The notion of comfort woman refers to thousands of females who have suffered from sexual abuse in comfort stations during World War II. Being forced into servitude by the Imperial Japanese Army, a significant number of girls and young women have been recruited as prostitutes throughout Asia. In fact, around 200,000 women of different origin and nationality, specifically the Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, and Taiwanese, became victims of the most terrible and cruel case of human trafficking. What is more important, the two causes, which supported the establishment of comfort women and the creation of comfort stations, can be singled out — Japanese imperialism and Korean patriarchy. In this respect, while many Korean women have been forced into military sexual slaves, it is crucial to investigate the issue of comfort women to find out the reasons for their miseries as well as prevent the tragedy from repetition. Therefore, the trafficking of comfort woman, as well as their sexual exploitation, is a severe violation of human rights that have been forced by Japanese imperialism and Korean patriarchy.
A legalized practice of the brothel business and prostitution existed in Japan starting from the nineteenth century (Boling, 1995, p. 24). In 1872, the government of the country developed a lucrative system based on the control of the number of brothels as well as girls within the city by different states (Tanaka, 1996, p. 31). Those women chose to sell their bodies voluntary and serve as prostitutes. On the contrary, the notion of comfort women differs from the Japanese prostitutes in the brothers. Comfort women were violently forced into prostitution by the Japanese military forces. Before and with the start of the World War II, a large number of young women and girls were barbarically raped by the Japanese soldiers during their invasions of Chinese, Korean, and other territories (Arakawa, 2001, p. 176). Being accustomed to the services of brothels, the Japanese army felt the necessity of similar places where the soldiers could satisfy their needs, relieve combat stress, and have a rest. As a result, the government created the comfort system to provide their military forces with the services of prostitutes as well as protect the local women from the threat of being raped by the soldiers (Arakawa, 2001, p. 177). Between 1931 and 1945, the Japanese government created comfort stations in almost all territories where its military forces combated or occupied (Soh, 2008, p. 19). Thus, women and girls of China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Pacific Islands were subjected to sexual abuse and physical harassment in the comfort stations created in occupied territories (Arakawa, 2001, p. 177). According to Tanaka (1996), the Japanese military plan of 1941 indicated that “20,000 comfort women were required for every 700,000 Japanese soldiers, or 1 woman for every 35 soldiers” (p. 99). Thus, comfort women were considered military sexual slaves who had to serve a significant number of soldiers a day.
Starting in 1932, comfort stations began to exist in occupied territories and colonies of Japan (Yoon, 2010, p. 9). The Japanese government used different measures to recruit women for sexual slavery. The most popular and efficient way to gain more women was deception. While the populace of South Korea was very poor, many young women and girls attempted to escape from the poverty they lived in to help their families. Thus, the women were promised well-paid jobs such as nurses, maids, or waitresses. Although the conception of the comfort stations was not mentioned, recruiters misrepresented the nature of services the women were expected to perform (Tanaka, 1996, p. 39). At the same time, some girls and women were purchased from their families. This usually happened when the family was economically destitute or had many debts. The women who were bought by the recruiters became their property (Tanaka, 1996, p. 41). Moreover, when these women fulfilled the terms of their contracts, they still could not leave the station. The abduction of girls and women from the colonies and the occupied territories can be regarded as one more way for recruitment. While some women were kidnapped from Korea, China, or the Philippines, many of them were taken from distant countries (Boling, 1995, p. 28). Thus, they did not know the local language and, in turn, could hardly reveal any military secrets that made them perfect slaves. Thereby, the Japanese army and government-employed any form of force or deception to increase the number of women in comfort stations.
Moreover, the comfort stations themselves were governed by the Japanese authorities and military with strict control (Soh, 2008, p. 34). The military set each comfort station’s rules as well as retained overall supervision. With the rapid growth of stations in number, the internal operations of these places were provided by the local operators. The government was responsible for medical services for women (Soh, 2008, p. 35). In some cases, the number of comfort stations was bigger than the total amount of local grocery stores. By the end of World War II, the number of comfort stations reached 1000 (Boling, 1995, p. 43). In this respect, the rapid growth of stations in a number required more and more women to fill them. As a result, the women and girls from small Korean and Japanese villages were lured into sexual slavery by different means. At the same time, the conditions in which women lived were extremely poor. In fact, comfort stations, which were situated on the front line, were wooden cabins with tiny rooms. The cubicles were so narrow that only a bed could be placed there (Kimura, 2003, p. 11). Each room was separated from the lobby by a thin curtain. In front of the hall, there was a picture informing soldiers about the woman’s ethnicity and price (Kimura, 2003, p. 12). European and Japanese girls and women were considered of higher quality then Chineses or Koreans ones, and thus they had higher prices. Although physicians regularly examine women in comfort stations, the health care they received was only for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (Boling, 1995, p. 46). Thus, nobody paid attention to women’s illnesses if they had not related to venereal diseases. Furthermore, women received a minimum amount of food necessary for the maintenance of life. Additionally, the clothing was provided only two times a year. In this respect, young women and girls had to live in horrible conditions.
