Comfort Women: Were They Prostitutes or Sex Slaves?

Professor Lew Seok-choon of Yonsei University in Seoul is under criminal investigation for libel and other charges for his lecture last September 19 where he said comfort women were prostitutes.

 

Not only Koreans, but also many Americans and even Japanese, believe the Japanese military comfort women system was forced sexual slavery. This view is widely held in spite of the existence of numerous primary source documents that prove otherwise.

 

Let’s take a look at some of these widely held pretenses and compare them to what is said in primary source documents on the same subject.

 

 

Were comfort women sex slaves or paid prostitutes?

 

Contemporary U.S. Military Sources

 

One primary source is Report No. 49, U.S. Office of War Information, dated October 1, 1944. This is an interrogation report of 20 Korean comfort women in Burma. This report clearly states:

 

A “comfort woman” is nothing more than a prostitute or professional camp follower.

  

 

Allied Translator Records and Captured Japanese Documents

 

Another primary source is found in the ATIS (Allied Translator/Interpreter Section) Research Report No. 120. It says, “Amenities of the Japanese Armed Forces,” dated November 15, 1945. Among them are the following:

 

From a captured Japanese document, “Rules for Restaurants and Houses of Prostitution,” dated February 1943:

 

MANILA: “Persons receiving permission to open business [comfort station] will…submit…copy of personal histories of employees….” “Permission is necessary before anyone joins the establishment.”

 

SHANGHAI SECTOR: “The prostitutes will possess licenses….” “Unlicensed prostitutes are strictly prohibited from plying their trade.” “The prostitute and the operator will share equally the proceeds of the work done by the prostitute.”

 

“Tacloban Brothel Regulations,” undated: “Places called brothels in these regulations are special brothels operated with Filipino women (licensed prostitutes).”  

 

 

Foreign Ministry Documents on Comfort Stations

 

Japanese Foreign Ministry documents from the wartime era were also captured and are among the primary sources available. These include:

 

  • Consul General Reports on the Status of Countrymen and Businesses in Chinese Cities: Report on Jiujian (sic)
  • Consulate Report No. 561, 11/8/38; Nanchang (sic)
  • Report No. 217, 8/9/39; Chiahu (sic)
  • Report No. 170, 8/2/39

 

All of these reports list comfort stations, together with other commercial businesses, not as something special. Operators are listed as civilians. Countrymen are identified as Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese. There is no mention of any comfort station operated by military personnel.

 

Another Japanese document, theReport by Governor General of Guangdong (sic), Report No. 37, 3/15/41,” also lists comfort stations with other businesses run by Japanese, Taiwanese, and Koreans.

 

All comfort stations with Korean women were operated by Koreans, Japanese women by Japanese. There is not even a hint of military guards.

 

 

Diaries

 

The “Diary of Gordon Thomas” is another contemporary source on the subject. Thomas was the former editor of The Rabaul Times who spent three years in Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) operating an icehouse while Rabaul was under Japanese occupation. Comfort women often visited his icehouse and were not under guard. Mention is made of women from two different comfort stations fighting over customers.

 

The diary of a Korean who managed comfort stations in Burma and Singapore is also part of the record. Korean Professor Choe Kil Sung analyzed this diary. The following are extracts which clarify the status of comfort women:

 

When people think of a comfort station…quite a few…imagine a military camp or an army tent. And yet, it seems that, for the most part, the comfort stations were actually located in ordinary civilian buildings.

 

These comfort stations were also engaged in buying and selling, borrowing and loaning, and transfer of property.

 

Professor Choe concludes: “After I read the diary for the first time, I concluded definitely that the comfort stations were not military institutions, but rather similar to wartime brothels.”  

 

 

How Were Comfort Women Recruited?

 

Allied Translator Records and Interrogation Reports

 

A revealing source on the methods of comfort women recruitment can be found in the ATIS Research Report No. 120. In the section on Burma, the interrogation of the comfort station operator mentioned in Report No. 49 provides information on recruitment:   

 

Prisoner of War, his wife and sister-in-law, had made some money as restaurant keepers in…[present day Seoul], but…, to make more money…applied to Army Headquarters in…[Seoul] for permission to take comfort girls from Korea to Burma….

 

Prisoner of War purchased [contracted] 22 Korean girls, paying their families from 300 to 1000 yen according to the personality, looks, and age of the girls. The girls were from [ages] 19 to 31…. Every “comfort girl” was employed on the following contract conditions. She received fifty percent of her own gross takings and was provided with free passage, free food, and medical treatment…. When a girl is able to repay the sum of money paid to her family, plus interest, she should be provided with a free return passage to Korea….

