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Japanese Military Comfort Women

The comfort women issue has become a recurring historical debate that has soured Japan’s relations with South Korea and China. There are concerns that Japan still harbors prewar values. It's estimated the Japanese compelled between 30,000 or 200,000 women women to provide sexual services to its soldiers during World War II. One Chinese researcher’s findings indicate the number is about 400,000 women. Most of these women came from Korea, though many were from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. The “comfort stations” were located in 11 countires, including Japan, China, and Indonesia.

The women were used as the soldiers' sexual slaves, held in prison-like brothels, and sometimes gang-raped daily by ten or more soldiers. Many were brutalized and imprisoned. Some were killed or died of disease and hunger. Survivors speak of damaged lives. Many were so emotionally scarred they never married and others were so physically battered they could never have children.

Japan’s conservatives deny the charges -- saying there were only 20,000 women at the most and that the overwhelming majority were willing participants. Such sentiments are common among Japanese ultra-conservatives. The mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, an outspoken populist who has often stirred controversy, sparked a storm of criticism at home and abroad in May 2013 when he said that the military brothels had been needed, and Japan had been unfairly singled out for wartime practices common among other militaries.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caused controversy during his first term in 2006-2007 by saying there was no proof that Japan's military had kidnapped women - mostly Asian and many Korean - to work in the brothels. Abe opened himself up to a firestorm of international condemnation by downplaying the evidence of official government coercion. Since then, he sought to distance himself from those remarks. He also reaffirmed that the government has no objection to the 1948 decision of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal holding the Imperial Army responsible for forcing women to work as prostitutes.

References to the women did not appear in Japanese school textbooks until 1994. Japan's position on the issue is “contradictory”, in that it says the comfort women were generally recruited and transported through coercion, but they were not “forcibly deported”. But the 1993 Kono declaration admitted that it was forcible. Japan has said compensation for women forced to work in the brothels was settled by a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties with South Korea. Japan and South Korea agreed in 1965 to ends claims of compensation from the colonial era when Japan occupied Korea, and Japan provided South Korea with $800 million in grants and soft loans. Japan also set up the Asian Women's Fund to make payments to the women from private contributions in 1995, but South Korea has said that the fund was not official and so not good enough. The AWF disbanded in March 2007.

After the war, the comfort women’s experience was virtually ignored and survivors were silenced. But from 1990, the Korean and Japanese researchers and feminist scholars started to bring this issue to the world’s attention. Then people started to know that this is one of the least recognized tragedies and war crime. Many countries are seeking sincere apology and want to see the Japanese government take responsibility to help heal the victims’ wounds in the remaining days of their lives. All reparation claims brought by victims before Japanese courts have been dismissed, and all complaints seeking criminal investigations and prosecutions have been rejected on grounds of the statute of limitations.

South Korea's Constitutional Court ruled in August 2011 that the government was obliged to pursue a settlement with Japan. In June 2014 South Korea accused Japan of trying to undermine a landmark 1993 apology to the women when a Japanese panel reviewing the apology found that South Korea worked with Japan on its wording. China accused Japan of refusing to face up to its history, and even trying to “whitewash” it.

The term “Japanese military comfort women” refer to women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military in “comfort stations” established under the pretext of "conducting the war efficiently" during the period between the time Japan staged the Manchuria Incident on September 18, 1931, and 1945 when Japan was defeated in the Pacific War. Comfort women are also differently named in various documentation and testimonies: such as jakbu (bar hostesses), teuksubunyeo (special women), chwieopbu (prostitutes), yegi (female entertainers), changgi (prostitutes) and yeogeup (waitresses). Comfort stations were also referred to by different names, such as yukgun orakso (army entertainment station), gurakbu (club), gunin hoegwan (servicemen`s hall) and Joseon yoriok (modern Korean restaurant).

Currently, the international community such as the United Nations mainly uses such terms as “military sex slavery” and “military sexual slavery.” The Radhika Coomaraswamy report submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1996 clearly defined the term as “military sexual slavery in wartime.” The term “Japanese military comfort women” is used in an Act passed by the Korean government to support comfort women.

After staging the Manchurian Incident, the Japanese military established “comfort stations” under the pretexts of 1) preventing rape by Japanese soldiers against local women; 2) preventing venereal diseases; and 3) providing sexual comfort to soldiers. According to written records, an early form of a “comfort station” was established in Shanghai, China, in January 1932. In the wake of the Second Sino-Japanese War, in 1937, the numbers of Japanese military “comfort stations” increased rapidly and the regions where comfort women were mobilized were expanded with the increase in territories occupied by the Japanese military.

After the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese military controlled the process involving the installation and management of comfort stations, as well as recruitment and transportation of comfort women. The Japanese government ministries such as the Home Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Office of Governor-General of Korea and the Office of Governor-General of Taiwan also actively cooperated with the Japanese military in the process.

The exact totals of the numbers of women mobilized as comfort women are not available, as systematic data indicating the numbers of mobilized comfort women have not been discovered. Some scholars estimated the total number of comfort women victims based on various testimonies or historical materials indicating the Japanese military`s plan on the ratio of the number of soldiers to the number comfort women. Various opinions have been presented on the total numbers of comfort women, which varies extensively among scholars, ranging from a minimum of 30,000 to a maximum of 400,000.

In the early stages of comfort stations, the Japanese military recruited women mainly from its colonies such as Korea and Taiwan. As the war became more protracted and war fronts expanded, women from Japanese-occupied territories such as China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and even Dutch women residing in Indonesia, were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese servicemen. Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a historian who has long researched the issue of comfort women released a research finding that the number of comfort women is estimated at 80,000 to 200,000 and Korean women comprised more than half of the total comfort women population.

The Japanese military "mobilized" Korean women as comfort women by luring them with promises of work, as well as via intimidation or violence, human trafficking and kidnapping. The women were defrauded with promises of “work in factories” or offers of “making a lot of money” into joining the military brothels. Newspaper advertising of comfort women recruitment was also issued, but it did not clearly specify job description. In addition, given the literacy rates of women at that time, it is considered that there were few cases where the recruitment advertising was delivered to women in person.

The Japanese military authorities selected private operators to manage the comfort stations, while the Japanese military and police also provided cooperation in the "mobilization" process. These operators approached women by using middlemen or directly. They lured the women with promises of work and offers of plenty of money or mobilized women by using intimidation or violence, or even by kidnapping. The insistence by the Japanese imperial forces that “comfort women” were necessary for conducting the total mobilization system and victory in the war permitted such physical violence.




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