It should be noted that the Japanese government justified the development of the comfort system by claiming that in such a way they lessened the spread of venereal diseases and rape. However, the treatment of women in comfort stations and their experiences cannot approve such actions of Japan. Thus, many Korean, Chinese, and Japanese women and girls found themselves being physically, sexually and mentally abused. These military sexual slaves were forced to service around fifty soldiers daily without the possibility to escape (Yoon, 2010, p. 21). Indeed, the girls were constantly watched by the armed guards. Moreover, to increase the number of women in the stations, the Japanese army went to the occupied towns and villages where the soldiers used brute force to deprive women of their families. In many cases, the soldiers killed family members who protested their actions (Boling, 1995, p. 49). As a result, many girls and women became insane or committed suicide shortly after arriving in the stations. Furthermore, women were constantly raped, tortured, sold, or killed. Those who resisted were brutally punished in front of their fellow women. According to Arakawa (2001), the former comfort women who succeeded to survive have “visible scars and permanent marks from the physical torture and beatings they suffered as a result of attempting to resist rape or escape from the comfort stations” (p. 183). Additionally, the women were never paid for the services they provided. Thereby, the military sexual slaves were constantly in peril of their lives.
Today, the practice of comfort women in South Korea has been left in the past. According to the researches, the end of World War II set the end of women’s serving as a “comfort woman” (Argibay, 2003, p. 379). Unfortunately, in most cases, these women were killed by the soldiers at the end of the war because of security measures. In comfort stations, women were usually sterilized or, in the case of pregnancy, forced to give a baby to a couple in a village (Tanaka, 1996, p. 46). As a result, many former comfort women had future problems during pregnancy or could not have a baby at all. Those who have survived now face troubles finding a job, creating their own families, as well as fighting with nervous and psychological disorders, and shame. For many years, the Japanese government denied its involvement in this case and damage it caused to a great number of women. The reason for such behavior can be found in the response of the Allied Forces towards Japanese war crimes. Although many tribunals were established to penalize the Axis powers right after the war, the issue of the comfort women was ignored (Tanaka, 1996, p. 59). In this respect, only a few Japanese offenders were found as guilty for their crimes. While the United States attempted to transform Japan into the capitalist center of Asia, as well as protect it from the spread of communism, the penalty of the country was indulgent. Ultimately, abusers of the Asian women remained unpunished for their transgressions.
Nowadays, thousands of former comfort women and activists go on the streets of Korea and protest against the war crimes committed against them. The protesters demand an apology and compensation from the government of Japan. The specific movement for the recognition of the issue of comfort women started on December 6, 1991 (Argibay, 2003, p. 379). In Tokyo, three former comfort women from South Korea filed a lawsuit against the government of Japan. They demanded an apology and compensation for the crimes of the Japanese army and authorities committed against them. Since then, the former Korean, Chinese, and Japanese comfort women started to defend their rights in the Japanese courts (Soh, 2008, p. 77). Although the court continuously dismissed the lawsuits of the former comfort women, the particular issue became known to the whole world. The Japanese court displayed strict resistance towards the reparation claims. Nevertheless, the decision of the Yamaguchi District Court made on April 27, 1998, became very meaningful to the former comfort women (Yoon, 2010, p. 32). Thus, the court held that the government of Japan had to pay compensation amounting to 300,000 yen to each of three plaintiffs. Although the particular judgment was later canceled, it was of great importance to the former comfort women as well as the entire world. Thereby, the rare acceptance of the testimonies of the former military sexual slaves by the Japanese court as reliable evidence was a great achievement. In fact, it confirmed the existence of the comfort stations created by both the Japanese military forces and government.
Although a small number of former comfort women succeeded to survive, their tragedy was covered with a mystery and silence. Living in the oriental countries, where the Confucianism managed communities, former comfort women had to keep silence. According to norms and principles of the Confucianism, the high mortality was directly linked to chastity, and thus the women could neither reveal the violation of their rights nor indicate their abusers (Boling, 1995, p. 88). Therefore, women were ashamed of disclosure of sexual slavery they underwent through. Moreover, the patriarchy system of South Korea pressed many survivors to conceal their relation to the sex industry. Nevertheless, once their secret became known to the general public, many women committed suicide being unable to resist exclusion from their families and communities. Therefore, women faced double suffering: first when they were forced into sexual slavery and second when their parents abandoned them after disclosure of their experiences. At the same time, the Japanese government succeeded to destroy much evidence of the comfort system (Tanaka, 1996, p. 57). The armed forces perfectly knew that the revelation of the military sexual slavery would greatly harm the reputation of the Emperor’s sacred army (Boling, 1995, p. 90). To prevent publicity, the Japanese government skillfully hid the facts and evidence of its deeds. If the citizens were to know about the spending of the national budget on the comfort stations, the Japanese authorities could appear in a disadvantageous position. Thus, the issue of comfort women was reliably concealed from the general public.
