, Research Paper
The Unspoken History of The Comfort Women
The story of comfort women has been a story of silence for the last 50 years. Comfort Women was a term used by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, to refer to the women and girls who were coerced into sexual slavery. Between 1932 and 1945, approximately 200,000 women were forced into prostitution. The women came from China, Philippines, Taiwan, Burma, Indonesia, Japan and Korea. They were recruited through deceit or by force. Some were abducted at gunpoint, sold by family members, or volunteered because of false promises of high paying jobs at factories or restaurants. These women were taken to comfort stations , some of which were homes, stables, dug out trenches, or even cages. Imprisoned for as long as eight years, these women were forced to have sexual intercourse with dozens of men a day. They were forced to give up their identities, loose their youth, and submit to the rape and abuse of the Japanese military. By the end of the war many women died of diseases, suicide or were ruthlessly murdered. They returned home traumatized and ashamed and in fear of dishonoring their families. Influenced by the patriarchal power of the times, these women kept this buried secret for half a century. It wasn t until the early nineties that these women finally spoke about their traumatic experiences and demanded an apology and compensation from Japan. The Japanese government however, turned a deaf ear. They said comfort women were willing prostitutes and denied much of its involvement in the issue. Weather these women were voluntary or not, scars remain from the crimes committed against them. In this essay I hope to inform you about an issue that has hardly been publicized. History had not told us of the horrors of the comfort women, how comfort stations were started, how these women were rounded up, their experiences, the growth of the stations, the end of the war and how fifty years later these old women came forward with a haunting truth, the government thought had been laid to rest five decades ago.
History of Prostitution
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In pre-war Japan, prostitution was a state organized business. At the beginning of the Tokugawa period, attempts were made to gather all prostitutes into one area in order to control them and maintain public order. At this period in history suspicion on the trafficking of women already existed. Many women were also forced to repay debts by servicing in this line of work. Since the mid-eighteenth century, geishas were well known in the city Edo (Tokyo). Geishas however, were different from common prostitutes in that, they were rigorously trained as musicians and entertainers. By the late nineteenth century women could obtain licenses after a medical examination and work at brothels. Women usually worked at brothels to pay off loans they (pimps) had made to their families. Prostitutes however, were never free to come and go as they pleased, they were restricted from leaving. In the early twentieth century, prostitution had spread to several parts of Asia, including parts that would later be under Japanese rule. In 1904, Japanese influence attempted to organize prostitution by creating the Floating World or the red light district area, in Seoul and failed. But by 1910, Japan had managed licensed prostitution to be established. Under this system run by Japanese military-political police, prostitutes had to be continuously checked for sexually transmitted diseases and all infections had to be reported. Korea however, did not have the available health services, and over half of their prostitutes had contracted sexually transmitted diseases by the 1920 s. Since 1995, Japan is the largest market for Asian women, with over 150,000 working in its sex industry.
Why Comfort Stations were developed
During times of war, the exploitation of women for sexual services has been a common tradition as far back as the Roman Empire.
Superstitions are universal in armed forces. The Japanese had some, which were linked to sex. They included the belief that sex before going into battle worked as a charm against injury. Amulets could be made with the pubic hair of comfort women, or from something belonging to them. Sexual deprivation was believed to make one accident-prone. Sex also acted to relieve combat stress and, particularly in the Japanese case, the savage discipline endured by the troops.
The availability of a comfort woman was a relief to soldiers whose days were filled with battling and risking their lives. Going to a comfort station was like escaping to an oasis and a form of distressing and fulfillment. Traditionally, camp followers whom were prostitutes, voluntarily followed military men to the war zones, and settled there during the times of war. The Japanese army believed that by establishing comfort stations, earlier known as recreation centers , they would be able to control the contracting of sexually transmitted diseases (caught at civilian brothels), put a stop to the soldiers raping the women of the occupied territories and prevent espionage. They thought that restraining these men from sexual activity for long period of time would lead to such cases of rape and therefore damage the honor of the Imperial Army . But neither rape nor diseases was stopped by the development of comfort stations, rather, it contributed to the growth of these two scenarios. Japanese military run comfort stations was also a way to protect themselves from spies. The military feared military secrets would leak out to local prostitutes if the men continued to use civilian brothels. Therefore they wanted their own brothels under strict military supervision. For anti-espionage purposes, the army wanted comfort women to be Japanese, Korean or Taiwanese subjects. But importing them was hard and there were not enough, so they turned to local women.
