This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
During the Second World War, Japan ran “comfort stations” where women they had abducted and lured were forced into sexual slavery for the benefit of its military forces. The Japanese military regulated privately operated brothels in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05 (Tanaka 2002). Initially, brothels were set up to provide soldiers with voluntary prostitutes.
The first comfort station was established in 1932, in the Japanese concession in Shanghai, with women who “volunteered” (while historical records use the term, it is unclear how free, full, independent, and voluntary their consent truly was) for such service. With time, as Japan occupied more and more territories and could no longer find volunteers, it began abducting and coercing women in the areas they occupied (Mitchell 1997; Nishino 1998). The aim was to reduce the extent of wartime rape – which became a cause for mounting anti-Japan sentiments in all the territories Japan occupied (Gottschall 2004).
At first, Japanese women were enslaved and trafficked across Japan and the occupied territories (Norma 2015). With time, more and more women were forced into the brothels without their consent. Some women were abducted from their homes under Japanese imperial rule. Some were lured with the promise of work in nursing positions. Some were falsely promised sponsorship for higher education. Once they were recruited, the women were forcibly incarcerated in comfort stations, and prevented from going back home (Yoshimi 2000).
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
Comfort women and girls were women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in the territories and countries it occupied before and during World War II (The Asian Women's Fund n.d.; Agribay 2003).
These territories included Korea, China, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Manchuko, Taiwan, the Dutch East Indies, Portuguese Timor, New Guinea, and Japanese-occupied territories (Coop 2006). A small number of women from the Netherlands and Australia were also forced into sexual slavery (Banning 2014). Historians suggest that as many as 50,000 to 200,000 women were forced into sexual slavery in this time, although actual numbers are still to be mapped (The Asian Women's Fund n.d.).
According to Professor Su Jiliang, there were around 360,000 to 410,000 comfort women in the period between 1938 and 1945, and of these, around 200,000 were from China (Zhiliang 1999). However, there has been no official documentation estimating the number of comfort women, which means that this figure may only represent a part of the entire figure.
Strategic use of Sexual Violence
Comfort stations were established with the aim of reducing or preventing war rape – as its prevalence increased anti-Japanese sentiments in all the occupied territories, given the Rape of Nanjing. Ironically, the system only increased rape, in aggravated forms no less. There was also a motive to prevent military secrets from being leaked out to civilians who were in contact with Japanese officers (The Asian Women's Fund n.d.). The aim was also to minimize medical expenses incurred on containing the spread of venereal diseases.
The comfort women lived in very difficult conditions – and were called “public toilets” by the Japanese (Chang 1997). The women were forced into sexual relations with disgruntled soldiers, in order to prevent violent revolt (Korea Times 2007). Several of them were forced to travel to battlefields and the warfront along with members of the Japanese Imperial Army – as a result of which many of them were killed by the Allied forces as they fought and defeated Japan’s Pacific defence (Hicks 1997).
In some situations, the Japanese military executed some of the comfort women when they fled areas after facing defeat at the hands of the Allied Forces (Hicks 1997). By the end of the war, when the last unit of the Japanese forces were defeated around 1945, several Korean comfort women were forced to die by suicide or were murdered (Hicks 1996). In Burma, several Korean comfort women were forced to swallow cyanide tablets, or were killed by hand grenades (Hicks 1996). In the Battle of Manilla, several comfort women were killed in the rampant attack by the Japanese sailors (Hicks 1996).
As many as 80% of the comfort women were Korean. They were mostly assigned to the lower ranks in the Japanese military. On the other hand, the Japanese and European women were assigned to the superior officers (Watanabe 1999).
Until 1992, the Japanese government did not accept any responsibility for the sexual slavery system it operated and ran during World War II (The Asian Women’s Fund n.d.a). In 1994, the Japanese government established the Asian Women’s Fund to compensate South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Indonesia (The Asian Women’s Fund n.d.a). A total of 61 Korean, 13 Taiwanese, 211 Filipino, and 79 Dutch comfort women were given a signed apology by erstwhile Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.
However, several Korean women rejected the compensation provided on principle, as the funds had not come from the government, but from private funds. A total of 61 Korean comfort women accepted 5 million yen (approx. $42,000; MoFA Japan n.d.) per person from the AWF along with the signed apology, and 142 others received funds from the government of Korea (Hogg 2007). However, the fund was dissolved on March 31, 2007 (Sanger 1992).
In December 1991, three South Korean women filed a lawsuit in Japan around the 50th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, demanding compensation. At this point, the Japanese Government admitted that the Imperial Japanese Army had forced several Korean women to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II (Los Angeles Times 1992). This was followed by an official apology on January 14, 1992 (Los Angeles Times 1992). On April 28, 1998, the Japanese court ruled that the Government must compensate the women and awarded them USD 2,300 (equivalent to $3,652 in 2020) each (Fastenberg 2010).
