Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Comfort Women of the Imperial Japanese Army

hinese and Malayan girls forcibly taken from Penang by the Japanese to work as ‘comfort girls’ for the troops. © A.E. Lemon, Imperial War Museums -

A few days ago, I came across one of the horrors of wars which hasn’t taken its fair share of publicity in history books. The topic is about “comfort women”, who were women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army before, during – and after – World War II. My findings led me to the history of sexual slavery and how it was widespread around the world until not so long ago. This is the gruesome story of countless number of women who were dehumanised and abandoned in the name of war, money, and power.

The name “comfort women” is a translation of the Japanese euphemism ianfu (慰安婦) and the similar Korean term wianbu (慰安婦). Ianfu is simply the less offensive term for shōfu (娼婦), which means “prostitute(s).” The sole ‘job’ of comfort women was to fulfill the sexual needs of Japanese military personnel and civil officers.

Many of those females were from occupied countries like Korea, China, and the Philippines. Although others from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan (then a Japanese dependency), Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies), East Timor (then Portuguese Timor) were also interned. A smaller number from the Netherlands and Australia were involved as well.

Other Japanese-occupied territories were used for military “comfort stations”, also known as “comfort houses”. The stations were located in Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, then Malaya, Thailand, Burma, New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, and French Indochina.

In fact, the first comfort station, a brothel, was established in the Japanese concession in Shanghai in 1932, way before WW II. Earlier comfort women were Japanese prostitutes who had volunteered for such service. However, there was a shortage of volunteers as Japan continued its military expansion, so they turned to the locals. The number of stations increased rapidly after the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937.

According to testimony, those poor young women were abducted from their homes in countries under Imperial Japanese custody and were shipped to “comfort stations” around the world. Some were 13 year-old virgins, others were older. Even though a small number was willingly recruited, in most cases, the females were lured with promises of work in factories, restaurants, and military hospitals. Or, they were simply kidnapped. Once recruited, they were kept incarcerated in the stations in foreign lands where they lived as sex slaves. 

Indonesian Comfort Women, The Comfort Women of the Imperial Japanese Army

Military correspondence of the Japanese Imperial Army shows that there was three main reasons why comfort stations were initially established.

The essential purpose was the prevention of rape crimes committed by Japanese army personnel, and thus preventing the rise of hostility among people in occupied areas. You know, to pacify the soldiers by allowing them to discharge instead of going crazy and getting discharged.

By July 1937, Japan had already began its full-scale war against China. The soldiers were raping Chinese women and this was damaging the honour of the Imperial Army. So the idea of their very own comfort women and stations was incepted on a large scale.

A second purpose for the existence of this system was to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Servicemen who raped the Chinese women will eventually go back to Japan and the diseases will spread throughout the country and cause a large-scale social, as well as moral, issue.

A third reason was to prevent spies. The Japanese military leaders were afraid that military secrets would leak to local prostitutes if soldiers used brothels in occupied areas.

Comfort Women in China, The Comfort Women of the Imperial Japanese Army
Comfort Women in China

The sad part of this dark chapter in history is that approximately three quarters of comfort women died. Most of those who survived were left infertile due to trauma, abuse or sexually transmitted diseases. Other survivors, though very few, made their stories public many years later. And that's probably how we know so much.

The numbers and the dreadful details revealed were truly shocking.

According to a 1995 United Nations Commissions on Human Rights, many of the women were raped to the point of death. Some were killed by torture; such as having their breasts sliced off or having their abdomens slit open for refusing to be raped... or for no reason.

Each slave was reportedly raped an average of 10 rapes per day (considered by some to be a low estimate), for a five-day work week. This means that each comfort girl was raped about 50 times per week, or 2,500 times per year. So for three years of service – the average – each one would have been raped 7,500 times. It hurts to even think about it.

It is worth noting that Japan was not the only nation to be involved in sexual slavery in recent history. Germany and Korea, too, had their own versions of comfort stations.

German brothels in occupied France, The Comfort Women of the Imperial Japanese Army
German brothels in occupied France

For the Nazis, they were military brothels which were already set up by the Third Reich during WW II throughout much of occupied Europe for the use of Wehrmacht and SS soldiers. The idea was a relatively new creation for the Germans, so in the West they were sometimes set up using existing brothels. Until 1942, there were around 500 military brothels of this kind in Nazi occupied Europe. Often operating in confiscated hotels and guarded by the Wehrmacht, these facilities served traveling soldiers and those withdrawn from the front.