 

Another contemporaneous document is Interrogation Report of 163d Language Detachment attached to U.S. I Corps, Philippines. Report No. 163LD-I 023, titled “Combined Enemy Preliminary Report,” dated May 21, 1945. This is an interrogation report of five comfort women, one from Taiwan and four from Korea, ages 19 to 28. All five were captured by U.S. Forces in Luzon, Philippines, in May 1945.

 

The status of the women is listed as “prostitutes.” Circumstances of recruitment of Korean women are described in the report as follows:

 

The families of all the women were extremely poor and in order to save their families the expense of caring for them, they were sold to a Geisha House in Korea. They were sent to…Formosa [Taiwan]…. They returned to Korea on 29 Apr 44, left with 62 other women of both Jap [Japanese] and Korean nationality for the Philippines.

 

The knowledge of Koreans generally about the practice of comfort women was also investigated by Allied officials as territories were taken over from Japan near the end of the war. One such document is the report “Military Intelligence Service Captured Personnel & Material Branch, dated 25 April 1945. Interrogation Report, and the extract from it titled “Composite Report on Three Korean Navy Civilians List No. 78,” dated March 25, 1945, regarding “Special Questions on Koreans.”

 

The questions asked about comfort women were: Do Koreans generally know about the recruitment of Koreans by the Japanese Army to serve as prostitutes? What is the attitude of the average Korean toward this program? Responses were recorded as follows:  

 

All Korean prostitutes that PoWs have seen in the Pacific were volunteers or had been sold by their parents into prostitution. This is proper in the Korean way of thinking but direct conscription of women by the Japanese would be an outrage that the old and young folks alike would not tolerate. Men would rise up in a rage, killing Japanese no matter what consequences they might suffer. 

 

 

Indonesia: The Bart van Poelgeest Report

 

The Bart van Poelgeest Report was a study commissioned by the Dutch government in 1993 on comfort women in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Excerpts of its findings are below. There was nothing in the report to indicate a general practice of using force in recruitment, although isolated cases were found:

 

The study shows that in recruiting European women for their military brothels in the Dutch East Indies, the Japanese occupiers used force in some cases.  

 

The chief of staff of the 16th army on Java…decided that a license was required for the establishment of a military brothel. A license was issued only if certain conditions were met…. A further precondition was that the women working in the brothels had to do so voluntarily: according to the regulations, a license would only be issued if the women involved signed a statement to the effect that they were providing their service voluntarily.

 

The report went on:

 

To conclude, the documents available reveal of the two hundred to three hundred European women in the Japanese military brothels in the Dutch East Indies, some sixty-five were most certainly forced into prostitution.

 

There were about a half a dozen cases of forced recruitment tried by the War Crimes tribunal in Indonesia. This was in an area spanning 3,000 miles with 20,000 islands with a population of 70 million Indonesians and three hundred thousand Europeans.

 

 

Japanese Army Warnings About Illegal Recruitment

 

Another document uncovered by the Allies at the end of the war is a Japanese Department of Army Directive to Northern and Central China Area Armies, dated March 4, 1938. In this document, the Japanese Department of Army expressed concern and provided a warning to be on the lookout for comfort station operators who used illegal recruitment of women.

 

 

Others

 

Forced recruitment was a war crime. There was one case of war crimes trial of forced recruitment by a Japanese civilian involving two women on Guam. No war crimes records on forced recruitment have been found for Australian territory, French Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), Malaya, the Philippines, Thailand, Korea, or the Pacific Islands.  

 

 

Was the Japanese Military Concerned About Comfort Women?

 

Contrary to popular belief, the Japanese military was not an undisciplined armed mob raping and looting through Asia. The Japanese military had specific rules of conduct and they applied as well to interactions with comfort women. Abduction of women and rape were punishable under Japanese military law.

 

The Penal Code of the Japanese Imperial Army, enacted April 9, 1908, makes these points clear:

 

Part 9. Looting and Rape. 

Article 86. On the battlefield or territory occupied by the Imperial Army, anyone looting of property of local populace will be punished by imprisonment of over one year. In the process of foregoing, anyone who rapes a woman/girl will be punished by indefinite prison term of seven years or more.

     

Article 88, Part 2. In the war zone or territory occupied by the Imperial Army, anyone committing rape of woman/girl will be subject to indefinite imprisonment or imprisonment of…. In event of death of a victim, penalty will be deathc….