In 2007, the surviving comfort women called on the Japanese government to issue an apology to all comfort women – but PM Shinzō Abe stated, on March 1, 2007, that there was no evidence that the Japanese government had kept sex slaves, even though the Japanese government had already admitted the use of coercion in 1993. On March 27 that year, the Japanese parliament issued an official apology.
As an Open Letter in Support of Referral of "Comfort Women" Issues by the Governments of South Korea and Japan to the UN International Court of Justice states: “To date, the Japanese government’s statements regarding the “comfort women” have been inconsistent and ambiguous. None of the purported “apologies” have been conveyed in person by Japanese governmental officials to the survivors or ratified by the Diet or Cabinet of Japan. Moreover, they have been undermined by the ongoing efforts to suppress education and commemoration of this history in Japan and around the world.”
On December 28, 2015, PM Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye arrived at a formal agreement to settle the dispute. While Abe apologized to the women and acknowledged their pain, he also stated that Japan had already settled all issues pertaining to property and claims between Japan and South Korea and that the issue of comfort women was resolved “finally and irreversibly” with this agreement (Adelstein and Kubo 2015). Japan agreed to pay 1 billion Japanese Yen to a fund supporting surviving victims and South Korea agreed to refrain from criticizing Japan regarding the issue and to work to remove a statue memorializing the victims from in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul (BBC News 2015).
Several comfort women protested this agreement as they did not want money, but wanted to see a sincere acknowledgement of the legal responsibility by the Japanese government. In August 2016, 12 comfort women filed a lawsuit against the government of South Korea, asserting that the government had nullified the victims’ individual rights to claim damages from Japan by signing an agreement not to demand further legal responsibility without consulting with the victims. They demanded that the South Korean government had to offer cooperation and protection. In January 2918, the Moon Jae-In government in South Korea called on Japan to hold up its end of the deal, and stated that true settlement is possible only through a sincere apology and other efforts actioning that apology (PMOR 2018). However, the Japanese government argued that the issue had been finally and irreversibly resolved and lodged a strong protest to South Korea through diplomatic means (CBS News 2021).
On June 15, 2018, the 20th Civil Division of Seoul Central District Court dismissed the comfort women’s suit seeking damages against the South Korean government for having signed the 2015 agreement with Japan. On January 8, 2021, Seoul Central District Court ordered the government of Japan to pay reparations of 100 million won ($91,300) each to the families of the twelve women. Japan refuted responsibility claiming sovereign immunity before the national courts of another country. In effect, the Government of Japan has not accepted legal responsibility but in many statements appears to accept moral responsibility for the existence of "comfort women" during the Second World War.
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Banning, Jan. 2013. “Comfort Woman” Ellen van der Ploeg passed away. https://www.janbanning.com/comfort-woman-ellen-van-der-ploeg-passed-away/
BBC News (2015). "Japan and South Korea agree WW2 'comfort women' deal". BBC News. BBC. December 28, 2015. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35188135
CBS News. 2021. South Korean court orders Japan to pay "comfort women," WWII sex slaves, reparations". https://www.cbsnews.com/news/comfort-women-korea-japan-court-order-wwii-sex-slave-reparations/
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Coop, Stephanie (December 23, 2006). "Japan's Wartime Sex Slave Exhibition Exposes Darkness in East Timor". Japan Times. https://web.archive.org/web/20090326043304/http:/www.japanfocus.org/-Stephanie-Coop/2300
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Hicks, George (1997), The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, W W Norton & Company Incorporated.
Hogg, Chris (April 10, 2007). "Japan's divisive 'comfort women' fund". BBC. Archived from the original on October 27, 2013.
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Los Angeles Times. (1992). "Japan Apologizes for Prostitution of Koreans in WWII". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. January 14, 1992.
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Norma, Caroline (2015). The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars (War, Culture and Society). London: Bloomsbury Academic. p. 1.
Open Letter in Support of Referral of "Comfort Women" Issues to the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) https://sites.google.com/view/openlettercomfortwomenicj/open-letter
PMOR (2018). Press Conference by the Chief Cabinet Secretary". Prime Minister's Official Residence (Japan). March 1, 2018. https://japan.kantei.go.jp/tyoukanpress/201803/1_a.html
PMOR (2021). "Press Conference by the Prime Minister on the court case brought by a group of former comfort women". Prime Minister's Official Residence (Japan). January 8, 2021. https://japan.kantei.go.jp/99_suga/statement/202101/_00004.html
Sanger, David E. (January 14, 1992). "Japan Admits Army Forced Koreans to Work in Brothels". The New York Times. Tokyo.
Tanaka, Toshiyuki (2002). Japan's Comfort Women. London: Routledge (published 2003).
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Watanabe, Kazuko (1999). "Trafficking in Women's Bodies, Then and Now: The Issue of Military "Comfort Women"". Women's Studies Quarterly. 27 (1/2): 19–31
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