In addition to the military brothels, the Nazis also operated concentration camp brothels (Lagerbordell). Those were established as a way to control inmates, create an incentive for prisoners to collaborate, and prevent riots and escapes. It is estimated that between the military and the concentration camps brothels, at least 34,140 European women were forced to serve as prostitutes during the German occupation.

Sex slavery in Nazi Camps, The Comfort Women of the Imperial Japanese Army
Sex slavery in Nazi Camps. Some women smiling to the camera
but probably without having any clue about
what's coming up next

For the South Korean, it was during the Korean War (1950-1953) when the military institutionalised a “special comfort system” similar to the one used by the Japanese military during the Second World War. This time it was the North Korean women who were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery.

The South Korean comfort system was largely organised around three operations. First, there were “special comfort units” called T'uksu Wiandae, which operated from seven different stations. Second, there were mobile units of comfort women that visited barracks. And third, there were prostitutes hired by the military to worked in private brothels.

Like the Japanese military, the South Korean referred to these comfort women as “military supplies” in official documents and personal memoirs. Yes they did.

Even earlier in history, before the Japs, the Nazis and the Koreans, there were other examples of nations that have engaged in sexual slavery.

During the Chinese domination of Vietnam (111 BC to 938 AD), Vietnamese girls were sold as sex slaves to the Chinese.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a network of Chinese and Japanese prostitutes being trafficked across Asia, in countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and British India — what was known as the “Yellow Slave Traffic”.

There was also a network of prostitutes from continental Europe being trafficked to India, Ceylon, Singapore, China and Japan at around the same time — what was known as the “White Slave Traffic”.

Similarly, slave trade, including trade of sex slaves, fluctuated in certain regions in the Middle East up until the 20th century.

Again in English-speaking countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the phrase “white slavery” was used as a euphemism for ‘prostitution’ — just like “comfort women” for Asians.

It appears to me that the word ‘prostitution’ makes people uncomfortable. Perhaps it reminds them of the grim reality of the issue, so they always try to find more appropriate words to describe it. Though I don't personally see that any euphemisms can beautify the ugliness of sex slavery.

The same horror happened again in the North American colonies with African slaves who were often taken as concubines and occasional mistresses by white men.

Speaking of, Americans are involved in our Comfort Women story here in one strange turn of event. This may be unknown to many people today.

An Associated Press review of historical documents and records — some of which were never before translated into English — shows how the comfort women system never stopped at the end of WWII.

Believing that American soldiers will likely behave like their own and go on raping Japanese women, the Japanese Cabinet decided to establish a “comfort women system” within Japan. The decision was actually taken on August 21, 2014 — only six days after the end of the war.

The Recreation and Amusement Association then came to birth. This was the largest of the organisations established by the Japanese government to provide organised prostitution and other leisure facilities for occupying Allied troops immediately after surrender.

What an ironic name; recreation and amusement for the soldiers, yes, but what about the women?

As a matter of fact, the officially sponsored brothels ran by the RAA were initially rushed into operation as American forces poured into Japan by August 1945. After 12 years in the business, I'm sure they were experts by the time.

The documents reveal how American authorities had full knowledge by then that the women used were mere sex slaves. Yet, they permitted The RAA to operate and participated in the debauchery.

U.S. servicemen walking into Yasuura House — a comfort station

At the beginning, the Japanese comfort women were primarily working prostitutes. Later, widows and other women signed up because they had no other way to feed their families.

By the end of 1945, about 350,000 U.S. troops were occupying Japan. It is estimated that about 55,000 women were employed by the RAA to provide them with cheap sex, reaching 70,000 at the peak. Each woman would usually have between 15 and 60 clients per day.

This went on until the Spring of 1946 when Gen. Douglas MacArthur shut the brothels down. By that time, venereal disease had become so widespread between GIs, that 70 percent of one army unit tested positive for syphilis and 50 percent for gonorrhea.

The closure of the brothels, however, caused the number of reported rapes to soar. The troops had probably gotten used to discharging.

