Comfort Women

Warning: Some of the material in this article may be distressing to some readers. Discretion is advised.

Photograph of comfort woman released in Burma

Imperial War Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons

"Comfort women" were women provided to Japanese troops by the Japanese Army for sexual purposes. While Japanese military leaders were not alone in providing prostitutes to their men (at least one American division in Australia set up its own brothel), there is considerable evidence that large numbers of comfort women were recruited either by deception or by force, then treated with great cruelty.

Young men away from their families, immersed in the hypermasculine environment of the armed services, and deprived of normal emotional outlets tend to seek sexual release, and often the only opportunities for this were provided by prostitutes. This could lead to significant loss of manpower from venereal disease, and many armies responded with institutionalized prostitution. Prostitutes under military control could be checked by medical officers for signs of venereal disease and their customers could be required to use condoms to reduce disease transmission. In the armies of Western powers, whose Judeo-Christian religious traditions strongly discouraged prostitution, any such arrangements were made informally or were otherwise kept discreet.

In Japanese culture, prostitution did not carry as much stigma as in the West, and there is no serious dispute that the Japanese Army established a system of "comfort stations" (military brothels) for its troops. Surviving documents in Japanese government archives, corroborated by photographic evidence and the recollections of both Japanese soldiers and the comfort women themselves, show that the Army transported comfort women to the forward areas, set up comfort stations, and regulated their activities. What remains controversial is how many comfort women were recruited, from what backgrounds, and to what extent they were voluntary participants in the system.

The Japanese Army destroyed most of its records on the announcement of the surrender, and only limited written documentation regarding the comfort women survived. The victorious Allies, overwhelmed with allegations of war crimes committed by the Japanese armed forces, took little notice of the comfort women. The tendency was to dismiss the comfort women as ordinary prostitutes and the system of comfort stations as a reflection of the peculiarities of Japanese culture rather than as a crime or even an aberration. The comfort women in turn were too deeply shamed by their experience to call attention to themselves, wishing only to return home and establish some semblance of a normal life.

There the matter remained until 1962, when Japanese journalist Senda Kako began investigating the comfort system. The publication of his Military Comfort Women (従軍慰安婦 Jūgun-ianfu) in 1973 made relatively little immediate impression. However, the end of military rule in South Korea in 1987 and the establishment of a democratic government gave activists greater freedom to publicize the plight of the comfort women, which became a cause célèbre among Asian feminists. This led to a class action lawsuit on behalf of the comfort women in December 1991, which was supported by documents found by historian Yoshida Yoshiaki in Japanese government archives. One of the plaintiffs in the suit, Kim Hak Soon, was the first comfort woman to speak of her experiences in public. In 1993 the Japanese government acknowledged that Korean women had been involuntary participants in the comfort system, and offered a formal apology.

The accusation that many of comfort women were recruited by deception or force rests largely on the testimony of former comfort women, who did not come forward publicly until the 1990s. Japanese nationalists point to contradictions in their testimony, given decades after the fact, as evidence that the women involved are lying about the circumstances of their recruitment, and argue that the number of comfort women was relatively small, around 40,000 in total, and that they were all ordinary prostitutes. However, the majority of historians, including some Japanese historians, have concluded that there were as many as 200,000 comfort women and that the overwhelming majority of them were involuntary participants in the system. According to these historians, about 80% were Koreans.

The fact that the comfort women did not come forward until decades after the fact does not necessarily impeach their testimony. Traditional Korean culture attaches a very high value to female virginity, and those comfort women who came from Korea had little to gain and much to lose from coming forward.

Origins and development of the comfort system.

 The first comfort stations were set up in 1932 in Shanghai, following the Shanghai Incident of the previous year. Following reports of 223 cases of rape by Japanese troops, Okamura Yasuji, deputy commander of Shanghai Expeditionary Army, asked the governor of Nagasaki Prefecture to send comfort women to Shanghai. This first group was mostly Korean women from the mining districts of northern Kyushu. Okamura claims the incidence of rape dropped significantly thereafter, and this became a principal rationale for the system. Other rationales were to control the spread of venereal disease and to reduce the espionage threat from contacts between Japanese troops and Chinese women.

 Navy pilots at Rabaul were strongly encouraged to use the comfort stations in the belief that sexually deprived pilots were more accident-prone. Informal reasons for maintaining the comfort system included a Japanese superstition that sexual relations with a woman, particularly a virgin, were a charm against defeat in battle.

