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Who Were the Comfort Women?


The Japanese Imperial Army kidnapped Chinese and Korean women, and used them as sex slaves

Two Chinese survivors, aged 83 and 91 in this photo, who were comfort women during World War II

China Photos / Getty Images
Question: Who Were the Comfort Women?

During World War II in Asia, the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy kidnapped women, mostly from Korea, the Philippines, and China, to use as sex slaves. Smaller numbers of women and girls also were taken from Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Australia, Vietnam, and even Japan itself. The Japanese euphemism for their victims was "comfort women," or ianfu.

Estimates of the total number of women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military range from 20,000, put forward by some Japanese historians, up to more than 400,000, an estimate from Chinese scholars. Most sources guess that the number was between 100,000 and 300,000, but we will likely never know for sure.

Not only the number of women but also the degree of coercion involved are highly controversial topics in Asia. Some Japanese commentators claim that the comfort women served voluntarily, but the elderly survivors both among the comfort women and among Japanese World War II veterans dispute that version of events.

Japanese military planners decided to organize "comfort stations," where prostitutes would serve members of the army and navy, in order to prevent soldiers and sailors from raping local civilians and antagonizing occupied populations. They also hoped to slow the spread of venereal disease among the troops. The women who staffed the first comfort station were paid volunteers, but as Japan's empire and troop deployments expanded, the military decided it needed more girls.

At first, recruiters told young women in China and Korea that they would be working in factories or medical units. When they showed up for their new jobs, they found out that they would instead be expected to have sex with as many as 25 to 35 soldiers every day in military brothels. Even the trick recruitment drive was not sufficient, however, and the Japanese soon turned to kidnapping to fill the comfort stations.

Some of the girls who were kidnapped and forced to become comfort women in Southeast Asia were not even in puberty yet. A 2005 book by Anne M. De Brouwer estimates that approximately 75% of the comfort women died in captivity, either from trauma or by being executed if they refused to continue. Nearly all of the survivors were unable to bear children because of venereal disease or traumatic injury.

After World War II ended, just eleven Japanese military officers were convicted of war crimes in connection with the comfort station system. The Japanese government has made some attempts at restitution in the intervening decades, although critics charge that they have been woefully insufficient. Japan's war damages payment of $364 million US to South Korea in 1965 was meant to cover the abuse of comfort women, as well as other war crimes. Japan also set up the Asian Women's Fund in 1994, which awarded compensation and a signed apology from the Japanese prime minister to former comfort women from the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Indonesia. On March 27, 2007, the parliament of Japan issued a formal apology to all the military's former sex slaves.

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