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Army recreational facility made of wood Comfort women being transported on Japanese trucks Korean women mobilized to make comfort bags


’Comfort women’ refer to women who were forcibly mobilized and forced to live as sex slaves in brothels called ‘comfort stations’ established by the Japanese military under the pretext of efficiently carrying out war after September 18, 1931, when the Manchurian Incident took place up until when Japan was defeated in the Pacific War in 1945. In literature and testimonies, ‘comfort women’ were referred to as hostesses, special women, prostitutes, geishas, street girls, waitresses, etc. while ‘comfort stations’ were referred to as army recreation facilities, clubs, servicemen centers or Joseon restaurants.

Name and Characterization

The term used to refer to the victims who were conscripted by the Japanese military during the Japanese colonial rule and used as sex slaves includes value judgment to a certain extent. Hence, the use of certain terms in discussing the ‘comfort women’ issue is particularly important.

When the issue of ‘comfort women’ of the Japanese military began surfacing regularly in the early 1990s, the term ‘Chongshindae (voluntarily offered body corps)’ was widely used. Chongshindae literally meant, “a corps which voluntarily sacrifices bodies for the Japanese state (emperor)” and was created by the Japanese to mobilize the labor force. Originally, Chongshindae (mobilization of labor) and ‘wianbu or comfort women’ (mobilization of sex) were fundamentally different. However, the two terms were wrongfully used in place of one another due to instances where women conscripted into the Women’s Volunteer Labor Corps (yeoja geunro chongshindae) were taken as ‘comfort women’. Subsequently, the term, ‘military comfort women’, was established as the official terminology after it was proven through research to be closer to the term used at the time.
During the 1990s, the term ‘jongun wianbu or jugun ianfu’ was used in Japan. However, the word ‘jongun or jugun’, meaning “war” has the connotation of “following the military” which gave the impression that the women voluntarily followed the military just like war correspondents (jongun gija) or military nurses (jongun ganhosa). It is a term that should be used with caution because it conceals the historical responsibility of Japan which forcibly conscripted ‘comfort women’ for its military.

When the international community first raised the issue of the Japanese military’s ‘comfort women’, they used the term, ‘comfort women’, which is the literal translation of ‘wianbu’. Currently, the term ‘military sex slavery’ and ‘military sexual slavery’ are mainly used in the international community such as the United Nations. The Radhika Coomaraswamy Report, submitted to the UN Human Rights Commission in 1996, clearly articulated this issue as military sexual slavery during armed conflict.

The adoption of the term 'military sexual slavery' in the international community was because of the perception that the issue of ‘comfort women’ in the Japanese military could not be explained as voluntary acts of sacrifice by the citizens of a state although it had the characteristics of prostitution which is occurs through contracts created in the private realm.. In other words, the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ denotes that the state mobilized women by force subjecting them to collective sexual violence and placing them in a state where their conditions of life were as ‘slaves’. Thus, the word 'comfort women' is a very offender-centric term and harbors the negative effect of hiding the violence and coercion associated with the truth. Considering the recruitment motives, recruitment process, and violence of the Japanese military, the term ‘sexual slavery’ of the Japanese military seems to be more appropriate.

Currently, Korean society uses the term Japanese military ‘comfort women’ more than the term Japanese military ‘sexual slavery’. Although the term ‘‘comfort women’’ is not suited for revealing the true nature of the problem, it conveys the distinctive atmosphere of the time when the term ‘comfort women’ was coined to institutionalize the system. It also prevents survivors from being hurt psychologically having to call themselves ‘sex slaves’. The law, which was enacted by the Korean government to support victims, uses the term ‘comfort women’ of the Japanese military. Among the researchers, there are some who use the term ‘comfort women’ of the ‘Japanese military’ by separating the words with a single quotation mark to express their disagreement with the term used by the Japanese.

Establishment of Japanese ‘Comfort Stations’ and Scale of the Conscription

After instigating the Manchurian Incident, Japan continued to expand their invasion front.

The Japanese military set up ‘comfort stations’ under the pretext of 1) preventing the rape of local women, 2) preventing sexually transmitted diseases through prostitution, and 3) to provide sexual consolation to army soldiers. There is a record which states that an early form of the Japanese military’s ‘comfort station’ was initially established in Shanghai in January of 1932. With the start of Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the number of Japanese ‘comfort stations’ grew rapidly; and, the area from which ‘comfort women’ were conscripted also expanded alongside the expansion of Japanese occupied territories. After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, the entire process of establishing ‘comfort stations’, managing them, recruiting ‘comfort women’, and transporting them was primarily undertaken by the Japanese military. A system of active cooperation was set up between the Japanese government agencies such as the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the Governor General of Korea and Taiwan.