The comfort system expanded rapidly after the beginning of the China Incident in 1937, when documents show that Army agents were looking for 3000 women to work in the Shanghai comfort stations and another 400 to work in south China. At the same time, Shanghai Special Agency, the Japanese Army's intelligence and subversion branch in Shanghai, was asked to use its contacts in the underworld to recruit comfort women. Criticism of the agents in Japanese police reports suggests that coercion was already beginning to be employed to meet the demand. A memorandum of 23 February 1938 from the Police Bureau of the Home Ministry insisted that the women recruited by the Army must all be at least 21 years of age and already involved in prostitution. This restriction was apparently ignored almost from the beginning in Korea, where girls as young as 16 were recruited with false descriptions of the work for which they were being recruited. One historical assessment of a recruitment drive in May 1942 states that (Asian Women's Fund 2002):

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. The inducement used by those agents was plenty of money, an opportunity to pay off the family debts, easy work, and the prospect of a new life in a new land -- Singapore. On the basis of those false representations many girls enlisted for overseas duty and were rewarded with an advance of a few hundred yen.

Young Korean girls with no previous involvement in prostitution were favored because they would be free of venereal disease and were unlikely to be recruited by the Chinese for espionage, due to the language barrier. Generally, they were recruited from poor families and many of the girls were illiterate.

The comfort system followed the Japanese Army into southeast Asia during the Centrifugal Offensive, and recruitment began to include women from the occupied territories.

Numbers and background of comfort women.

 The total number of women involved in the comfort system is impossible to reconstruct with any precision. Most estimates are based on the likely ratio of the number of comfort women to the number of troops, and on plausible guesses at the likely replacement rate. These estimates range from 1 comfort women per 100 military personnel with a replacement rate of 1.5, giving a figure of 45,000 comfort women, to 1 comfort woman per 30 military personnel and a replacement rate of 2.0 to give 200,000 comfort women. This estimate of from 45,000 to 200,000 comfort women has been accepted by most historians.

If there was one comfort woman per 100 military personnel, then each comfort woman would service about 100 soldiers per month, assuming each soldier visited a comfort woman once per month. Soldier's pay would hardly support more frequent visits; the pay of a senior private in the Japanese Army was 9¥ in 1943, while a visit with a comfort woman cost the private about 2¥. Based on this observation, and reports that some comfort women were compelled to service 30 men per day, Hicks estimates that there were not more than 139,000 comfort women.

Exact numbers by nationality are as impossible to reconstruct as the total numbers. The claim that Korean women made up 80% of the comfort women is suspect, but they probably did constitute a disproportionate percentage of the total. The only statistical data available comes from hot lines set up in 1992 to allow former comfort women to confidentially report their experiences. Such surveys are notoriously unreliable, though the geographical distribution of comfort stations based on the hot line statistics does approximately match the geographical distribution of military forces during the war. Of the Tokyo callers, 175 mentioned Koreans as among the comfort women they encountered, and, of these, 78 reported that they had only encountered Korean comfort women. Another 86 mentioned only Japanese comfort women. Of the callers to the Kyoto hot line, 68 mentioned Koreans, 40 mentioned Japanese, 29 mentioned Chinese, five mentioned Filipinos, and only one or two mentioned each of several other nationalities. The Osaka callers reported mostly Koreans, with some Chinese and southeast Asian women. Since hot lines were based in Japan, they may have been biased towards Japanese numbers. To the extent the data can be trusted, the pattern of unusually high numbers of Koreans among the comfort women seems fairly clear.

The Korean hot line failed to compile statistics on nationality, but it is reasonable to assume most would have been Korean. The Korean hot line did compile statistics on age, and found that 80% of the comfort women were between the ages of 14 and 18. However, given that the hot line was opened in 1992, it seem likely that the statistics are skewed towards younger women.

Aside from recruitment by Army agents in Japan and Korea, there was recruitment by the Kempeitai from Dutch women in internment camps, recruitment through village headmen in the Netherlands East Indies, and recruitment by individual Army units in the Philippines. Recruitment in the Philippines seems to have been particularly violent, often taking the form of a woman being kidnapped and raped, then taken to a military installation to be gang raped by members of the local unit. However, this pattern fell outside the normal comfort system. Although early recruitment was mostly carried out by private agents hired by the Army, direct recruitment by the Army became more common later in the war, and was often carried out under the cover of wartime labor mobilization. Since the Kempeitai had long enforced licensed prostitution in Korea, it seems likely they were involved in direct recruitment of comfort women here as well.

Mistreatment of comfort women.

Many surviving comfort women testify of appalling treatment. Some were forced to have sex with as many as 50 men per day. Those who were not cooperative or contracted venereal disease were beaten, and those who became pregnant were often murdered. Tan Yudong, a nineteen-year-old comfort woman, reported the fate of a comrade who failed to take contraceptives and became pregnant (Hastings 2007):

They didn't want this baby to be born so they hung this poor girl from a tree. They killed her by cutting her open with a knife in front of all the people of our village. I was quite close, only six or seven meters away. I could see the baby moving.