 

The contemporaneous records indicate the comfort women system was a brothel system operated by civilians. Local military authorities established regulations, which operators and prostitutes were required to follow to conduct business in that jurisdiction.

 

Due to the need for brevity, details on the comfort women system mentioned in numerous other primary source documents were regretfully omitted. All information in this article is from my book, Wartime Military Records on Comfort Women (Amazon, 2017).

 

Those desiring in-depth knowledge of the comfort women issue are referred to Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone by Dr. Hata Ikuhiko, translated into English by Dr. Jason Morgan (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018).

 

 

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Author: Archie Miyamoto, Lt. Col., U.S. Army, Ret.

 

Author:

Archie Miyamoto is a retired U.S. Army officer. During the Korean War he became a career U.S. Army infantry officer and served two tours each in Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Japan, and a special tour in Germany. Military awards include three Legion of Merits, two Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze star, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and Master Aviator Wings. He was also a paratrooper and Tactical Nuclear Weapons Employment Specialist. He is a recipient of Army Aviator Wings from the Republic of China and the Hwa Rang medal from South Korea.

He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska (Omaha), and has a Master's degree from Troy University, Alabama. He is also a graduate of the Army Aviation School and the Command and General Staff College. After retirement from the Army he spent two years in Israel, after which he joined a Japanese corporation (Maruzen of America) in California and became its President/Chairman. He is retired and resides in California. His detailed account of the Gripsholm exchanges was distributed to former passengers but never published. He is the author of the book, WWII Military Records on Comfort Women (2017, Amazon Digital Services LLC).  

3 Comments

  • I don’t doubt your statement isn’t true, but it isn’t one hundred percent right, either. Many survivors have testmonied that they didn’t go to those camps on their will. The survivors are important in the case, you shouldn’t ignore them. Many of them were deceived into thinking they were working in a factory, or a job. Many were kidnapped or forced to go. Some of them were in situations where they couldn’t refuse, and the Japanese knew that.

    The book Military Comfort Women by Yoshimi Yoshiaki states that the women, sex slaves or not, suffered severely from their experience in comfort camps. He states, “One woman was diagnosed with gonorrhea when she went to a doctor in 1950; another woman had to have stitches in her vagina when she was liberated; another woman had a hysterectomy; and another womn was rendered unable to have childrn…Former comfort women also suffered severe TPSD. Kikumaru, a apanese former comfort woman, committed suicide by gas asphyxiation in her apartment in Ichikawa city in Chiba Prefecture on April 26, 1972.” Which proves the fact many women suffered from their experience.

    And in Paragraph Two of Article Eighty-Six of the Army Penal Code, it states (as you said in the article), “On the battlefield or territory occupied by the Imperial Army, anyone looting of property of local populace will be punished by imprisonment of over one year. In the process of foregoing, anyone who rapes a woman/girl will be punished by indefinite prison term of seven years or more.”

    On first glance, it seems like a heavy penalty, but it only addressed rape when it was committed along with the crime of looting.

    The book states, “Okamura recounts he following incidents that took place in August 1938. The Chief of Staff of the Hata Detachments. SInce even the wife and daughter of the village headman who had been contracted to build an airfield had been gang-raped, the work was not progressing. WHen commanding officer Okamura, angered by this news, ordered that the offenders be arrested, the captain of the military police replied that the victims didn’t personally file a complaint against anyone, so it couldn’t legall be considered rape. The captain “calmly stated his opinion that since no one has filed suit the case has been dropped…

    But Yoshiaki also states, “There were also many instances in whihc soldiers who committed rapes killed the women they had assulted out of fear of being prosecuted.”

    It proves that the Japanese raped women, in comfort stations or not. It also proves that there was a hole in the law, and it didn’t keep the Japanese from raping women. The book also states that many officials turned a blind eye to the rapes frequently because it embarrassed them to put in a report.

    And by saying they were paid, many thought it was a work that didn’t include sexual activity. In the book, it states, “…Japanese couple bought twenty-two unmarried Korean women in 1942. They paid the girl’s parentsbetween 300 and 1000 yen…they were sold ranged from seventeen to twenty-nine with the twelve girls under the age of twenty-one. It seems that they were not told that their work would entail sexual services. U.S. Army Sergeant Alex Yorichi made the following remakrs during the first interrogation of the prisoners.

