Comfort Women: Tales of Trauma and Twisted Apologies.

An account of enforced prostitution in the background of the World War II, anchored on a gendered understanding of war and militarization.

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War is a masculine enterprise. For most part of history, women and war have had a fraught relationship: women appear in discussions of war and military almost always as alleged causes, transferable trophies of victors, docile nurses, wives of diplomats, widows, prostitutes, show girls, and workers in ammunition industries; in general as latent victims and hidden entities.

Making sense of international politics and wars through a feminist lens would not only mean rethinking the position of women, but examining the agency that male enemy forces have wielded over them. The consequences of the two World Wars offer ghastly evidence for the same, and yet, scholarly works on the feminist contextualization of the multidimensional victimization of women cutting across countries, ethnicities, or regions is woefully limited and publically hushed. Who speaks for the millions of women deployed as show girls on the army bases for the entertainment of wearied soldiers? And what had the war brought to them?

The deliberately suppressed accounts of the trauma of ‘Comfort Women’, deployed by the Imperial Japanese forces in the Second World War, underline a disturbing, dialectical trend in the masculine-feminine narratives of conflict, within both the domestic and the public domain. The submission of women and their bodies for the pleasure of men and a woman’s sexuality- husbands in the room or soldiers on the base- is regarded by society as a man’s ‘right’.

There is a silent storm in the calm pose of the figure of ‘The Statue of Peace’, also known as the Sonyeosang (Korean : Statue of Girl), standing outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, defiantly reminding the world, especially the intransigent Japanese Government, of the unspeakable trauma and pain inflicted upon thousands of women deployed as ‘Comfort Women’ in military brothels across the Imperial Japanese bases during the Second World War. It is a call for ‘apology and remembrance’ of the women who have been either forgotten or misrepresented and gravely wronged.

Women and War

War has a masculine colouring, in that it has been historically a result of aggressive ambitions of men (interestingly, women from Helen to Draupadi have been called out as the catalysts to conflict), and women’s roles in battles have either been ignored or downplayed. In wars, where are the women? Our ‘feminist curiosity’ as Cynthia Enloe, renowed feminist scholar and theorist, puts it, would tell us that “a feminist analysis of a military base would need to take seriously the lives of sex workers, whose bodies are not only used by the troops stationed there but also subjected to a raft of rules and regulations designed to limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among the soldiers. It would also need to take seriously the lives of those women who have been sexually assaulted by members of the military, and the groups that work to help and support those affected.”

One needs to bear in mind that military prostitution on bases reconfigures the sexual politics of the society as a whole, for it represents on a larger canvas the absence of sexual democracy across cultures and societies, and, in particular, the absence of bodily agency that women exercise.

Wartime exploitation of women is not an unheard phenomenon; but it certainly is a silenced one. In listing out the ramifications of enterprises like battles, sexual exploitation in the shape of military prostitution might never hold the attention it deserves. There is well documented evidence showing institutionalized military brothel systems, one that would cater to the uncouth ravaging of the soldiers. George Hicks, author and anthropologist says in his book The Comfort Women - “The Roman Empire, with its far flung army, had a comfort system remarkably similar to that of the Japanese military. Roman system of slavery ensured a regular supply of captive females for the military brothels which were attached to every Roman garrison or campaigning army.” Similar systems were in place in the British, German and Indian armies too.

Unknown and Un-comfort-able Tales

The Japanese case was quaint at best. Its military was rife with superstitions of what promotes and what jinxes victory. And a lot of these superstitions were those which as Hicks mentions as linked to sex. He states that “These included the belief that sex before going into battle worked as a charm against injury. Amulets could be made with pubic hair of comfort women, or from something belonging to them. Sexual deprivation was believed to make one accident prone…….another rationale that ritualized the Japanese army visits to the comfort stations was the belief that a virgin soldier must have sex at least once before his death.”

Military brothels existed in Japan long before the Second World War. They became rampant across Japanese bases after the infamous Rape of Nanking in late 1937. This brutal event saw the Japanese army indulge in a six weeks long massacre of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians in the then Capital of China, Nanjing, as well as rapes and assaults of around 80,000 women of the City.

Japanese military authorities relied on comfort women as the standard measure for relieving the tension of combat, or military life generally. However, once this rape campaign began tarnishing Japan's international image, Emperor Hirohito ordered the military to expand its “Comfort Stations” to prevent further atrocities, reduce sexually transmitted diseases, and ensure a steady and isolated group of prostitutes to satisfy the Japanese soldiers’ sexual desires.

A major graphic and stark account of a former survivor of Japanese 'comfort stations' is given in ‘Memoirs of a Korean Comfort Woman’. Hidden behind the Pseudonym ‘Kim Chun Ja’, the writer’s original identity still remains an enigma.

