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Why Korean Professor Believes Comfort Women Were Not Sex Slaves




This piece was first published under the title "Seoul University professor denied the theory of comfort women as the sex slave" in Monthly Hanada Selection: Hopeless South Korea and Tragic President Park Geun-hye, a special December 2016 edition of the Japanese monthly magazine. JAPAN Forward is serializing it.


First of 3 parts


In 1992, after the Asahi Shimbun in Japan published a malicious report, which sparked an ongoing debate on comfort women, I traveled to Seoul in order to gather additional information on the issue. During that trip, the elderly Koreans I met all told me the same thing:


“The Japanese military forcibly kidnapped Korean women in order to use them as comfort women? That’s such a stupid thing to say. At that time, Korea was poor. There were so many parents who had no choice but to sell their daughters to pimps in order to alleviate their own poverty. The Japanese were not able to go into the poor farming villages. The pimps who bought the daughters were female and they were Korean. There was no need for the Japanese military to be a part of this.”


The elderly Korean people with whom I spoke had all directly experienced life under Japanese rule. They were former members of the Korean National Assembly from both the majority and minority parties, former editors at major South Korean newspapers, and university professors.


I was a foreign exchange student in South Korea from 1977 to 1978. Some of the South Korean university students with whom I became close friends told me unhesitatingly that, upon being drafted into the military, but before entering into their actual military service, they planned to go to a brothel and have their first sexual experience.


Even in the 1970s, there were many women working in such unlicensed prostitution dens who later ended up as prostitutes after taking advance payments as a way out of poverty. There also were many films where actresses in leading roles portrayed such women. This made me think seriously about the issue of comfort women.


I have since consistently held the position that the comfort women did exist. It is a historical fact. That being said, until the “comfort women issue” was created by Asahi Shimbun’s false reporting in the 1990s, there were no further questions that needed answers.


Now, the comfort women issue has become something different from what historical facts illustrate. It clearly involves the use of calumny of international proportions.


Lee Young-hoon Confirms the Facts


In August of 2016, Seoul National University professor emeritus of economics Lee Young-hoon, in an internet lecture that cited empirical research, said almost exactly the same things, which I was told during my interviews with those elderly Koreans in 1992.


For example, Lee contends in his lecture: “The comfort woman system was a licensed prostitution system under the control of the military…. The comfort women were not sex slaves…. Korean comfort women were recruited by pimps by means of advance payments and outright fraud…. There is no evidence that there were 200,000 Korean comfort women. The number is somewhere around 5,000.”


Seoul National University professor emeritus of economics Lee Young-hoon in youtube lecture.



I viewed this internet lecture with deep emotions—debate based upon clear facts had finally surfaced within the South Korean academe. What follows is a detailed introduction of the points raised by Lee.


(The original of the lecture was delivered in Korean. The translations into Japanese are my own.)


Academic Conscience


Lee specializes in South Korean economic history. He is the standard-bearer of the colonization-as-modernization theory—the idea the South Korean economy experienced significant growth under Japanese rule. He has argued that history textbooks in South Korea are biased toward a leftist view and has been at the forefront of textbook reform efforts in the country.


For example, in 2007, Lee published, The Tale of the Republic of Korea. In this book, he writes: “In textbooks we read that, ‘Japan used methods of thoroughgoing viciousness to suppress and exploit our people which are without parallel anywhere in history.’ However, I beg to differ. This sentence is not factual. For example, the reason that half of Korean rice was exported to Japan was not because the Governor-General of Korea forced Koreans to do this, but because the price of rice in the Japanese home islands was some 30% higher than it was in Korea.”


In this same book, Lee is less than fully articulate when discussing the comfort women issue. In September of 2004—approximately two and a half years before The Tale of the Republic of Korea was first published—he appeared on a television debate program and was criticized by a South Korean Assembly member from the opposition party: “To say that comfort women were licensed prostitutes is to repeat what the Japanese right-wingers say.” Internet news sites picked this up and reported that “Lee Young-hoon calls the comfort women licensed prostitutes,” which led to massive protests against him.