However, sooner or later, all the secrets become evident. In 1978, the book of Senda Kako was presented to the general public (Tanaka, 1996, p. 154). In his literary piece, the writer disclosed the subject of the comfort women making it evident to the audience. During many years, Kako investigated the issue of the military sexual slaves and comfort stations the Japanese government carefully hid. Since then, more and more records and proofs became known. Starting from the 1990s, the issue of comfort women began to attract foreign activists’ attention as well as the international community (Tanaka, 1996, p. 157). Many former comfort women began to share their stories and horrible experience with the world. In 1991, Haksun Kim was one of the first former military sexual slaves who told her heartbreaking story in public (Tanaka, 1996, p. 158). Since then, more and more former comfort women repeated her courageous deed. In 1992, Yoshimi Yoshiaki found vital evidence and documents showing the direct relation of the Japanese government to the comfort system (Soh, 2008, p. 212). This revelation set the beginning of the examinations by the international community including the United Nations, International Labor Organization, and many other professionals and non-governmental organizations. Nevertheless, the Japanese government continued to refuse the involvement of the comfort system. It should be noted that in South Korea, a significant number of civic organizations for the comfort women firmly protested against the particular denial of the Japanese authorities (Arakawa, 2001, p. 189). Thereby, despite the disclosure of the severe war crime committed by the Japanese government and military forces, the country does not admit its guilt.
Since the 1990s, many literary pieces, interviews, and documentaries about the former comfort women were recorded. It is obvious that the publication of the work of Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki was an important event. In his book, the writer demonstrated the irrefutable proof of the Japanese army’s direct participation in the development and establishing of the comfort stations (Soh, 2008, p. 215). Then, the scholar published documents in the main Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun. Those documents were the testimony of the relation of the Japanese government to the creation of military sexual slavery. That day, Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan publicly expressed an apology on behalf of the government for the participation in the comfort system (Tanaka, 1996, p. 142). At the same time, the contemporary works and publications also provide the audience with the necessary information on the issue of comfort women. For instance, the book of Sarah Soh perfectly demonstrates the relation between the emergence of the comfort women system, colonialism, and Korean patriarchy. The author blames both Japanese colonialism and Korean patriarchy for the exploitation of young women as sex slaves (Soh, 2008, p. 12). Also, many articles in newspapers and journals all over the world were published since the beginning of the movement for human rights of the former comfort women. Thus, based on the found evidence and fact, the articles of contemporary researchers and scholars shed more light on this issue.
At the same time, although many new documents and information have been published in recent years, there still exist some gaps that should be filled. In this respect, the interviews of the former comfort women can be regarded as the best way to complete the research with the necessary materials. The documentary Comfort Women: One Last Cry perfectly demonstrates the experiences, treatment, and life after the comfort station of those who survived (Park & Moon, 2013). The interviewees share their heartbreaking stories with the general public to make more people know about their sufferings. The purpose of the documentary is to highlight the particular issue as well as underline the violation of human rights that have occurred many years ago and continue to exist in the contemporary world. The stories of former comfort women show the circumstances under which they have been forced into slavery, as well as the conditions they lived in, to the society. Moreover, the interviewees shed light on relationship and attitudes among women and girls in the comfort stations. The women also tell about their fears and attempts to escape from the military brothels. Additionally, watching the particular documentary, the audience can find more information about the life of comfort women after the war as well as their attitudes towards the denial of the Japanese government its involvement in the particular practice.
To be more precise, the interviewees share their stories to increase the awareness of both the new Korean administration and the contemporary world that the issue should be resolved as soon as possible. While time is running out, more and more victims are at risk of not seeing justice in their lifetime. Listening to women’s stories, one can hardly remain indifferent. According to the testimonies of the former comfort woman, they were only 13 or 16 years old when the Japanese army came and took them from their dwellings (Park & Moon, 2013). All of them tell about continuous acts of rape by the soldiers in the comfort stations. On their way, the Japanese soldiers killed or tortured to the death of all men in the village or town they could find (Park & Moon, 2013). Although many women share their stories with the public, it is still hard for them to recall those days that some of the former comfort women can hardly speak about their experience. Being young girls and teenagers, the former military sexual slaves lost their youth and innocence when the Japanese army came for them. Moreover, the particular practice did destroy not only the human rights of these women but also their social rights for education and open interaction and communication with other people. Retelling their stories, the women feel shame, pain, and anger that they will never forget. In addition, many Korean women did not return to their motherland because of shame and disgrace.
Therefore, the issue of comfort women in South Korea, as well as other countries, is a terrible episode of world history. Thousands of young women and girls were deprived of their homes and transformed into sex slaves by the Japanese army. Both Korea authorities and Japanese government share responsibility for the war crimes committed against these women. Japanese imperialism, as well as Korean patriarchy, have forced many women to keep silence for many years. Although the information about the illegal exploitation of comfort women has been hidden, the testimonies of real witnesses are conclusive proof of the Japanese army’s wrongdoings. In this respect, the evidence about military sexual slavery became known to the entire world underlining the guilt of women’s offenders. Thus, the issue of comfort women is not a tragedy of a specific nation. It is a tragedy of the entire world.