    “‘The nature of this “service” was unspecified but it was assumed to be work connected with visiting the wounded in hospitals, rolling bandages, and generally making the soldiers happy…”

    And the treatment of comfort women were different in different stations. Some were invited to parties and movies while others were tortured to death. During WW2, Korea WAS a part of Japan, but they took underage girls and deceived them, as clearly you can see from the above.

    Mun Ok-chi (“Suddenly, he grabbed my arm and pulled me, saying something in Japanese. That was a time when even hearing the word ‘policeman’ was a scary thing, so I was led off withou saying a word… I thought I was being taken to the military police.”)’s testimony agrees to the fact that not all of them agreed to go. She was forced to go against her own will.

    In the book, it also states, “As a lincensed prostitution system had been introduced into Korea, there were cases of lincensed prostitues becoming comfort women. Amon the twenty women taken prisoner in Burma by the U.S. Army, the vast majority had no experience with prostitution, but there were a few who had been prostitues…We can’t say that unlicensed prostitues never became comfort women, but this was probably rare because so many of them were afflicted with sexually transmitted diseases. For example, the Inchon branch of the Temporary Line of Communicaation Headquarters for the Korea Army, which was engaged in transportings troops from the Korea Army, which was engaged in transporting troops…reported that, “Since ‘social diseases’ are wide-spread in Korea, it is essential that {soldiers} be instructed never to have contact with unlicnesed Korea prostitutes.” The Headquarters ordered all of the units in ther arracks to strictly forbid any contact with unofficial Korean prostitues.”

    • Very predictably, this person starts out by using the term ‘testimony’ to describe the statements made by the former Korean comfort women. This point has been made frequently in recent years: a testimony is “a solemn declaration usually made orally by a witness under oath in response to interrogation by a lawyer or authorized public official” according to the Merriam-Webster definition, and such standard must be applied when the party is seeking redress based on admission of guilt. If a nation is accused of any wrongdoing, there cannot be a lower standard where only statements advantageous to the accuser are cherry-picked from a set of many, often conflicting ones. Prof. C. Sarah Soh’s choosing the term ‘testimonial narrative’ remains to be the best to reference the various statements made by the women since the comfort women controversy began.

      Also very predictably, this person keeps referring to Prof. Yoshiaki Yoshimi’s work, but in order to reach any level of respectable objectivity and fairness, one must use efforts to integrate the findings by a scholar who advocates an opposing view of the issue. Yoshimi is a well-known fixture of the Japanese Left, so it is only reasonable to present what someone like Prof. Ikuhiko Hata or equivalent has researched on the comfort women subject matter – if we are to bring some balance and impartiality to the discussion.

      On that note, it’s amusing that this person brought up the name Mun Ok-chu who has possibly revealed the most interesting personal accounts of her experience at comfort stations in a book published in Japanese and Korean, and some of the details are given here: https://bit.ly/36u7XUq

      This person continues with comments such as the Japanese raped women in comfort stations or not, and that many comfort women suffered from their experience in addition to physical diseases that included STD. Unfortunately, Japan’s comfort women system did not prevent violence in occupied territories, and prostitution, sex work, or any other terminology to refer to that type of labor can result in physical and/or psychological anguish. But these facts along with the ‘testimonies’ do not even come close to substantiating the outrageous accusations made by the redress movement activists against the Japanese military. Lt. Col. Archie Miyamoto’s compilation work more than underscores the fact that the Allied Forces knew the truth about comfort women and concluded over 70 years ago that the system as something totally different from ‘rape centers’ where women were systematically violated and savaged, totally stripped of their humanity.

  • American Lt. Col Archie Miyamoto (Ret.) should be lauded for his efforts to illuminate the history of comfort women. An accurate understanding is essential for justice. His article reveals that the topic of comfort women is complex. To further clarify the history, a broad overview highlighting key points is presented below.

    First, it is important to understand the socioeconomic conditions at the time. During the first half of the last century, poverty was widespread in much of Asia, including Korea and Japan. Many families, especially farm families and those in rural areas, struggled to survive and were in debt, forcing families to make sacrifices unimaginable today. Hunger was commonplace. This stark economic reality, along with the patriarchal nature of Asian societies, created an environment where some young women desperately desired an opportunity for a different life. This backdrop provides the context needed to understand the events.

