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[Bookmark] Harvard Professor’s Paper on Comfort Women Will Become Academia’s Pandora’s Box

Payment terms were better for wartime comfort women than for prewar prostitutes … We should also consider that the American and German military ran comfort stations as well -Part 2.

Lee Wooyoun

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Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives to explore and enjoy.



Second of 2 parts. Read Part 1.

In all societies, sex work is known to be arduous and severely damaging to the reputation of those engaged in the industry. In return, sex workers tend to earn high income. The same is true of prostitutes who worked in Japanese brothels before the Asia-Pacific War and of military comfort women during the War. These characteristics are seen in the contracts they signed with brothels, as shown in J. Mark Ramseyer’s article. Understanding the contract between brothels and prostitutes or comfort women as a form of indentured servitude, Professor Ramseyer well explains the structure of their contracts. 

According to Ramseyer, the structure of contracts for comfort women consisted of the following: 1) advances given to prostitutes or comfort women prior to their employment, 2) the contract period that specified the number of years of their labor, and 3) the split ratio of sales between owners and prostitutes or comfort women. For more information about this, you can refer to my last column, “Controversy over Harvard Thesis on Comfort Women Will Become a Turning Point that Leads to the Decline of ‘Anti-Japanese Tribalism.”  

Payment terms were better for wartime comfort women than for pre war prostitutes 

Evidently, Ramseyer is not the first person to mention the contracts. Contracts of comfort women are already well known among researchers in this domain. The point that Ramseyer newly raises in his paper is that payment conditions were far better for wartime comfort women than for pre war prostitutes. This has to do with the fact that comfort women were working in a dangerous war zone.

Much more favorable payment conditions for comfort women came from the following reasons. First, whether they were on the front or in the rear of the battle zone, they had to take the risk of dying or getting injured, unlike those working in the interior of Japan and Chosen. Second, in case brothel owners violated the contract, they had the risk of having fewer means to resolve such a situation. While comfort women in Tokyo and Gyeongseong could turn to their friends, police, or courts to cope with a similar situation, or simply disappear into the crowd of the city if need be, comfort women working in a foreign war zone did not have this luxury. 

Consequently, high risk was to be compensated by high pay. A similar pattern is found in wartime labor mobilization (including conscription) of men of Chosen, which took place after September 1939. In the 1920s and 30s, wages for Koreans working in Japan were just over half of those of Japanese. However, after the mobilization began, differentiation in wages due to non-economic reasons, such as ethnic discrimination, was almost nonexistent, though payment could sometimes vary based on individual competence. This is because the Japanese government, facing labor shortages, banned discrimination. Ironically, during the war, working conditions for Chosen workers became better. 

According to Ramseyer, in the mid-1920s, advances for prostitutes in Japan were about 1,000 ~ 1,200 yen. In those days, the daily wage of female factory workers was less than 1.5 yen. In addition, unlike female factory workers, prostitutes were provided with meals and housing. In an environment characterized by a low level of economic development and a high Engel’s coefficient, the provision of meals and housing further widened the wage gap between prostitutes and other occupations. Given these circumstances, I think that their wage advances must have exceeded 1,000 times the daily wage of female factory workers.

It is said that even after the war, there was no significant change in the sum of advances. But the indenture period was reduced, instead. In the case of prostitutes, the common contract period was 6 years in Japan and 3 years in Chosen, while it was 2 years for those in comfort stations. There were also cases where contracts were for 6 months ~ 1 year, like in Burma. Like prostitutes, military comfort women could also leave the comfort station when the contract period was over, regardless of whether or not their entire wage advances were paid off. As such, the shortened indenture period would have made it easier for them to return home. 

When it comes to comfort women, people usually think that they were able to return only after the end of the war. But this thought is heavily influenced by the “forced recruitment theory” and “sex slave theory”. From 1937 to 1945, when the opening of comfort stations was in full swing, many comfort women would have returned to their home country before the end of the war. Those who were still there until the end of the war would have been a minority.

The split ratio in which the brothel shared the sales with comfort women was also favorable to them. If the split ratio was 7:3 for ordinary prostitutes, it was 6:4 for comfort women. In some cases, a 4:6 ratio was adopted. As a result, there were many comfort women who returned home after paying off their wage advances in just a few months. This is also discussed by Ikuhiko Hata, former Nihon University professor, in his book Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone. I would like to add here that the number of soldiers received by comfort women was much more than that of regular customers received by prostitutes, and accordingly, the income of military comfort women was significantly higher. 