Perhaps, it was for this reason that Lee refrained from arguing comfort women were licensed prostitutes in his book. In fact, he wrote in The Tale of the Republic of Korea that comfort women were sex slaves.


Nine years after the book was published, the governments of South Korea and Japan entered into a formal agreement on December 2015 regarding the comfort women issue. A majority of former comfort women supported this accord. In the midst of these greatly altered circumstances, Lee summoned the courage to speak out of academic conscience.


In 2016, the editor-in-chief of the Korea Economic Daily presided over a series of lectures on modern South Korean history given as part of an internet television program. The final lecture in Lee’s segment, titled “Prof. Lee Young-hoon’s Country of Illusions,” was the two-hour-plus “The Women of the Comfort Stations.”


Even after more than two months had passed since the lectures were uploaded to the internet, there has been no news of any protests by activist groups and/or the left-wing media. Of the 64 comments on the page, just 11 aggressively criticize and insult Lee. This represents a major change taking place inside of South Korean society.


Primary-Source Documents


Lee seemed a bit nervous during his lecture. He began:


The title of today’s lecture is, “The Women of the Comfort Stations.” The lecture will be on the women who used to work at the Japanese military comfort stations—the women whom today we call “comfort women.” As you know, the comfort women became a very hot topic of general public debate in 1991. For the 25 since then, the comfort women issue has remained hotly and bitterly contested, and has virtually defined the relationship between Japan and South Korea.


Indeed, the comfort women issue has exerted a profound influence upon not only diplomatic relations between the two countries, but also upon all aspects of exchange: the economy, society, culture, and beyond. Not only this, but over the past two and a half decades this issue has greatly inflamed South Korean anti-Japanese ethno-nationalism, and has deeply affected not just South Korea’s relationship with Japan, but also the South Korean people’s understanding of their own history, culture, and intellectual life.


Therefore, in this lecture on the “country of illusions,” I think it would be impossible for me to avoid touching on the topic of the comfort women.


Lee began his lecture after these brief prefatory remarks. Before touching upon the subject of the Japanese military comfort women, he said the comfort women should be understood in the longue-duree historical context. He also noted out that the South Korean military had comfort women as well.


The professor’s lecture was distinguished by his heavy use of primary-source documents—which he liberally cited, while advancing his empirical view of history. For example, Lee introduced in the course of his lecture a 1952 collection by the South Korean military, which contained a statistical document titled “Service record of the special national military comfort brigade.” According to this document, there were three comfort brigades in Seoul—numbered 1 through 3—and one in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. There was a total of 89 women in these four stations, who together provided sexual “comfort” to 204,560 people in 1952. Lee then calculated that each woman serviced an average of 6.4 clients per day for that year.


Generation Raised Alongside Comfort Women


Lee then shifted to a discussion of the comfort women issue provided to the United States military forces stationed in South Korea. In 1961, the Park Chung-hee administration forced the comfort women servicing the US military to undergo registration and health checkups. According to statistics from the Health and Society Department from the time, in 1961 there was a total of 14,912 comfort women servicing the US military. The women were registered by profession: dancers, comfort women, and customer service women.



By 1962, this number had skyrocketed to 36,355 women. The number dropped to 20,436 in 1963. Lee included information in his lecture on the numbers of US military comfort women by region and registration subheading. He then stated, “There were around 30,000 comfort women servicing the US military until the mid-1960s. The term ‘comfort women’ is used in the South Korean government’s own official statistics.”


“The comfort women issue,” Lee emphatically continued, “is not limited to the Japanese military. It has been a part of South Korea’s own reality, too—it is a history that very much has a present dimension. My generation was raised alongside the comfort women.”


