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The Comfort Women and the Myth of the Willing Prostitute

There are many reasons women, including the comfort women, enter prostitution. Regardless of the reason, when it comes to the sex business, coercion is a given.



Hand-colored engraved caricature by and after Ambroise Garneray: 2 cossacks in foreground fondling kitchenmaids, outdoors, lady fleeing from an advancing cossack in background. (Public domain, around 1815, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2014, the Asahi Shimbun delivered a mea culpa. It admitted to a more than two-decade-long championing of the long-since discredited Seiji Yoshida. Yoshida had falsely claimed he had forced Korean women into the comfort women program. The forced recruitment assertion collapsed. 

The default argument for those committed to a comfort woman narrative scathing of Japan then changed. It transformed into an argument that the women had been coerced. And accordingly, little changed

The Asahi Shimbun's interview article with Seiji Yoshida was forced to be withdrawn due to the false statements given by Yoshida.

Sex Services and Self-Justification 

This is a ridiculous contention and one which displays a stunning lack of cognizance about prostitution. Inherent in the charge of coercion is that some sex workers enter and remain within that profession willingly. Yet the extreme majority of women who find their way into the sex industry do so out of coercion in some form or another. No young female announces in elementary school that her calling in life is to be a prostitute. 

It is not particularly surprising that large numbers of men embrace the "willing prostitute" argument. According to a quick internet search, the percentage of American men who have had sex with prostitutes is around 14%, rising to 20% of military members

A 2017 report on South Korean men indicates that roughly half of them had paid for sexual services. There are around four billion males alive today. The total of those who have had sex with prostitutes would surely run into several hundreds of millions. 

Walking street where prostitutes may be found in Pattaya, Thailand. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Preserving Differentiation between Their Own Experience and Comfort Women

This huge pool of men is naturally eager for their own conduct to be differentiated from that of the Japanese soldiers within the widely condemned comfort woman program. It is therefore not surprising when they claim that the women who serviced them were willing. Moreover, they say, the women seemed to enjoy the experience. 

The second of these justifications is as self-servicing as it is non-empathic. Deluding the customer into feeling that they are providing enjoyment is a fundamental component of the prostitute's job description. Or indeed, that of any service provider. 

When women forward the coercion argument regarding comfort woman recruitment, it is harder to understand. When made by a woman who publicly identifies as a feminist, it is quite inexplicable. 

A rare photo card shows a military field brothel in Morocco circa 1922. Two dark skinned women pose with soldiers outside the tents used for the sexual encounters. The caption reads "At Camp d'Arbalou l’Arbi. The B.M.C."

Coercion in War

The coercion of women into prostitution can come in the form of direct pressure from criminal elements or trusted elders. But is generally economic. It is particularly prevalent during wartime, especially so among the women of a defeated nation. 

In Blood and Ruins (Penguin Books, 2017), Richard Overy writes about sexual predation after the German surrender during World War II. There was "not a wide distance" between the rape carried out by Russian soldiers and the inducements of cigarettes and food by American GIs, he claimed. It was a process "as close to rape as you can get." The postwar reality of "hardship and hunger" stretched the concept of "consensual sex to its limit", Overy asserts

In 1943, one in sixteen British casualties in the Asian theater of the Second World War was a result of combat. Sexually transmitted diseases accounted for the remainder. The British were located around the India/Burma border, an area that had been devastated by the Bengal famine. That was a disaster characterized by negligence and incompetence at best and by design at worst. It should not surprise anyone that there were "willing prostitutes" aplenty in the locations where the British troops were based. 

comfort women
A group of South Korean university students join the protest at the comfort women statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in July 2020. (© Kyodo)

Economic Coercion in Hard Times

Colonialism was another generator of destitution among women. For example, the largest stationary body of United States troops in World War II-era Asia was in Guilin, China. The women that provided sexual services to them had at first found their way into prostitution due to an absence of opportunities in British colonial Hong Kong. They relocated to Guilin after Hong Kong fell. There are reports that, on Guilin's main street, the "girls thronged every evening, two or three deep". 

There is perhaps no better example of the economic form of coercion than during the Vietnam War. The United States of America tore its way through the Vietnamese landmass like a buzzsaw. It killed or displaced men, burned villages, and defoliated fields. Unsurprisingly, innumerable women turned to prostitution in order to survive.

A street prostitute speaks with a customer in a parked vehicle. (Author: Seedfeeder, via Wikimedia Commons)

'Ladies of the Night' 

In 2013, in the wake of a controversy regarding Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto's comments on the comfort women, a contributor sent a letter to the editor of the Japan Times. That writer sought to draw distinctions between the Japanese and Western armies regarding the sex trade. 

During the 1960s the writer had been a fighter pilot and was often on foreign bases. Accordingly, he declared himself to be in rare position to comment, "from almost firsthand experience."

Toru Hashimoto was correct in saying that wherever there was military, there was sex, the writer conceded. But those "ladies of the night" who provided "comfort" to the Western armies did so "willingly" he claimed. 

I personally replied, charging that there is no such thing as a willing prostitute. 

For those that felt differently, I suggested they rent a copy of the 2012 movie version of Les Miserables. It had just been released around that time. And it contained a song by a "willing" prostitute that nonetheless drove most to tears. 

Too Guilty to Admit Comfort Women are the Same

The writer rejoined with a jumbled reply that encompassed several of the 7 stages of grief. Meanwhile, it stopped considerably short of "acceptance." 

There was first the nonsensical argument that I had no right to judge him because I did not know him personally. Then came the claim that expanding from comfort women to prostitution, in general, was "not helpful." Next, he submitted a direct appeal to the reader to accept that in having lived long and seen much, he had developed "a great humility and deep sense of brotherhood towards all." 

Finally, and perhaps inevitably, he went on the attack. My "true colors" were revealed when I referred to the Asian conflict in my letter as the "East Asian War" rather than "The Pacific War," he claimed. He then challenged me to deny that I was not defending Japanese aggression.  

Ghosts in the Neighborhood
Former South Korean President Moon Jae In with a South Korean comfort woman on August 14, 2018, the same year the South Korean government designated the date as "Comfort Women Day."

The World's Oldest Myth

It is not hard to conclude that the writer was troubled by his conduct as a serviceman during the 1960s. That comes through from his admission of "almost" firsthand experiences. He was desperately seeking to preserve the sense of distinction between the comfort woman program and the prostitution that Western servicemen enjoyed in Asia both during and after the Asia-Pacific War. 

And while prostitution is famously known as the world's oldest profession, the letter writer's fundamental argument has never been true. There are no significant distinctions between the sexual "comforts" enjoyed by the Western and Japanese troops or men of the present day. When it comes to prostitution, coercion is a given. The "willing prostitute" is a myth. 


Author: Paul de Vries

Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history on JAPAN Forward.


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