By June Teufel Dreyer
Perhaps no issue in the history of post-World War II Japanese relations with Korea and China has been more contentious than that of the comfort women.
Arguments have raged about the culpability of the Japanese military then — and the responsibility of the Japanese government now. There are huge discrepancies over the numbers of women involved, and their treatment both during and after the war. Responses have ranged from complete denial that the practice ever existed to lurid accounts of the treatment of women involved in it.
In 1992, the issue was sensationalized on the front pages of the Asahi Shimbun, the center-left daily that has the second highest circulation of Japan’s newspapers. Time-consuming research into the allegations of Asahi’s source eventually proved them fraudulent, and in 2014 the paper issued a belated apology. But in the intervening years, much damage had already been done.
Ikuhiko Hata, a retired professor of international relations with prior experience in several agencies of the Japanese government, has attempted an objective analysis of this contentious and highly emotional topic. The result is a masterful work of scholarship.
Hata has consulted archival material from Japanese, Korean, and American sources, including some that were originally classified, and read the memoirs of those involved. He has interviewed former comfort women of several nationalities, as well as the persons who brought them into the profession and the managers of so-called comfort stations.
He has also compared the pay scales of the women relative to the troops they served, and even the survival rates of comfort women vis-à-vis the troops.
He has consulted secondary works in several languages on the institution of prostitution in Japan and the rest of the world from the beginnings of recorded history.
Were one to have just two words to summarize Hata’s findings, that would be “it’s complicated.”
Origins of Comfort Stations Traced
Hata traces the origin of comfort stations for the exclusive use of the Japanese military to Shanghai in 1932. After the Japanese defeated a Chinese force there, the Japanese commander wrote that the troops “prowled about everywhere looking for women,” leading to “indecent stories” that could be solved by setting up “facilities.”
There was a rigorous inspection at the time of recruitment for the facilities, and many women did not pass. Those who did were provided with prophylactics and disinfectants, and examined once a week by a doctor. They were able to refuse customers whose behavior was deemed improper, which generally referred to drunkenness and abusive actions.
As the war expanded and more troops arrived, the demand for comfort women increased as well.
With such a large number of units dispersed widely geographically and so many different names given to the women who participated — for example, drink pouring girls, hostesses, dancers, and geisha, not all of whom were primary providers of sexual services — it is difficult to compress Hata’s findings into a short space. Still, some general patterns emerge.
Sold by Families, Not Abducted
Records indicate that, rather than being abducted from their homes by military men, as some women later claimed, they were in fact sold to brokers, generally of their own ethnicity, by their impoverished families. Aberrations did occur, but could be severely punished — there is at least one case of execution.
In Korea, Japanese officers feared that the population would react to even rumors of abduction and rape by rioting, and that the Korean police would be loath to stop it. In Southeast Asia, such behavior would undermine the Japanese government’s contention that it had come to liberate the population from the bonds of Western colonialism to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
An examination of pay scales shows that the women were paid several times more than the troops were. Many met the conditions of their debt within a year or two; some of these opted to stay, either sending their earnings home to their families or spending lavishly on themselves. Fate did not favor the frugal who chose to save what they made: they were paid in military script, which lost its value as the war turned against Japan.
One of the saddest stories was told by a military officer who was evacuating comfort women across a swollen river. Told to jettison the heavy back pack that contained her possessions, the woman refused, slipped, and was carried away by the swift current.
Since the comfort women were removed from combat areas while troops were told not to surrender, their survival rate was much higher than that of the soldiers.
Comfort Women Facilities for U.S. Troops
Hata’s research shows that comfort women facilities also existed for the U.S. military personnel who occupied Japan after the war ended, and in Korea for those serving on American military bases during the Korean War. Since, however, there were laws forbidding the trafficking of women and girls, and licensed prostitution had been outlawed, it was impossible to implement mandatory testing and treatment for venereal disease. Hence the incidence of sexually transmitted disease among American and Korean troops was far higher after the war than it was among the Japanese military in World War II.
Even after the Korean War ended, the South Korean government, hoping to bring in foreign currency, passed the Tourism Promotion Act to encourage visits by American military men. The Seoul government also facilitated so-called sex tours from Japan.
According to the estimate of Korean analyst Katherine Moon, the income earned through sex tours amounted to 25% of South Korea’s gross national product in the 1960s.
When South Korean troops entered the fighting in Vietnam in the 1960s, the South Korean military recruited Vietnamese women for a comfort station it ran in Saigon. While vocal in their condemnation of Japan and demands for redress, the South Korean government and media do not mention these facilities they themselves created.
Hata’s data indicate that knowledge of and anger about the Korean government’s attitude toward these matters smolder beneath the surface of South Korean society, with one woman referring to the Seoul government as a “a big pimp of the U.S. military.”
Meanwhile, the condemnations of Japan continue, with comfort women statues erected not only in Korea but in at least one city in the United States.
Then-chief Cabinet secretary Yohei Kono’s attempt at apology and the establishment of an atonement money fund have been counterproductive. This was in part because the fund had no direct agreement with the governments of countries where the women resided.
In addition, a sharp divide has emerged between those former comfort women who have received money and those who have not. As Hata drily observes, this is a good example of a goodwill effort producing results contrary to the original intention.
He might also have observed the same about a practice that grew out of a desire to shield women from “good families” of more prosperous circumstances from molestation — while leaving those from poorer families bear the burden of the distasteful comfort women practice. Or, put more broadly, war encourages prostitution in the countries involved.
Hata concludes this impressive work of scholarship by saying that he has impartially set out the facts, and leaves it up to readers to draw their own conclusions.
About the Book
Title: Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone
Author: Ikuhiko Hata
Publisher: Hamilton Books, a division on Rowman and Littlefield
Date: September 2018