In 1925, the number of clients serviced by prostitutes in brothels of Tokyo was only 2.5 people per day, on average. However, on the military front, there was always a shortage of comfort women. Also, the Japanese military imposed strict hygiene practices to prevent STIs and prohibited public access to comfort stations, while forbidding soldiers from visiting other private brothels. With regard to this point, there is a claim that after the end of the war, wartime comfort women were not able to retrieve their money from the military. But it is more likely that this was an exceptional case, given that there would have been far more comfort women who returned home before the end of the war.

Why are comfort women problematic only for the Japanese military? The American and German military also ran the institution of comfort stations

It can be concluded that military comfort women had ‘higher risk, higher income’ compared to regular prostitutes, the point which I fully agree with. Meanwhile, after first devoting themselves to launching ad hominem attacks against Professor Ramseyer, Korean media recently put forward some criticism about the actual content of the paper, conveying the opinions of some American researchers of Korean and Japanese history. 

Their first criticism is that Professor Ramseyer ‘insisted the responsibility of Korean recruiters was greater than that of the Japanese state.’ The part they refer to is as follows:

“It was not that the government – either the Korean or the Japanese government – forced women into prostitution. It was not that the Japanese army worked with fraudulent recruiters. It was not even that recruiters focused on the army’s comfort stations. Instead, the problem involved domestic Korean recruiters who had been tricking young women into working at brothels for decades.” 

Of course, the direct responsibility goes to recruiters of Chosen. The Japanese military was wary of recruiting comfort women through employment fraud or trafficking since this could severely damage its reputation. And the Japanese Government-General cracked down on such recruiters. Still, it is true that the Japanese government and military were indeed involved in the establishment and operation of comfort stations. Is this Japan’s fault? Yes. Every human makes a mistake. But this is where historical comparison would be useful. 

The U.S., with a strong Puritan tradition, is famous for its dual attitude toward ‘sex in war zones.’ Since 1941, the U.S. has firmly maintained the principle that ‘soldiers are not allowed to contact prostitutes in any area’. However, when venereal diseases became a problem due to soldiers’ contact with local prostitutes, the head of the army sent 150,000 boxes of condoms and 310,000 boxes of disinfectant to the military front by ships and air transportation. This took place in fall 1942.  

During the Vietnam War, the largest war since World War II, the United States took a more realistic stance. For example, there were two wings of “recreation centers” in the U.S. military camp in Lai Khê, where 60 Vietnamese women had room and board and worked in 60 private rooms. The sales were split in a 6:4 ratio between the entrepreneur and the women. Army surgeons did a weekly check-up on them, and women who passed their medical exams got a sign on their door that said they were safe. This place, called “Disneyland,” was supervised by a brigade commander and even the Pentagon turned a blind eye to it. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Indeed, this reminds us of Japanese military comfort stations. 

During the World War II, Germany also installed comfort stations similar to those of the Japanese military, and as of 1942, there were about 500 comfort stations. In the same year, the number of Japanese comfort stations was about 400.

Comfort women were usually in their 20s, mid-20s on average

Secondly, American researchers who criticize Ramseyer claim that ‘there were no contracts between Korean comfort women and Japanese comfort station owners.” Their argument that there were no contracts because comfort women of Chosen were ‘forcibly recruited’ can be refuted by the fact that there is no proof of ‘forced recruitment.’ Also, in regard to their argument that “girls in her early teens could not have known the contracts,” we should point out the fact that comfort women were usually in their 20s. On average, in their mid-20s. So let’s now focus on problems that actually correspond to historical facts.

There was a case where a Korean recruiter kidnapped a woman, pretending to offer her a job opportunity, and sold her off to a comfort station (employment fraud). At this time, she would have gone there without knowing that she would be working as a comfort woman. In this case, a contract would have been unnecessary, and a large sum of advances would not have been paid. However, this practice was risky. First of all, kidnapping, including employment fraud, was long subject to police crackdowns in Chosen, even before the war. 

In addition, it would also have caused troubles after the woman arrived at the comfort station. The units in charge of using and managing the comfort stations checked whether comfort women exactly understood what they were getting into. Also, before they could start working as comfort women, the women needed to submit multiple documents, including those issued by national agencies, and the military units verified them. Therefore, recruitment by means of kidnapping would have been less frequent than recruitment involving women’s parents, in what was virtually human trafficking.

In the latter case, from the parents’ point of view, the money given to them by a recruiter on behalf of the comfort station was the price they received for selling their daughter. But from the perspective of the comfort station owner or the recruiter, this money was a wage advance. According to Anti-Japan Tribalism by Lee Young-hoon, former Seoul National University professor, these transactions between recruiters and women’s parents were situated at the boundary between illegal trafficking and the legitimate exercise of rights under the ‘hoju’ system (family registration system) and legal employment service. As a result, on one hand, trafficking was rampant even before the war and was sometimes treated as a societal problem. But on the other hand, most of the people who have been investigated for trafficking at that time ended up being found not guilty. 