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Why and how the women were rounded up
In the early years of the war, as comfort stations were being established, prostitutes were provided for the military. These professional prostitutes however, carried venereal diseases, which spread among the troops. As the war continued to grow, the number of women at the stations was not enough given the size of the troops. Due to the shortage of women, those who were infected were not turned away. As the number of volunteers proved inadequate, those who supplied women for the stations turned to abduction and coercion. The Japanese however did not make any major attempt to recruit their own Japanese women because they were afraid the military men s morale would suffer if they knew their family members were being forced into prostitution, so they mainly turned to young non-professional Korean women and local women. The Japanese women that were recruited to China had to satisfy criteria imposed by the police. Regulations were: Currently working as prostitutes, twenty-one years of age, free of diseases and with proper identification papers. Nonetheless, these restrictions were never enforced. Eighty percent of the comfort women were aged between fourteen and eighteen. Not all women requested to go were prostitutes and not all women were requested, many were lured with lies or kidnapped. Very few women became comfort women at their free will. Cases of women being deceived and led off are much more common among those rounded up in Korea. Similar ways of rounding up the women occurred in Taiwan, Philippines and several other Asian countries. Many women were also round up in local military occupied territory.
There are personal accounts of women being deceived by other women. I find this lack of solidarity between women abominable. At fifteen years-old Song Shin-do was approached by a well-dressed Korean woman who asked her if she would like to work for her country. Song did not anticipate that she would be taken to Pyongyang and sold to a Korean man, who then took her to the station . Seventeen year-old Li Yong-suk was asked by a couple if she would like to go to Japan and work. After accepting the offer she was turned over to a Japanese man and shipped like military supplies to far-off places. Another teenage girl, Mun Ok Ju, was lured by the promise of a good salary working at a good restaurant. Together with a group of another seventeen girls she was taken to a Korean port and shipped off with about two hundred other teenage girls.
Not all women were lured by false promises. Many were violently led off or sold. Madam X was a fifteen year-old Chinese girl living in British Malaya, when Japanese soldiers came to her village. She was gang raped in front of her family and loaded on a truck with other village girls. She was a virgin at the time, like most other young girls taken away. Some girls were even as young as eleven, and had not even started menstruating.
The Kitamuras was a couple that provided girls for the comfort stations. In 1942, they bought twenty-two Korean women from their parents. They paid the parents some where between 200-1000 yen for each girl. The couple never specified exactly what it was they were selling their daughters into; nobody would have imagined it to be sexual slavery. In those days daughters were the first ones to go, if the family was faced with economic difficulty. Cultural beliefs were very oppressive of women. A woman was considered a disgrace unless she was married. In Nora Okja Keller s novel, Comfort Woman, a younger twelve year-old sister is sold to a Japanese soldier for dowry, so that the oldest sister would be able to marry.
The growth of Comfort Stations
The first comfort stations under direct control of the Japanese Army were established in Shanghai in 1932. The Navy constructed the first comfort stations in Shanghai. They covered up there existence by calling them restaurants.
In Shanghai, the Chinese government had been attempting to enforce a ban on licensed prostitution. For appearances sake, the Japanese Foreign Ministry had to cooperate with this effort, so in 1929 the ministry abolished the licensed brothel system. However, the Japanese government created the restaurant serving woman system as a loophole for itself, in effect retaining a form of licensed prostitution.
By 1936, ten of these establishments existed, employing over a hundred women. When the war broke out, women were recruited immediately. In March 1933, more comfort stations were established modeled after those built by the Navy. The very first military comfort station was called Disease Prevention and Hygiene Facility , because a major aim for establishing the facility was to keep the men away from infected civilian brothels. From 1938, more than one million Japanese troops occupied China s mainland. That was the largest number of military men Japan has ever had on active duty. Several other comfort stations were built throughout China, as the number of military troops increased.
