Before the Pacific War
What led up to the Comfort Women system
The Treaty of Portsmouth (1905) was signed after the overwhelming victory of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War. Although the treaty was only signed after coercion and the Korean Emperor attempted to nullify the treaty, Japan was granted political and economic autonomy over Southern Manchuria, and established Korea as a protectorate of Japan. The Japanese government quickly began a process to strip Korea of its sovereignty and sent Ito Hirobumi as the resident general to advise the Korean government. Ito was given the power to control the administration, enforce laws and ordinances, and appoint public officials. Following Ito’s assassination in 1909, Korea was officially annexed as part of the Japanese Empire. Until the final liberation of the Korean Peninsula from Japanese colonial rule on August 15, 1945, a period of forced Japanese conversion ensued. The main goal was to convert the Korean identity into the ‘superior’ and ‘civilized’ Japanese one, as part of the Japanese imperialist doctrine ‘the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ which was Japan’s attempt to form a military bloc in Asia against Western imperialism.
The government actively sponsored Japanese settlers to begin lives in Korea. Shinto Shrines were built for newly settled Japanese immigrants and Koreans were encouraged to worship Japanese gods, some of whom were dead emperors and soldiers who had fought to conquer Korea. Korean schools were only allowed to speak Japanese and teach with pre-approved textbooks. By 1939, roughly 90% of the Korean population took on Japanese names since those with non-Japanese names were banned from using mail delivery and ration cards.
Reasons for the creation of the Comfort Women system
The Japanese government initially used Japanese prostitutes to accompany its military campaigns. Most brothels employed karayuki-san, which directly translates to “China-going persons,” who were professional prostitutes from Japan. However, some sources claim that the karayuki-san system was also one of sexual exploitation in which dubious methods were employed to lure and entrap women into prostitution. These workers received compensations – 50% of the fee that soldiers paid – and sent remittances back home.
As the military expanded into vast territories, the Japanese government were concerned that their soldiers would be demoralized knowing that their sisters and wives were working as sex workers and began to look for other methods. The biggest impetus for the creation of the Comfort Women system was the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Japanese army invaded China’s capital, Nanking, in what became known as the ‘Nanjing Massacre’ or the ‘Rape of Nanking’. This invasion led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and the rape of more than 20,000 young girls and women by Japanese soldiers, all under the orders of General Matsui Iwane, who a few decades later would be tried for war crimes.
The Comfort Women System
Although there are varying statistics on the number of Comfort Women, most established researchers credit Dr.Yoshiaki Yoshimi's research figures which estimate the number at between 50,000 and 200,000. Documents prove that the Japanese government organized for a “full scale mobilization” of Korean and Taiwanese Comfort Stations by 1938.
Many young girls and women were kidnapped from colonized territories. The vast majority of women were lured by false ads for jobs such as nurses, restaurant servers, office workers, later to realize that they were to work as sex slaves for the Japanese army. The citizens of the colonized countries are not without blame: poor families sold girls and women to pay off debt, while native brokers acted on behalf of the Japanese military to kidnap and lure women.
Most Comfort Women were between the ages 14-19. Once transported to foreign military bases all across the Pacific,the girls, regardless of menstrual cycles or illnesses, were forced to service multiple men each day from 10:00am to late evening. Soldiers who visited Comfort Stations were able to force Comfort Women to please them in any way they wanted. Comfort Women were badly beaten, tortured, branded, and raped for as long as up to 8 years. According to a graphic article written by Choe Sang-Hun for the New York Times, Yun Soon Man recounts her traumatic nights as a Comfort Woman. When she was 14 and taken to a Comfort Station in southern Japan, she was forced to service a Japanese soldier: “The hairy middle-aged man held down my arms and legs”; to defend herself, she bared her teeth and bit his ear but the soldier broke her arm in response.
Before the end of the war, the U.S. Army Forces in the India-Burma theater published an interrogation report based on the testimonies of 20 captured Comfort Women and 2 Japanese civilians. The report, named the Japanese Prisoner of War Interrogation Report No.49, is often used by denialists as official evidence that Comfort Women were prostitutes who voluntarily serviced the Japanese Army. However, not only does the report use highly derogatory terms that are both racist and sexist, the report concedes the highly ambiguous recruiting methods that was originally advertised to these women: “The nature of this ‘service’ was not specified but it was assumed to be work connected with visiting the wounded in hospitals, rolling bandages, and generally making the soldiers happy.”
After the war
Japan formally surrendered to the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union on September 2, 1945. After the war, only a small percentage of the original approximate 200,000 Comfort Women were able to return home. Upon returning, the Comfort Women were often ostracized by family and friends, especially since Korea was a Confucian nation and women were obligated to remain a virgin until marriage.
Many committed suicide, drifted away from their families, were unable to have children of their own, and worked multiple menial jobs to pay for medical treatment. Most suffered life-long physical and mental injuries.
In 1951, the Allied powers signed the Treaty of San Francisco with Japan, officially ending hostile relations and the occupation of the American-led forces in Japan. Through the Treaty of San Francisco, the U.S. had the opportunity to shape post-war relations and hold Japan accountable for its colonial practices. However, overshadowed by the U.S.’s Cold War concerns, no such proper steps were taken for redress.