Again, Americans were not the only ones to commit these war crimes. But the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF), which consisted of British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops in Japan, also went on to commit rapes. The commander of the BCOF's official reports state that some members were convicted of committing 57 rapes in the period from May 1946 to December 1947, and a further 23 between January 1948 and September 1951.

Perhaps because of the grandeur acquired after winning, or perhaps out of inspiration, right after the war, the American Government and the CIA did even more horrific things to their very own people with MK-ULTRA human experiment program. From the early 50s to 1973, thousands of American and Canadian victims were used as guinea pigs. Some of them were abducted children who had to endure living in cages and being raped by monkeys in order to “depattern” or “break” them. The adults, who become mentally controlled, were drugged, abused, and forced into sex slavery as well.

A total of 44 American colleges and universities, 15 research foundations or chemical or pharmaceutical companies and the like including Sandoz (now Novartis) and Eli Lilly and Company, 12 hospitals or clinics (in addition to those associated with universities), and three prisons have participated in MK-ULTRA. For those who want to know more, MK-ULTRA: Then and Now – A Thorough Analysis of Mind Control is a two-part research exposé about this other dark chapter in the history of mankind.

It is indeed notoriously deplorable how humans can get so evil towards each other. Wars and absolute power will always bring out the worst in mankind.

Fortunately, the truth never stays hidden for too long. Fifty long years after the horrors of WW II, one of the first survivors to blow the lid on the topic of “comfort women” was Korean Kim Hak-sun who told her story in 1991. In December of the same year, she sued the Japanese government; she was the first of dozens of other women who came forward to tell their tales as former sex slaves. In fact, she was the only complainant to use her own name in the lawsuit demanding compensation for Pacific War victims.

Former Korean “comfort woman” Kim Hak-sun s, haring her story in 1991The Comfort Women of the Imperial Japanese Army
Former Korean “comfort woman” Kim Hak-sun sharing her story in 1991

The cases were featured in the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery, which was first convened in Tokyo, Japan in 2000 and again at The Hague, Netherlands in 2001.

The soldiers treated us like military supplies,” Kim recalls in sorrow. Well, if they referred to them as such in their formal documents and memoirs then this is how they will treat them.

Kim’s story was published in the book The Korean Comfort Women Who Were Coercively Dragged Away for the Military. A translation edited by Keith Howard is found on Amazon under: True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women.

In another testimony, a former comfort woman recounted:

Yet, even though I had no venereal disease, I had to have treatment, because I kept bleeding and couldn’t pass water. Perhaps it was a bladder infection. There were some women whose vaginas were so swollen and were bleeding so profusely that there was no space for a needle to be inserted inside.”

One more victim of comfort stations, Jan Ruff-O’Herne (born January 18, 1923), spoke out publicly about the matter. Inspired by three Korean comfort women who had come forward with their stories, demanding an apology and a compensation from the Japanese government, Jan went public with her own story in 1992.

At the International Peace Tribunal in Tokyo, she told the world how as a 21-year old she was abducted from her family in the Dutch West Indies and enslaved into prostitution by the Japanese Imperial Army. She also demanded an apology.

In the comfort station I was systematically beaten and raped day and night. Even the Japanese doctor raped me each time he visited the brothel to examine us for venereal disease.

Over the following four months, the girls were raped and beaten day and night, with those who became pregnant forced to have abortions. Jan was saved after this relatively short time and reunited with her family. Today, she is a human rights activist known for her vocal campaigns and speeches against the savagery of war rape.

Ad-like kiosk poster of the Dutch Jan Ruff-O'Herne in Public Art in Chelsea, New York City, 2013 - The Comfort Women of the Imperial Japanese Army
Comfort Women Wanted is an ad-like kiosk poster of the Dutch Jan Ruff-O'Herne
in Public Art in Chelsea, New York City, 2013

Jan wrote the story in her book Fifty Years of Silence. And that’s a documentary about her: Australian comfort woman Jan Ruff-O'Herne.

Oddly, after all this, until today some Japanese right-wing scholars are still denying that any use of force was used while recruiting comfort women. In this particular paper, titled No Organized Or Forced Recruitment: Misconceptions About Comfort Women And The Japanese Military, Ikuhiko Hata, a historian and professor in Nihon University, claims that Kim Hak-sun, among others, fabricated their stories.