Chin Jinyu, a Chinese woman who was sixteen years old in 1944, was ordered by Japanese occupation troops to report to a "battlefield rear-service group." She did not understand what this meant and welcomed the opportunity to escape a hard agricultural life. A week later, she learned the true nature of her new assignment when she was gang-raped by Japanese troops. Her first attempt to run away was foiled when a Japanese interpreter threatened her family if she did not return to her duties. In June 1945, she escaped a second time to the mountains until word came that the war was over.

Not all comfort women reported such appalling treatment. Some were well fed and received medical care from Japanese army doctors, and they were sometimes given gifts by Japanese soldiers to supplement their pay. A number were even allowed to return home after 1943 once they had worked off their initial recruitment bonus. However, even those who were relatively well treated report that they were recruited under false pretenses, believing that they would be working as nurses (U.S. Army 1944).

The Japanese also recruited about 200 to 300 comfort women from Caucasian internees in the Netherlands East Indies. Some had been working as prostitutes before war broke out, but in November 1943 the Kempeitai began recruiting "barmaids" from the Muntilan internment camp. The suspicions of the internees were aroused and few volunteered, whereupon the Kempeitai forcibly removed a number of women from the camp in spite of a near-riot by the other internees. Some were later exchanged for volunteer prostitutes from the camp, but on 28 January 1944 another 13 women, mostly married, were taken from the camp. One recalled that (Fenton 2009):

We were sent to an asylum from a detention camp ... and underwent a health inspection by Japanese doctors on February 3.... After returning to our room, Mrs. Bracker and I closed all our windows and doors. Around 9 o'clock in the evening, we heard a knock. Military police forced us not to close the door. The military police brought a Japanese soldier and we must accept the soldier. The military police forced us to do so saying, "If you do not accept the soldier, your husband will be responsible for that." ... The brothel was open for officers on weekdays, and for sergeants on Sunday afternoons. Sunday mornings was for private soldiers and sometimes for common Japanese people. We always resisted but it was in vain.

In February 1944 the Kempeitai attempted to recruit more comfort women from seven internment camps. At three of the camps opposition was so strong that no girls were recruited, but at the other four some women volunteered in order to spare others or were taken against their will. Jan O'Herne was one of seven girls from the second category who were taken to a large colonial house 25 miles from Selarang (ibid.):

When we got to the house we were told we were there for the sexual pleasure of the Japanese military ... you know our whole world just collapsed from under our feet. And we started protesting straightaway. we said that we were forced into this, that they couldn't to this to us, they had no right to do this, it was against the Geneva Convention, and that we would never do this. but they just laughed at us, you know, just laughed. They said they could do with us what they liked.

At least 65 of the European comfort women in the Netherlands East Indies were forcibly recruited. Perhaps because European women were involved, the forcible recruitment of comfort women from internment camps was the only aspect of the comfort system that resulted in postwar prosecutions for war crimes. However, the trials were severely hindered by the independence movement on Java, which made it difficult to gather witnesses.


Some of the comfort women were able to return to their homes and resume a semblance of a normal life, but others were not so fortunate. Many did not survive the war, either because of illness, because they were stationed close to front lines and became collateral casualties, or because they were forced to commit suicide or were killed by Japanese soldiers rather than risk capture by the Allies. (A similar pattern of soldiers coercing civilians to commit suicide was seen with ordinary Japanese civilians on Saipan.) Some were too shamed to return to their home countries, and blended into the local population where they were stationed when the war ended.

Many likely did not escape a life of prostitution. Those who were already prostitutes when recruited into the comfort system might be expected to have remained prostitutes postwar, but involuntary participants in the comfort system were also vulnerable to continued exploitation. For example, the Japanese government recruited 55,000 Japanese women for the "Recreation and Amusement Association" following the surrender. These women were expected to form a "sexual dike" to protect the rest of Japanese womanhood from the appetites of the occupation troops. There is evidence many of these women were recruited by coercion. It is unclear how much the U.S. occupation authorities knew about the program, but in March 1946 the RAA brothels were declared off-limits to U.S. personnel.

In recent years, some Japanese political leaders have backed away from the 1993 apology and have revived the claim that the comfort women were ordinary prostitutes. The issue of the comfort women continues to strain relations between Japan and other Asian nations, particularly South Korea.


Asian Woman's Fund (2002; accessed 2013-6-14)

Dunnigan and Nofi (1998)

Browne (1967)

Felton (2009)

Hastings (2007)

Hicks (1994)

Lamont-Brown (1998)

U.S. Army (1944; accessed 2010-12-27)

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