At present, it is not possible to know the total number of women conscripted as Japanese military ‘comfort women’ since no systematic data revealing their number. Some scholars have speculated on the total number of ‘comfort women’ victims based on data from Japanese military plans of how many ‘comfort women’ were to be assigned per Japanese soldier or from testimonial records. However, there seems to be a great differences among researchers due to a variety of assertions placing the total number between a range of 30,000 to 400,000.

In the early days of ‘comfort station’ installations, the Japanese conscripted mainly women from Japan and their colonies of Joseon (Korea) and Taiwan. As the war became prolonged and the front lines expanded, women from other occupied territories such as China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Dutch women living in Indonesia were forced to serve as ‘comfort women’. Yoshimi Yoshiaki, a researcher who has long studied the issue of ‘comfort women’ in the Japanese military, estimated that the number of ‘comfort women’ in the Japanese military was at least 80,000 to 200,000 and that more than half of them were women from Joseon (Korea).

Methods of Conscription and Transportation

Korean women were conscripted as ‘comfort women’ by the Japanese military were through methods such as employment fraud, intimidation and violence, human trafficking, and abduction. They were recruited being given false promises for jobs at factories or that they could earn a lot of money. Newspaper ads were used to recruit 'comfort women', but detailed information on the type of work they would be doing was never clearly mentioned. Also, considering the rate of newspaper subscriptions by women and the rate of female literacy at that time, there seemed to be few cases in which recruitment advertisements were delivered directly to women. The Japanese military authorities selected a contractor to manage the ‘comfort stations’, while the Japanese military and police cooperated in the recruitment process. The contractors approached women through recruiters or approached them directly. They also attracted women with job opportunities or offering means to make money, mobilized them through coercion and violence, or even resorted kidnapping at times. The national mobilization system and the rationale that ‘comfort women’ were necessary to carry out war allowed such physical violence. Before the outbreak of the Pacific War on 1941, ‘Certificates of Passage’ were issued to move comfort facilities overseas. Processing of the women were carried out by recruiters who received cooperation from public authorities. During this process, there were falsification of family register records. After the Pacific War began, ‘military travel documents’ were used to move these facilities overseas. Recruiters or transporters held onto these ‘military travel documents’ and were provided all sorts of convenience by the Japanese army during the transfer.

[Source: Excerpt from The Commission on Verification and Support for the Victims of Forced Conscription under Japanese Colonialism in Korea, Oral records on Japanese Military ‘Comfort Women’ : "Do You Hear? The Story of Twelve Girls".]

Army recreational facility made of wood  A room of a comfort woman  Japanese soldiers waiting in line for their turn outside a comfort station

The life of victims varied depended on the type, period of installation, and the location of the comfort station. The women who were recruited lived in comfort stations operated directly by the military or by private contractors. Even in the case of stations run by private contractors, the comfort stations were, in reality, under the control of the military since it controlled issuance of permits and management. Toward the end of the war, the Japanese over comfort stations, both directly operated or ones located in newly occupied territories, was reinforced.

Most victims used Japanese names in the comfort stations. They were not allowed to go out or they were permitted to go out only at certain times during the day. However, women stationed in small islands were allowed to go outside without restriction since escape was impossible.
Japanese military ‘comfort women’ rarely received money directly. Instead, they received a military payment certificates or cash vouchers similar to today's sales slip to prove how many soldiers they had serviced. Although they were told that their vouchers would be exchanged for cash, in most cases they did not receive any money since they were under the management of contractors. Rather, deductions were made to their payments to cover expenses for their transportation, clothing, food in addition to living expenses in the ‘comfort station’ leaving the victims with nothing but debt.

Women mobilized as ‘comfort women’ had to use condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and were regularly tested for STDs. Condoms were handed out to soldiers either at the base or by station owners; or, they were handed out to the women by station owners. Testing for sexually transmitted diseases was carried out once a week or twice a week; but, it was carried out once a month in poorly equipped facilities poorly equipped facilities. In addition, ointments or disinfectants were also used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. 'Comfort women' were quarantined if they were found to be contracting STDs. However, there were cases where illnesses would worsen because station owners would force them to continue receive more soldiers.

The Rules for the Use of Military ‘Comfort Stations’ enacted by the Japanese military prohibit abusive behavior against 'comfort women'; but, this regulation was frequently violated by both the station owners and soldiers. There were also many cases in which suicide or murders were neglected. The ‘comfort women’ assigned to battlefields had to live and die with the military units they were assigned to. Some died from being bombed on the battlefield or from the sinking of their ship during transportation.