Kim’s account begins when she, along with four other girls, was pressured to volunteer for the Women’s Patriotic Service Corps. They were taken to Seoul via train. On arrival they were first given Korean costume and a Japanese Kimono along with undergarments. On enquiry about their jobs, they were told, “Your job is to look pretty and comfort the soldiers”. Later the girls were given Japanese names before being escorted to an Inn, where they were bathed, decorated and dressed up in bathrobes to be taken to a room in the Inn with five Japanese men who were drinking. Before long, each of the girls were seized in a well practised grip, ‘like sparrows caught in an eagle’s talons’ and dragged screaming to separate rooms.

In the stations, the women were taught to be romantic, walk stylishly, and be seductive. It is harrowing to even attempt to give an account of the women’s conditions. And worse: the entire issue was denied by the Japanese officials and the stories belied for centuries. The women had to first fight to be believed before they could fight to be served justice.

But this particular victimization was never made apparent to the world until the late twentieth century, and, even then, the Imperial Japanese refuted the alleged involvement in recruiting comfort women or setting up comfort stations. In 1962 journalist Senda Kako stumbled upon an unexplained photograph while curating remnants of the War as part of a research for his book. The photograph showed two women wading across a river with a soldier and no explanations given could provide Kako answers. This instigated a personal-level investigation by him where he learned of them being the Japanese “Comfort Women” recruited from Korea with the assistance of military doctor Aso Tetsuo. Further investigations pointed out that the first such “Comfort Station'' was established near Shanghai in 1938, where primarily women from Korea were brought in through coercive deception and abduction. Senda later published one of the first books titled ‘Jugun-Ianfu’ (Military Comfort Women) on the issue of “Comfort Women''. This remained one of the most controversial books for decades.

The issue was not unknown to people, especially to those involved in the Japanese-Korean relations, but it was undiscussed. It was finally brought in for an open discussion in the Republic of Korea after democratization in 1987. Yung Chung-Ok published an article about the issue in the Hankyoreh Newspaper in January 1990. The issue gained prominence at a time when greater attention was being paid to the history of Japanese-Korean relations and demands for an apology were being fanned. In Korea, the issue escalated from being a feminist question to a national grievance. The famous 6 demands raised by the 37 women’s organizations in 1990 along with the Republic of Korea were unprecedented and strong in the face of the all consuming fire of history. These included the demand for “an acknowledgement that the comfort women were forcibly taken away.” The women's organizations wanted an unbiased investigation into the matter so that the real facts were laid out in the open, and that once the fact-finding mission was done, a proper compensation be paid to the survivors and their families.

In early April of 1991, The Japanese Embassy in Seoul conveyed a verbal response to the representatives of various women’s groups lobbying for a response. On the six demands, the Japanese replied that there was no evidence of the forced draft of Korean Women. So, no public apologies, disclosures, or memorials were forthcoming. The ‘Council on the Matter of Comfort Women’ reacted to the cold Japanese reply with huge public campaigns. Time and again, the Japanese Diet tried to sweep the issue of Comfort Women under the legislative carpet, refusing to issue an acknowledgement of the entire matter. Women lobbied, campaigned, and struggled to get their voices heard, only to have their struggle fall on deaf ears.


In Picture: Ms. Kim Hak-Sun

Call it a victory of sisterhood, but it took one defiant woman to change the course of the tale. Japan’s cold blooded denial of the entire issue galvanized Ms. Kim Hak-Sun to become the first Korean woman to tell her story of pain and perseverance as a Japanese comfort woman. Ms. Kim broke all boundaries and established herself as the face of a million women who suffered. On 14th August, 1991, Ms. Kim described her forced life as a comfort woman in front of the press at the ‘Council for the Issue of Comfort Stations of Korean Women’s Associations United.’

I do not understand why Japan is lying. I made my determination after watching the news. I was not asked to do it. I am doing this out of my own will. I am almost 70 years old, and I am not afraid of anything. I will say what I have to say,” she said.

Kim was just seventeen when she was forced to enter a comfort station. Repeatedly raped at gunpoint, Kim along with four other girls were forced to live in a brutish, nasty dungeon with bare food and clothing, undergoing humiliating “sanitary inspections” once a week. She managed to escape with the help of a merchant from Korea.

Ms. Kim set alight the spark: thousands of women from Korea, Singapore, and Philippines came out publicly with their stories as former comfort women. They, backed by several women’s support groups, fought against old male legislators who denied the existence of the issue, let alone acknowledge the women’s pain and suffering. Ms. Kim, along with two other former comfort women, filed a lawsuit at Tokyo District Court on December 6, 1991, demanding reparation and apology from the Japanese government. She also authored a book which was a collection of testimonies of various victims, titled ‘Korean Women Who Were Taken Away by Force’.