During the Nanking massacre, hideous rapes of the local women were committed, this lead to the building of more than sixty comfort centers in Nanking. In hopes of controlling the rape of local women, comfort stations spread to the cities of Yangzhou, Changchow and Zhenjiang. Between 1938 and 1939, an estimated 82 stations were built in Central China. As Japanese troops moved to northern China, so did the growth of comfort centers. But the raping of local women did not end and more stations were built. When the fighting spread to southern China in 1938, over a thousand women were providing services to the troops in southern China. In July 1941, as eight hundred thousand troops waited for war, The Kwantung Army requested an assembly of twenty thousand comfort women be sent to Northeastern China. Only ten thousand were sent.
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Evidence of such stations has already been found in Korea, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, New Guinea and Okinawa. Every place the Japanese Army set foot on, comfort stations were built. There were a total of 400 different locations for these facilities. As the system expanded, however, the military, for the most part, turned the management of the stations over to private operators. These civilian operators were given paramilitary status and rank, while the Armed Forces retained overall supervision and provided support in transport and health services as required.
The lives of the Comfort Women
One of the first comfort stations built in Shanghai consisted of ten barrack block-like huts and a supervisors hut, all enclosed by a fence. Inside each hut were ten rooms, with numbers on the door. Several other comfort stations were also established in hotels, restaurants, shops, mansions, schools, temples and any building that had several rooms and a convenient location for soldiers. Rooms were usually furnished with a bed, blanket, and disinfectant liquid. Some comfort stations did not have walls to separate the rooms, but hanging mats. Other stations near the front lines, had no floors, and were simply set up on dirt floors. Some women spent years imprisoned in small tunnels. Even closer to the front lines, the better comfort stations were set up in ruined civilian homes. There were also comfort stations where a simple wooden fence was put up and inside a rush mat was laid out. It was just like a communal latrine. The conditions of the stations varied, depending on the locations.
When the women first arrived at the stations they underwent a registration process and signed an agreement form with little knowledge of what they were signing. This agreement was then filed as a consent form. Some women had to sign contracts to repay loans given to their parents. This placed them in the situation of being indentured servants . The comfort women received a meager pay. All they made was spent on clothing, food, liquor or even drugs and were left with nothing in the end. Some women received no pay at all. The money for the comfort women was paid upfront. Soldiers would buy a ticket for a price in accordance to their military rank.
Once the women arrived at the stations there was no turning back. They were not allowed to leave, similar to slaves or the restrictions on prostitutes. Some however, were given a monthly pass with a group of five to seven women, for a very strict and limited amount of time. The areas they were allowed to go to were about the distance of a block, making it impossible for them to flee. They were always under strict surveillance.
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Regulations were also established for the management of the facilities and hygiene services. Rooms had to be weekly disinfected and the women routinely checked. The treatment of women for venereal diseases was a basic policy as well as providing them with the proper nutrition. Yet, there are cases of women who went routinely unfed or untreated. As the war escalated, malnutrition spread as well as limited supplies of medicine.
If infected, the women were not admitted to go to hospital as occurred in some areas, but were allowed to rest in their rooms during the treatment. A sign No entry this week , would be placed on the door. There are however references to women being allowed to die untreated, or abandoned or even killed . Where treatment was not given, folk remedies were sometimes tried, such as concoctions of garlic, dandelion or obscure local herbs. Conditions of formal treatment, where varied, varied between military and civilian hospitals . When the women had to pay for treatment, this would consume much of their earnings.
Some diseases were incurable. There have been stories of women with infections growing do badly they were yellow with pus, from their vaginas up to their stomachs. In an interview a former comfort women stated that in her camp, those women who got sick more than three times were taken away and never seen again. Regulation insisted on the men using condoms, many however refused because stating they may die in combat tomorrow and those that were willing to use them, did not always find them available. Some women reported washing and recycling used condoms. Whether the comfort women bought to China were a source of infection or not is highly debatable. Women with no history of prostitution should be seen as victims who were infected by the troops rather than a source of infection. Under regulation women and men were suppose to both sterilize their private areas after intercourse, but women stated not to have had enough time during rush hours. By 1942, the number of Southern Army personnel suffering from sexually transmitted diseases reached 2,774.
Women were expected to provide service, even while they were menstruating. Others provided services before they even had their first menstruation. The average number of men comfort women were forced to have sex with was between thirty and forty a day. Some days consisted of even between forty to sixty men. Very few women had a day off. Most had no days off and worked twenty-four hours if they had to spend the night with an officer. The comfort stations were mainly for the military but noncommissioned officers were allowed to enter, and guest as well.