[Source: Excerpt from The Commission on Verification and Support for the Victims of Forced Conscription under Japanese Colonialism in Korea, Oral records on Japanese Military ‘Comfort Women’ : "Do You Hear? The Story of Twelve Girls".]

Facts about ‘Comfort Stations’

  • Shape and Internal Structure of ‘Comfort Stations’

    ‘Comfort stations’ differed from each depending on their location ranging from buildings occupied by the advancing Japanese military to temporary structures built to use as a ‘comfort station’. In the frontlines, ‘comfort stations’ were usually tents or temporary wooden huts. ‘Comfort stations’ were generally one-story or two-story buildings with a living or reception room downstairs. The rooms of ‘comfort women’ were mainly located on the upstairs or on the backside of the building and were cramp and narrow in size to accommodate only one bed measuring about 0.9mX1.5m in size. In some areas, ‘comfort women’ had to sleep on mattresses on the floor exposing them to severe cold and moisture coming up from the ground below.

  • Life of the Sex Slaves under Surveillance

    ‘Comfort stations’ were mainly surrounded by barbed wire and was thoroughly blocked from the outside world and under constant surveillance. Activities of ‘comfort women’ were closely monitored and restricted. Under constant surveillance and in harsh environments, the ‘comfort women’ were forced to provide sexual comfort to 60 to 70 soldiers every day. Generally, there was time-limit per ‘use’; but, in reality, there were just too many soldiers making time-limits useless. Therefore, a person would, in actuality, only be able to ‘use’ the ‘comfort station’ for only two to three minutes while 20 to 30 of his fellow soldiers waited in a line right outside the door.

  • Health Examination

    Health examinations for ‘comfort women’ were conducted by military doctors. However, periodic checkups were merely to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Not much attention was paid to wounds inflicted by the soldiers such as cigarette burns, bruises, stab wounds, bone fractures, etc.

  • Food and Clothing

    Food and clothing were provided by the military, but food was always in shortage. According to the rules, the users of ‘comfort station’ were required to pay money or hand vouchers to the ‘comfort women’ according to their rank and duration of their “usage”, but it seems that the “usage fee” was paid to the ‘comfort women’. Most of the victims did not receive any wages. In addition, they were also unable to exchange the cash vouchers handed to them by soldiers.

  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Fear of Pregnancy

    ‘Comfort women’ were always in fear of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. A majority of the ‘comfort women’ seem to have been infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Although they were given a break from work to recover when they were found to be contracting STDs, they were forced to "work" at other times – even during their menstruation. Along with the profound sense of shame, situations such as these made all the female victims want to commit suicide or escape. However, a failure of such attempt meant death.

[Source: Lee, Seok-Tae, et al. The Issue of ‘Comfort Women’ - Analysis of Legal Issues and Recent Trends. p. 25~26. Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities, 2009.]

 Comfort women under the protection of US and Chinese soldiers at the border between China and Myanmar  Comfort women discovered by US Marines near the Japanese military command headquarters  The corpse of comfort women that were massacred by Japanese

For those who have survived the horrendous ordeal of living as ‘comfort women’, their return trip to Korea was by no means easy. They were captured by the Allied Forces and were placed in POW camps before returning home. Unfortunately, many of the ‘comfort women’ were left behind where they were found. Even after the Japanese were defeated, there were instances of soldiers murdering 'comfort women'. In addition, most of the station owners simply abandoned the 'comfort women' and returned to Japan. The victims had to survive on their own or find a way to return to their homeland. It was quite common for ‘comfort women’ to stay in the country they were left at because “they did not have a way to return home” or because “they were ashamed to do so”.

The surviving victims continuously suffered from severe physical and mental aftereffects after returning to their homelands. The direct aftereffects such as trauma, infertility, and sexually transmitted diseases caused by physical abuse and torture tormented them for a long time. Physical pain made them dependent on drugs like painkillers. In addition, the disgrace of not having been able to self-determination over their own body, the fear toward disadvantages and stigmatization they had to endure in Korean society, due to the damage inflicted on them and stigma, sense of having failed in life, and psychological trauma such as depression and insomnia were some examples of what ‘comfort women’ had to endure in their daily life after the war. They could not actively participate in social activities due to the damage they had received. Those who did not have families were forced into a vicious cycle of poverty.

[Source: Excerpt from The Commission on Verification and Support for the Victims of Forced Conscription under Japanese Colonialism in Korea, Oral records on Japanese Military ‘Comfort Women’ : "Do You Hear? The Story of Twelve Girls".]