Calculating the Numbers


Lee then compared the lives of the comfort women who serviced the South Korean military and the US military, respectively. Here, he focused on an invaluable PhD dissertation submitted to the Seoul National University Graduate School of Public Health in 1964, titled, “Research in Social Medicine for the Comfort Women, with an Emphasis on the Gunsan Region.”


The dissertation comprises a report on an investigation of 188 women registered with the Gunsan City Health Center as comfort women for South Koreans, along with 132 women registered in the same center as comfort women for the US military. The average age of the US military comfort women was slightly higher than that of the comfort women for the Korean forces. Most of the comfort women servicing the South Korean military had had no schooling at all. The US military comfort women had worked in that trade longer than their South Korean military counterparts, however. The US military comfort women also had higher average incomes and more savings than the comfort women who serviced the South Korean military as well. Lee provided exact numbers for these assertions from the dissertation.


One survey item of particular interest was the frequency with which each comfort woman engaged in sexual intercourse during a given day. For comfort women servicing South Korean military clients, the average was 5.5 times per day, while for comfort women servicing American servicemen the average was 1.7 times per day.


Lee next reminded his listeners that he earlier had calculated—from South Korean military documents—the average comfort woman servicing South Korean clients had intercourse with an average of 6 men per day. This comports well, he contends, with the average of 5 clients a woman in a Japanese brothel serviced per day in 1945. These averages, confirmed through multiple sources, would be used later in Lee’s lecture to estimate the total number of comfort women.


(To be continued)


Tsutomu Nishioka is a member of the planning committee at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a visiting professor at Reitaku University. He was born in 1956 in Tokyo,  and graduated from the International Christian University. He worked at the Japanese embassy in South Korea as a researcher from 1982 to 1984, and served as editor in chief of monthly magazine Gendai Korea. He is chairman of National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN).



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  1. Liên Vũ

    December 5, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    The most common methods used to recruit comfort women are negotiation, deceit, kidnapping and coercion. Most women did not know the nature of their jobs until arriving at Japanese camps, mostly overseas. There are indeed paid prostitutes but the number of these women was in no way adequate to generally define all comfort women as voluntary sex workers.

    • FronTierFrank

      January 1, 2019 at 12:45 am

      You're making a broad statement about the recruiting that cannot be verified statistically. Next time, I suggest qualifying what you believe by starting out, 'In my opinion, most women were...' The point is, there has never been a comprehensive study to realistically estimate the total number of comfort women. That's why activists suddenly increased their claim from 200,000 to 400,000, but they chose to lower it back to 200,000 so that they wouldn't look stupid and laughed at.

  2. Julian Cheyne

    August 25, 2018 at 3:48 am

    Regarding the attempt to compare the policy of the dictator Park to manage the health and safety of so-called Korean comfort women 'servicing' the needs of American soldiers in South Korea I do not see how this can be compared to the policy of the Japanese Government to establish brothels to provide sexual services for its armed forces. That women can be found accompanying armies in all parts of the world is not in dispute. However, there is no indication that Park established such brothels. To 'forcibly' require women to undergo registration and health checks if they were acting in this way is an entirely different proposition to actively establishing brothels and finding women by various means to fill those brothels. This is a misuse of the term 'comfort women' as it is applied in the case of the Japanese armed forces and is an attempt to conflate two entirely different situations. Likewise the attempt to avoid the term 'sexual slavery' by talking about this in the everyday terms of women seeking to take advantage of the presence of an army to sell their sexual services and even referring to the fact that women might be sold by their families to somehow normalise this situation is false. If a woman is sold then she becomes a slave. This happens if she is trafficked as occurs in modern times. To be sold is to be made a slave. The person who sells her enslaves her and so does the one who buys her. This includes cases where women are deceived into thinking they are being recruited for one kind of work and then finding they have been taken to work in a brothel. Likewise if they are obliged to work to pay off debts by having to provide sexual services. The idea that because a woman may have been sold by her family this means she has not been enslaved is false. She has indeed been enslaved and abducted. To be sold is to be enslaved and to be abducted by those who sold and bought her.

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