Given such circumstances, we should assume that parents who transacted with recruiters knew where their daughters were going and what they were going to do there. Even if it wasn’t an explicit contract to receive an advance, if the parents knew about it, it is no different than contracts that Ramseyer speaks of. It seems that those who criticize Ramseyer are unaware of these facts. It is in this context that we can understand the testimony of Ok-ju Mun, mentioned in Ramseyer’s paper as a comfort woman who made a lot of money through the trade, who testified that she hated her parents who sold her much more than the brothel owner. 

The most representative case of contracts being signed between comfort women and brothels was probably the case where brothels recruited working prostitutes in Chosen or elsewhere before the war. This part is the most neglected by researchers in Korea and Japan, but I think it is the most probable scenario. First of all, around 1940, there were about 10,000 prostitutes on the Korean Peninsula tallied by the Governor-General. In addition, there were about 8,000 Korean prostitutes in areas where Korean people had a presence, such as in China and Manchuria, which generally overlapped with the battle zone of the Asian-Pacific War. These are only numbers that were actually identified by government agencies. What was probably needed to convince these prostitutes to start working as comfort women was only to inform them that this job entailed ‘higher risk, but higher pay.’

From the recruiter’s point of view, recruiting existing prostitutes did not have the risk entailed in kidnapping or trafficking. From the prostitute’s point of view, becoming a military comfort woman did not further impair their social reputation. Rather, many actually had pride in comforting soldiers. Moreover, the Japanese military superiors and soldiers were not in a position to question where the comfort women came from, nor did they question them. Considering the above, I think that the first target of recruiters was prostitutes both inside and outside of Chosen.

In 1984, before the issue of comfort women became politicized, in his book Modern Korean History under Japanese Rule (Japanese version), Gun-ho Song (宋建鎬), who served as the president of the Hankyoreh Newspaper, the most left-wing and anti-Japanese media in Korea, stated as follows. Born in 1927, he experienced the colonial period.

“After the invasion of Nanjing at the end of 1937, around the beginning of Operation Xuzhou, the Japanese authorities instructed brokers in Chosen to transfer to China many women who were working as prostitutes due to poverty. Placing them in Japanese military facilities called ‘comfort stations’, temporary comfort stations’, or ‘army recreation centers’, they made them into playthings of Japanese soldiers.”

Also, the wife of Mr. Park ran an inn in Daegu. Mr. Park is known for his diary, Diary of a Japanese Military Comfort Station Manager (Published by Esoop), where he describes his life as a clerk in charge of ushering and accounting at a comfort station owned by his second wife’s younger brother (his brother-in-law) in Rangoon, Burma. At that time, inns often involved a prostitution business. So when Mr. Park was looking to recruit military comfort women with his brother-in-law, isn’t it more likely that they would have negotiated with existing prostitutes who already had a relationship with his wife, than go visit rural areas to lure women or search heartless parents willing to sell their daughters?

Let’s break the old habit of appealing to anti-Japanese nationalism and stop ad hominem attacks against the writer

As I said before in my last article, former comfort women testified that they became comfort women because they were victims of either employment fraud or sex trafficking. There is no one who testified that they worked as prostitutes before the war. In Korea, disclosing this fact would be a ‘social death’ for those who previously engaged in prostitution. For a similar reason, no woman in Japan used her real name in revealing her history as a military comfort woman. 

Among the three ways to recruit comfort women ― employment fraud, trafficking, and recruitment of existing prostitutes ―, if the second and third make up the majority, we should seriously consider the view that economic contracts were signed between brothels and comfort women or their parents, who acted on their daughters’ behalf. In this respect, Ramseyer’s article is enough to be a starting point of more fruitful discussion. 

This is a great opportunity for Korean academia to drop their old habit of appealing to anti-Japanese nationalism and relying on ad hominem attacks, and start a real academic debate about the issue. It is my hope that Korean researchers of comfort women will contemplate on this and finally start participating in an in-depth, scholarly conversation.  

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Author: Lee Wooyoun

Lee Wooyoun is an author and scholar with a Ph.D in economics, specializing in Korean economic history. His is currently a Researcher at the Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research

Lee Wooyoun is an author and scholar with a Ph.D in economics, specializing in Korean economic history.He is currently a research fellow at the Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research in South Korea. His books include the best-seller in South Korea and Japan, Anti-Japan Tribalism (co-author, 2019) and Cry Out the Truth in the Middle of Seoul (2020), among others.