struck with the previous South Korean administration, which provided an official apology and 1bn yen [£7m] to establish a foundation to help surviving women”, reports Al Jazeera.

But many people argue that the atrocities need to be further addressed and acknowledged, so that these women’s experiences are not erased from history.

“I never wanted to give comfort to those men,” survivor Lee Ok-Seon told The Washington Post in 2015. “I don’t want to hate or hold a grudge, but I can never forgive what happened to me.”

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