Call “Comfort Women” What They Were: Forced Prostitutes and Rape Survivors

Screen shot 2013-05-24 at 12.12.10 PMComfort 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


  1. Just a note: one of the great struggles to give voice to the enslaved women of WWII comes from the shame and fear associated with their own history. After the war ended, the women’s home cultures violated them again by being largely unwilling to accept what had happened to them, by assuming that they had somehow caused their fate, etc. The first (mostly Korean) women who came forward to self-identify as survivors were exceptionally brave: “Comfort Women” is a euphemism, to be sure, and inaccurate — but it was used by good people to refer to their situation in part out respect, as a way to recognize their suffering without re-performing their trauma.

    Now that the victims are elderly, and their communities largely take pride in them, it’s probably time to use more accurate terminology. But the use of euphemism had its own humanist, survivor-positive purpose in the 1960s and 1970s.

  2. And Stalin claimed that the Russian soldiers should have their “triffles” at the end of WWII when we now know that hundreds of thousands and some say 2 million German women and young girls were raped by their Russian and Polish liberators with a few Allied soldiers thrown in for good measure. Just like these women the German women largely remained silent all these years. Many committed suicide or were left unable to have children because of the abuse they suffered. “A Woman in Berlin” shows but a small sliver into that horror. Most don’t want to acknowledge that it ever happened. The movie is penned by anonymous.

    • This is a post from a different Karen. I am glad you mentioned this atrocity during WWII because I am sick of hearing that it was just the young, pretty Germans girls. I am Jewish and I was taught in Hebrew School that only young, pretty Jewish girls were raped in Concentration Camps – and I was pointed out as an example! Then in the peace movement, of course you want to acknowledge that the Germans of course suffered too. But excusing the rapes and sexual abuse by saying: it’s just the young, pretty ones…. Then again, the media promotes this belief so perhaps the peace movement is just influenced by the media.

  3. I am sorry for all the woman who were raped against their will in World War II. All the woman that are still alive should be given financial compensation for the horrors you put these poor Japanese, taiwan, Korea woman thru. The Japanese Government should be ashamed of themselves for treating woman in such a dreadful way. You have no right to force rape onto other people bodies, get people pregnant then force them to have a abortion. Those poor woman would have been terrorfied out of their mind. Every survivor deserves a package of warm sheets, blankets, pillows, bed, Pjs, slippers, dressing gown, t.v, japanese car, Security doors and security locks on their windows. Free alcohol to drink. Nice DVDs to watch, DVD player each and a overseas holiday to a destination of their choice. A safe home and neighbourhood to live. Understanding and caring family and friends. Stop being so cruel and give the survivors some money each say $20,000 each. In yen or their countries currency. A apology in not enough for what you put these poor woman thru. Please send them a package full of stuff today. Nice towels, teatowels, cooking set, pots and pans, apron, laptop.

    • I had a bit of difficulty understanding this post. Yes, lower income and impoverished women were victims, but so were many middle class and even wealthy women. Concubines in fact come from the upper classes.

  4. Comfort Women were mostly japanese. 1-2% were abducted by a criminal japanese solder when things deteriorated toward end of ww2. When USA troops raped like 50,000 just in first month of occupying japan, prostitution stations was created to reduce rape but no GI was punished. People need to learn a fair perspective instead of distorted propaganda. USA, Japan, Korea used a military prostitution and had atrocities.

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