Sexual exploitation has always been a part of war. However, the Japanese military not only exploited women sexually, but also actually enslaved them. Hundreds of thousands of women were either tricked or forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of Korea, from 1910 to 1945, and during World War II. These women were called Jungun Wianbu in Korean or Jugan Inafu in Japanese, meaning military comfort women. Now, some advocate using the term “military sex slaves” or MSS, because the term “comfort women” is too innocuous to reflect accurately the situation of the women.
The majority of comfort women were Korean, but women from the Philippines, China, Burma, Taiwan, and Indonesia were also forced to become sex slaves for the Japanese military. Some Dutch and Australian women, mostly nurses, also became comfort women. The few Japanese women to become comfort women were Japanese prostitutes.
In the beginning, Japan tricked the majority of the young girls into becoming comfort women by promising factory-type jobs. The opportunity for work was appealing to many young women and their families, because the economy in Korea had steadily declined due to Japanese colonialization. The colonialization primarily affected farming families because Japan took the crops to feed their soldiers. The depressed economic state of Korea allowed Japan to lure these young women away easily. This was called Kunro Jungshindae, or virgin recruitment. Some women received draft notices, whereas others were simply promised work. However, as the supply of young women ran short, Japanese police and “recruiters” began kidnapping younger girls, some as young as 13; even married women were not safe. Many were abducted right off the street and were not even allowed to say goodbye to their families. Once taken, these women were transported to many different locations, such as China, Japan, Rabaul, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Taiwan. Some women went to privately operated comfort houses, while others were taken to military-run comfort houses on the front line. The conditions of these “comfort stations” were appalling. Many had no heat and only thin straw mats on the floor. They were partitioned off into small rooms only big enough for the mats. It was here that the comfort women would receive the soldiers, almost continuously.
Comfort women were given regular checkups by military doctors to prevent venereal diseases. Women who became infected were given injections of a drug called 606, which also caused miscarriages. If a woman became too sick to perform her “duties,” she disappeared and was not heard from again. Due to the repeated venereal diseases and frequent miscarriages, many former comfort women were never able to have children; few women ever married. This had serious repercussions for the women, as status and security in Asian countries is often based on marital ties and children.
Why did Japan establish these comfort houses? The purported reasons for the establishment of comfort houses were to protect the local women from rape, to prevent the soldiers from being infected with venereal diseases, and to encourage the soldiers by providing a “necessary” comfort.
Former comfort women were silent until recently, perhaps due to shame and fear that society would judge them for the atrocities of the Japanese military. A few made attempts to reveal the plight of former comfort women, but were largely ignored. There was tension between Japan and Korea after the war and during the postcolonial period; it was feared that any mention of the comfort women issue would destroy the delicate economic relations between the two countries. Therefore, those who wanted to go public were quietly encouraged to remain silent.
The silence was broken in 1991, when one former Korean comfort woman came forward publicly. Kim Hak Soon filed a lawsuit against the Japanese Government seeking reparations. Other former comfort women also joined the lawsuit, but remained anonymous; again, the fear of stigmatization prevailed. Former comfort women want a formal apology from Japan and reparations. Japan has established a private fund for payment to former comfort women, but has not provided any official acknowledgment. Few women have accepted moneys from the private fund, believing that the use of private funds instead of government money is just another way for Japan to avoid official recognition of the sexual enslavement.
The issues involving former comfort women are becoming recognized around the world. The Korean Counsel for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, The Comfort Women Project at San Francisco University, and the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues are just a few of the organizations that have raised the issue of Japan’s subjugation of comfort women in international forums.
SEE ALSO: Rape, Violence
- australian nurses comfort women