A group called the ‘Compatriot Women’s Network for the Military Comfort Women Problem’ was formed to coordinate steps for legal action in Japan. A fundraising group was also established. But the investigations were very slow. To accelerate the process, an open letter was addressed to the South Korean Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Office, but to no avail.

These developments created a ripple effect in Japan and several rounds of investigations began. In 1992, a Chuo University professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi announced the existence of documents that proved Japanese involvement. But this was no official statement. The only quasi-formal or ‘official’ evidence was the 1983 book titled “My War Crimes: The Forced Draft of Koreans” by Yoshida Seiji, a groundbreaking account of his activities during the entire period. These developments combined with rising consciousness of the harrowin period in Japan itself after a Japanese comfort woman named Shirota Suzuko described her experiences in a radio interview. These incriminating documents, mass circulated by the Asahi newspaper on 11th January 1992, forced the Japanese government to admit within hours that despite all its denials the army had been deeply involved. By 12th January 1992, as Hicks writes poignantly, the whole world knew for the first time the true meaning of ‘comfort women’

The legal recourse by Ms. Kim, who by now was joined by several others, started in 1992 with several rounds of deliberations. Counsels like Fukushima Mizuho led arguments after arguments about the mental oppression besides the unimaginable physical pain and the shame and embarrassment the women had to face given the virtue of chastity in the deeply patriarchal Korean societies.

It is phenomenal to look at the sisterhood displayed in the battle. Several women in the Diet pressed the ruling government for the compensation to be awarded to the victims along with an official apology. Yet the opposition to the compensation ranged from arguments that they had been paid when they were serving as comfort women, to the position that it was too late to revive such an outdated issue.

Activists, including Kim, pressed further for “apology and atonement” rather than monetary compensation. Soon, women from all across came out, supported by women’s groups, and filed lawsuits against the Japanese government. The public hearing of the ‘Asian Tribunal on Women’s Human Rights Council and Women’s Human Rights Committee’ held on 12th March, 1994, after the 1993 ‘Vienna World Human Rights Conference’, brought victims from other Asian countries to testify in Japan. The comfort women issue was formally recognized as a violation of women’s human rights.

The Japanese government repeatedly refused any sort of compensation alleging that all compensations between Japan and Korea were already settled in the 1965 treaty. In an extremely tokenistic move, the Japanese government announced youth exchanges and financial centres to “support” the comfort women victims, but the former comfort women and the activists refused to take any sort of charity or donation money. Determined never to be victimized again, these fierce warriors demanded a proper reparation, apology, and compensation sans hollow sympathies.

To get the issue of “Comfort Women” a global limelight, women from various ethnicities have come together. Created through legalized prostitution based on patriarchy, colonialism, and imperialism, the system of comfort women clearly demonstrated that capitalism, sexism, and racism are linked and perpetuated both in the colonial and postcolonial eras. Women’s organizations have been working to politicize the entire issue and raise consciousness for the issue of sexual slavery in general, utilizing international human rights laws that provide for an individual’s right to compensation.

In closure, the only thing that remains to be lauded in the long continuum of the struggle of these brave women is their resilience to demand that their wrongs be undone. And it is not just the presence or role of women that are denied when talking of wars, it is also their injuries suffered during the course of the war. Militarization is a masculine phenomenon, couched in the sociological masculine ideas of ego, violence, superiority, and rage. It is devoid of the feminine principle, speaking with the risk of essentializing. Enough academic research is available on the idea of ‘Feminine Perspective of Peace’ or ‘Women and Anti-War Protest’. It is ironic that ‘women’ were recruited to ‘comfort’ the weary soldiers fighting for the glory of their ‘motherland’. What did that glory bring?

In the end, the thing to think about is whether the Japanese government’s recent apology to South Korea, along with the pledge to pay $8.3 million to Korean survivors, was a resolution or an insult? And why does the statue of a little girl in calm repose still make governments mad?


By Aaryaveer Chauhan (Guest Writer)

A graduate in Political Science, Aaryaveer possesses a profound inclination for Postcolonial Feminist Literature, Partition Studies, and art.

References and further readings:

G. Hicks, The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced

Prostitution in the Second World War, W.W Norton and Company, 1994.

C. Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of

International Politics (Chapter 4: Base Woman) University of California Press, 1990

Carmen M. Argibay, Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of World War II, Berkeley Journal of International Law, Vol 21, Issue 2, 2003.

W. Kazuko, Militarism, Colonialism, and the Trafficking of Women:

“Comfort Women” forced into sexual labour for Japanese soldiers,

Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 26:4, 3-17, published online 2019.

Digital Museum, The Comfort Women Issue and the Asian Women’s Fund – How did the issue of Comfort Women came to light?

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