In 1965, the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea established basic diplomatic relations between the two countries. South Korea received $300 million in economic aid and $200 million in loans. Although this was a general compensation for Korea’s time under Japanese imperialist rule and has no mention of Comfort Women, the Japanese government often uses this treaty to evade responsibility and prove that the issues were already settled.
Breaking the silence
Kim Hak Sun's goundbreaking testimony
On August 14, 1991, Kim Hak Sun became the first Comfort Woman to speak out about her experience. Soon, her testimony prompted many others to officially register with the Korean government as a Comfort Women. Out of the 240 women who originally came forward, only 16 remain. Official documents to prove the existence of the system is limited because the government proactively destroyed incriminating documents after the end of the war. In 1991, Professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi of Chuo University uncovered archival documents in the Defense Agency Library that proved the military's direct role in the Comfort Women system. Following the publication of his research in the book Comfort Women, in 1992, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Koichi publicly acknowledged the existence of the Comfort Women system. He specifically recognized that the "Government had been involved in the establishment of comfort facilities, the management and surveillance of comfort stations." A year later, in August 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued the "Kono Statement" which not only affirmed the Japanese government's role in the establishment of the system but also apologized for the role the government played in injuring "the honor and dignity of many women."
Establishment of the Asian Women’s Fund and successive Japanese governments
In 1994, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama formed a committee to examine the controversial Comfort Women issue. However, the committee ruled that the necessary reparations the Japanese government was responsible for had been resolved in the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea. In order to not jeopardize its own legal position while appeasing international outcry, the government created the Asian Women's Fund (AWF) in 1995 to address Comfort Women.
The main goal of the AWF was to recognize Comfort Women, apologize, and provide monetary redress for surviving victims. This organization raised funds through private donations from Japanese citizens. The AWF was met with vigorous opposition in many countries such as South Korea and Taiwan. Taiwan rejected the compensation from the government on the basis that it should be a state compensation rather than donations from private citizens. South Korean organizations were furious at the meager 2 million yen per person that was promised. In total, eleven women from South Korea accepted the money and letter of apology. However, they were rebuked by the public for settling low. The project encompassed South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Netherlands, and with its final project in Indonesia in 2007, the AWF was dissolved.
The same year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe disavowed the Kono Statement and began efforts to airbrush national history. Abe and several cabinet members and 170 MPs officially visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Class A war criminals, including Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo, who was executed for war crimes in 1948. Japanese textbook contents are subject to the Ministry of Education's examination and revision prior to use in schools. Abe was behind a new inspection that announced that censored information regarding the compulsory mass suicide ('shudan jiketsu') of Japanese soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa, claiming that this lacked historical evidence. This revision caused a wave of demonstrations from Japanese citizens, especially residents in Okinawa who believed that this distorted historical truth. In 2016, only 1 out of 8 publishers for Japanese history textbooks referenced Comfort Women.
In 2013, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, co-founder of the nationalist Japanese Restoration Party justified the Comfort Women system by reasoning that "in the circumstances in which bullets are flying like rain and wind… if you want them to have a rest in such a situation, a comfort women system is necessary. Anyone can understand that."
In 2014，the Global Alliance for Historical Truth (GAHT), a Japanese organization founded by Dr. Koichi Mera, filed a lawsuit against the city of Glendale, California, where a Comfort Women memorial was built. The GAHT argued that the memorial caused tensions and will sow hatred against the Japanese-American population residing in Glendale. On August 4, 2016, the federal appellate ruled in favor of the City of Glendale and considered the Comfort Women memorial no different to other memorials and resolutions commemorating historical and international issues. Alongside far-right Japanese groups, the Japanese government filed a brief in support of the GAHT’s petition to the Supreme Court. On February 27, 2017, the Supreme Court denied the petition and officially ended the suit.
In December 2015, Japan and South Korea reached an agreement to resolve the issue once and for all. Japan promised to apologize and pay $8.3 million to a foundation run by the South Korean government. However, not only was this a political maneuver which did not meet the international standards for resolving war crimes, the surviving Comfort Women were completely excluded from this negotiation. President Park Geun-Hye, the primary negotiator of this agreement, was impeached and convicted on corruption charges. Furthermore, in January 2016, right after the agreement, Prime Minister Abe stated that "this agreement does not mean that [we/GOJ] have admitted to, for instance, things that constitute war crimes. There is no such fact as sex slaves or 200,000 [victims]…"
In early May of 2020, 92 year-old Lee Yong Soo, a surviving Comfort Woman and a leading activist in the Comfort Women's fight for justice, held a press conference. Lee accused Yoon Mee-Hyang, an activist-turned-lawmaker of corruption, fraud, and embezzlement. Yoon was a prominent figure in the Comfort Women movement and had gained her popularity for her work in the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (commonly referred to as the Korean Council).
Yoon was charged on eight counts, including illegally receiving money in government subsidies, spending public donations meant for Comfort Women on personal purchases, and compelling a victim who was suffering from Alzheimer's to donate to the foundation. Lee also accused Yoon of forcing Comfort Women to attend protests and events to raise money without proper treatment and rest, when most were suffering from serious physical and mental ailments.
The donations that were meant for Comfort Women were not used in their treatment and or to improve their quality of life. The scandal undermines the movement for justice, giving ammunition for the Japanese government to label Comfort Women as money-hungry and an attempt to gain political capital.
Most importantly, the organization that was entrusted with the care of the surviving Comfort Women has not provided adequate care and exploited the already immense trauma of these women.