“Comfort women” was the colloquial and reductive term given to the nearly 200,000 women across Asia who were lured, kidnapped or coerced by the Japanese military into being prostitutes for the Imperial Army during World War II. The “comfort women” system, which was organized and supported by Empire of Japan officials, originally began with impoverished Japanese women, but as military efforts expanded so did “comfort stations” with false ads for wartime nurses and factory workers being used, as well as abductions, to force women from China, Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan into government-sanctioned prostitution.
Once trapped inside the military brothels, women were raped and beaten, and those who became pregnant were forced to have abortions. Even after Japan lost the war, and the Allied Forces liberated the camps, some of the “comfort stations” were maintained for the use of Western soldiers. Seventy-five percent of these women are believed to have died in the war, while many survivors were left infertile because of sexual trauma or venereal disease.
It is regarded widely as one of the worst offenses committed by Japan during the war, and Japan issued a formal apology to “comfort women” in 1993. But many still say the country hasn’t appropriately atoned for this atrocity and feel further compensation should be offered to the surviving women.
And it doesn’t help that Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka (one of Japan’s biggest cities) recently said that military brothels served a needed role in giving relaxation to distressed soldiers:
When soldiers are risking their lives by running through storms of bullets, and you want to give these emotionally charged soldiers a rest somewhere, it’s clear that you need a comfort women system.
He went on to say that it was “necessary at the time to maintain discipline in the army” and that the brothels served as a healthy outlet for soldiers in controlling sexual energy.
His remarks were swiftly denounced by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which has long criticized Japan for not properly acknowledging the women affected. AI’s recently released human rights report states that the Japanese government continues to deny “justice for the survivors of Japan’s military sexual slavery system” and called out Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, for his past insistence that the “comfort women” were volunteers.
Hashimoto and Abe are harsh reminders that some refuse to see the “comfort woman” system for what it was: systematic, state-organized mass rape. In putting blinders on, they help downplay the continuance of sexual violence in wars today.
Photo of “Purity Lost Forever” by Kang Duk Kyung taken from the House of Sharing in Gwangju, South Korea, a museum and communal home for surviving women