Comfort Women

The Early Comfort Stations

Another topic that has attracted a lot of attention and controversy is that of "comfort women," women who were forced to sexually service Japanese personnel. The number of women that were used as "comfort women" is not known with any precision, although the numbers generally cited are from 100,000 to around 250,000 women military brothels and forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers, some of these women as young as ten years old.

Exactly when the first "comfort stations" were established is not known since many of the records from the time were destroyed at the end of the war. Some documents have surfaced, though, which indicate that as early as 1932 military-run brothels were established in Shanghai by the Japanese. (Source: Comfort Woman: A Filipina's Story of Prostitution and Slavery under the Japanese Military, 1999

The book The Mountain is Moving: Japanese Women's Lives, 1999, goes into this topic:

"In the early 1930's, the Japanese government had decided that enslaved women were necessary for troop morale and public order in occupied territories. The first such army brothels were set up in China, partly to avoid the mass rapes committed earlier by Japanese troops in conquered areas."

The above book adds that the Japanese Navy was the first to establish the comfort stations, and that the Japanese Army started their own brothels in Shanghai just a few months later. General Okamura Yasuji, the deputy chief of staff of the Shanghai Expeditionary Army actually arranged for Japanese prostitutes to be brought over for the brothels.

From the above book:"Members of this army committed crimes such as looting, massacre, arson and rape at various places along the Yangtze River on their way to Nanjing. They continued on their spree after entering the city, an incident that has become known as the Nanjing Massacre. The leaders of the Central China Area Army quickly recognized the seriousness of the problem of mass rape committed by their soldiers. Thus, on December 11 (1937) they instructed the commanders of each military contingent to set up military brothels in order to prevent further rapes."

There was no way that enough Japanese prostitutes would be available to work the increase in the number of brothels, and so Korean and Chinese women were "mobilized" as "comfort women."

The system grew even more when the war expanded into the Pacific in 1941 and as of Sept. 1942, there were some 400 comfort stations in existence, about three-fourths of those in China.

Reasons for the System

The reasons given for establishing the "comfort women" system were:

1. To reduce the rape of civilians by the Japanese armed forces in China. This would result in increased civilian resistance which could cause the Japanese problems. (But the abduction of innocent female civilians to become prostitutes wouldn't cause a problem?) Some data does indicate that the rapes (outside of the brothels) did actually go down. For example, there were 223 reported cases of rape in Shanghai before the brothels, but once they were established the number of rapes went down markedly.

2. Military leaders felt it was important to gratify their soldiers carnal desires. The Japanese soldiers didn't get leaves or vacations, so providing prostitutes would make them feel better.

3. If the military was controlling access to the prostitutes, then there would be less of a problem with sexually-transmitted diseases. If a lot of soldiers got STD's, then that could cause problems in Japan when they returned home.

4. The only reason that even begins to come close to making sense is the one based on concern over spies. The military felt that, if they controlled the prostitutes, then the chance of any of them being spies would be much less then if the soldiers just went to prostitutes working on their own.

Ultimately women were taken from Korea, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaya for the "comfort stations." In Manila alone, in 1943, there were 17 comfort stations for the regular soldiers with 1,064 "comfort women," and four more stations for the officers with an additional 120 women. (Some of the Korean women actually came from a Korean community in Japan in North Kyushu.)

As for the Japanese prostitutes, at least, the system worked for their benefit according to The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, 1994:

"To many, there was the promise of what seemed a welcome ‘release' from their cramped and depressed lives in Japan. Indeed, business was so much better n Manchuria that debts which would have taken years to pay off could be settled in six months, allowing women in this line of work to start their own brothels. It even became necessary to draw lots for permission to leave for Manchuria. There was also a psychological bonus: women who were usually despised were now admired for their courage in moving to a war zone, enabling them to think of themselves as patriotic."

How the Women were Obtained

The women were obtained in a number of ways.

1. Deceit, often false promises of employment in a regular type of job. Once the woman was at the "job", she found out what it really was and was then trapped there.

2. Some women were sold by their parents to "labor brokers".

3. Some women were captured by civilians and taken to the Japanese.

4. Police sometimes arrested women on trumped-up charges and took them to the Japanese.

5. Japanese troops themselves captured women (generally done in the Philippines).

Their lives as comfort women

"The women testified that they were forced to have sex with soldiers day after day without rest, that those who resisted were tortured, and that those who became too ill or weak to serve were killed."

According to the book Comfort Woman: A Filipina's Story of Prostitution and Slavery under the Japanese Military, 1999, the "comfort women's" period of captivity was from one to several months, although this went up to a couple of years in length. They were guarded 24 hours a day by Japanese soldiers. The victims were raped by five to ten soldiers each day, on the average, and on top of that some had to actually cook and wash clothes for the soldiers when they weren't being used for sex. The average age of the women in the stations was less than 18 years old, and their age ranged down to 10 years of age.

The book points out that this was all done through channels, directly from the Cabinet through the Army Ministry, on to local governors and so on. A group called the Patriotic Labor Association was involved in getting laborers and women in the "colonies," such as Korea, Thailand and the Philippines.

The use of women as prostitutes by the Japanese was not unprecedented, however. The book The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, 1994 points out that a system very similar to that of Japan's was established by the Roman Empire during its expansion into the surrounding areas. A Spanish army in the 16th century had its own system, and the British Army in the 19th century had a system set up in India. The German Army in WWII had brothels reserved for German soldiers. So, in effect, the Japanese were not the first to use "comfort women" by any means.

Why did this happen?

As to just why these type of events took place there is various speculation, often involving the psychological mind-set of the Japanese military of the time, racial discrimination against non-Japanese and the brutal way that most Japanese soldiers were treated by their own officers.

The book The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, 1994 adds its own speculations, including some related to superstitious beliefs such as sex before battle worked as a charm against injury. Doing without sex was believed to make a person accident prone (not really a good thing during a battle). It was also believed, basically, that no man should be a virgin before dying.

More information.

An Inconvenient History: Japan's Dark Shadow on Asia

House Resolution 121


Silenced No More: Voices of 'Comfort Women' review

Main Index
Japan main page
Japanese-American Internment Camps index page
Japan and World War II index page