He even starts the paper with a chapter called Revival of the Comfort Women Circus, which may be quite disrespectful. Then he goes along showing how there are discrepancies in the testimonies of some of the women.

Hata concludes: “Many [comfort women] were sold to brokers by their parents. Some responded willingly to brokers’ offers; others were deceived.”

It appears that the shock was so intense to some Japanese people, they cannot believe this had happened in real. So as a defense mechanism, they are trying to persuade the world that it never actually happened, possibly in an attempt to persuade themselves — the collective conscious and unconscious — in the process. Knowing what honour is to Japanese, this must be a clear case of cognitive dissonance. Like many of those ashamed from their doings, they are trying to rewrite history. A similar example can be found in the South of the United States regarding slavery.

Having said that, I bumped into what seems like some kind of online militias on YouTube who, more than 60 years later, leave repeated comments on videos about the matter. They are attempting to falsify information by repeating that none of the comfort women were taken against their will. If they weren’t online militias, then why would they care after all this time?

Many books were later written about this somber chapter in history. There are also some documentaries which truly show the horrid reality of the matter. Arirang Special “Comfort Women” One Last Cry is one of them.

South Korean comfort women still demanding a formal apology from Japan, The Comfort Women of the Imperial Japanese Army
South Korean comfort women still demanding a formal apology
from Japan. Only 54 of them remain alive today. 
The Japanese officers involved ended up by receiving some punishment by Japanese authorities at the end of the war. Eleven officers were found guilty with one soldier being sentenced to death by the Batavia War Criminal Court. But is that worth ruining the lives of those thousands and thousands of women? Certainly not.

Years later in 1994, a final agreement took place where Tokyo provided an $800 million aid and low-interest loan package over 10 years. The Japanese government set up the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) to distribute additional compensation to South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Indonesia.

Sixty one Korean, 13 Taiwanese, 211 Filipino, and 79 Dutch former comfort women were provided with a signed apology from the then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, stating, “As Prime Minister of Japan, I thus extend anew my 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.”

Sounds a lot to me like the 1996 Clinton apology to the MK-Ultra survivors — the human experiment victims. Them, too, received an “apology” some decades later.

Women commemorating Koreans who were made sex slaves by the Japanese during World War II - Seoul (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)
Women carry portraits commemorating Koreans who were made sex slaves
by the Japanese during World War II. Seoul. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Because of the magnitude of the atrocity and its horrendous nature, the issue of comfort women remains controversial to this very day. However, whether it’s comfort women, sex slave, or MK-Ultra victim, there is no price for screwing someone’s life so inhumanly, especially without their consent and against their will. Nothing will ever be enough.

After a few days of being immersed into this piece, I went to have dinner at the local Lemonade. A server there, Mani, is a friend of mine whom I know is from the Philippines, so I couldn’t help but ask him.

Do you know about “comfort women”?
Yes, of course.

Do they teach this in schools and in history books in The Philippines? Because they don’t in Japan.
Yes, yes, everyone knows about it.”


The insanity of it all is when your own government does this to you. Those who are supposed to take care of you and protect you. As if there is no value to your life; as if you do not matter at all. Reminding me of a question I have previously asked: Isn’t it though-provoking that with all the surveillance and spying in the world today we still have criminals, murderers, terrorists, traitors, drug cartels, pedophiles, sex offenders, and slave traffickers? Isn’t it only logical to think that those who are involved in the surveillance and spying are themselves related to all the above?

Sadly, not only the comfort women who are dehumanised by wars, but also the young soldiers. By taking part in such barbaric cruelty they lose touch with reality and become savages. They lose all morals, then later suffer from mental illnesses, shame, and guilt. For they, too, become slaves. One way to stop these crimes against humanity is to stop all wars. Another is to educate people about the past so that they may learn the lessons and not repeat the same awful mistakes.

Long Live Comfort Women. 

South Korean comfort women during an anti-Japan protest in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in March 30, 2011
South Korean comfort women shout slogans during an anti-Japan protest in
front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul March 30, 2011.
The protesters demanded an official apology over the issue.
What a sad chapter inthe history of mankind.
(REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak)

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  1. Stop all wars? Good luck with that.