    For Korean comfort women, the vast majority had been “sold” to brokers by their impoverished families or joined of their own accord – though many may have been misled about the nature of the job by the brokers (recruiters/agents) who were typically civilians. Unscrupulous brokers took the women to brothels, instead of the stated job. These comfort women were paid (and/or their families had been paid) and could go home when their contractual obligations were met, but they were at the mercy of the civilian brothel operator. Korean comfort women often worked at brothels owned and operated by Korean civilians. The working and living conditions varied, depending on the brothel, and some brothel operators were abusive, as were some soldiers.

    For these women, a reasonably accurate description is: Indentured prostitutes, working under contracts in civilian-owned brothels accompanying military units, who could go home after fulfilling the contract, who had been sold by their parents or joined on their own, but who may have been recruited by civilian brokers under deceptive practices.

    Although little mentioned, a large fraction of comfort women were from Japan. Prostitution was legal in Japanese territories during that time. Korea and Taiwan were a part of Imperial Japan then, and Koreans and Taiwanese were Japanese citizens.

    In addition to the women recruited from Imperial Japan (Japan, Korea, and Taiwan), another group of women often classified under the umbrella label of comfort women were women that worked at brothels in lands Japan occupied during the war (e.g., China, Indonesia, Philippines). The Japanese military issued licenses to local owners for the establishment of brothel businesses that catered to the military. These businesses were staffed by women who were generally recruited by the civilian operators (not the military).

    The Japanese military regulated these businesses for the safety and welfare of both the soldiers and women. For example, these regulations stipulated that the women be paid, often at least half the amount that soldiers paid to visit.

    A small fraction of women were forcibly recruited. Their circumstances varied. Newspapers of that time period reported that Korean women were abducted by civilian (often Korean) traffickers and sent to brothels. In addition, there were incidents where some Japanese soldiers in the field coerced women, but this was not authorized by Tokyo; this occurred in territories occupied during the war, such as Indonesia and the Philippines. The possibility that some uniformed personnel (e.g., corrupt police) conducted illegal activities cannot be ruled out. The women forced by rogue soldiers should be considered differently and separately from most comfort women. The women forcibly recruited in Indonesia were released after about two months by the Japanese military, when their situation was discovered by a higher ranking officer. The violating personnel were brought to justice after the war. Unfortunately, most activists wrongly lump all comfort women into this “forced by the military” category.

    As a policy, the Imperial Japanese military did not abduct women. Many Korean parents sold the services of their children, placing them under a contract of servitude (i.e., they were “indentured”). The women could return home after fulfilling the contract. Parents and women may have been deceived by civilian brokers (many of whom were Korean) – not by the military. These conditions differ from “slavery” as understood by most Americans; thus, the term slavery creates misunderstanding.

    With certainty, many comfort women suffered as a result of being “sold” by their parents and/or being deceived by the civilian brokers. One can only imagine how traumatic it would be to be sold by one’s OWN parents and placed under a contract of servitude because of poverty, or deceived by unethical brokers who promised a good job.

    An unfortunate and serious consequence of this misunderstood history is that it harms girls and women of today by not shedding light on some underlying causes of this tragedy: socioeconomic inequality (i.e., patriarchal social structures and poverty). Blaming only the Japanese military hides these underlying causes. To prevent today’s disadvantaged girls and women from experiencing such a tragedy, the comfort women story MUST be told accurately.

    In this comment, a highly-abridged overview of comfort women was presented, with many historical details omitted. Those desiring a more-detailed history should read Lt. Col. Miyamoto’s book, as well as the book by Korean-born Professor C. Sarah Soh. Professor Ikuhiko Hata’s book also provides insights. Books by Korean professors Yuha Park and Younghoon Lee (available in Korean and Japanese) further corroborate what is written in this comment.

    In closing, let us hear the voices of former Korean comfort women (from Prof. Soh’s book):
    – Sun-ok Kim recalled: “My father entreated me and said, ‘…It’s your misfortune to have someone like me as a father…’ Within a fortnight after my return home from Sinuiju, I was sold for a fourth time and sent off…” (p. 11).
    – Kun-ja Kim’s original testimonial, “published in 1999, revealed that her foster father ‘sold’ her.” In 2003, Kim reportedly said that she “hated the father more than the Japanese military.” (p. 101).
    – Yong-Su Yi[Lee] originally stated, “Without letting my mother know, I simply left home by following my friend.” (pp. 99-100).

    From a former Korean comfort woman (recorded by Prof. Park):
    – Chun-hee Bae stated: “Japanese people didn’t do things that some people are saying. Natural for Abe to be upset. Koreans were part of human trafficking, not Japanese government.””It’s wrong that others are spreading false information to US, Germany, and other countries.”

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