The great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote: “All warfare is based on deception.” Indeed, this precept has been used with great success to create battlefield advantages and foment disaffection within and between one’s adversaries. Today, a disinformation campaign is being waged within the United States to damage the alliance between Japan and the US. It centers on the false claim that over 200,000 “comfort women” were abducted, coerced, or forcibly recruited and “forced into sexual slavery” by the Japanese military, during and before the Second World War. This disinformation campaign has been so effective that many well-meaning people actually believe this hoax, and even propagate this misinformation.
During the first half of the last century, the economies of East Asian nations were far different from what we find today. Many families were poor and mired in debt. Parents often had few options to survive: tragically, some families offered the services of their daughters to the sex industry, in exchange for payment, indenturing the women for a certain number of years. Such acts had occurred in Asia for centuries, and brokers (i.e., agents and recruiters) for this industry existed throughout the Far East. Another option in Japan was to join a geisha house, where young women learned to become professional entertainers, only some of whom provided sexual services; in Korea, such establishments were called kisaeng houses. Prostitution was prevalent in much of Asia, and brothels dotted the lands. Women who worked at brothels that accompanied and catered to Japanese servicemen were called “comfort women.” Many destitute young women became comfort women of their own accord, although some were deceived about the nature of the work by unscrupulous brokers.
Most comfort women worked for brothels that were owned and operated by civilian proprietors, not the military. Their treatment and working conditions varied greatly, depending on individual circumstances. According to a 1944 United States Army report, comfort women captured in Burma were in good health, paid well, could refuse customers, and could go home when they had paid off their debt. As such, their situation differed from the slavery of antebellum America.
There were, however, isolated cases in which local military commanders forced women to serve as prostitutes during the Second World War. Such an incident occurred in Indonesia; but, when a higher ranking Japanese officer discovered this, the women were released and the brothel was closed down. Their unfortunate situation was the exception rather than the rule, and not applicable to most comfort women. Their stories have been misrepresented as universal and have drowned out the actual facts.
To compound the falsehoods, some groups have been spreading further misinformation that Japan has neither apologized nor paid any compensation to the comfort women. The Government of Japan issued a formal apology in 1993; Japanese officials at the highest levels, including prime ministers, have personally apologized; and, Japan, as a nation, has paid reparations.
Unfortunately, the false narrative has been repeated so frequently by certain groups – and through the media and the Internet – that the true facts have become obscured. Even erroneous governmental reports have been issued, with references traceable to a small number of faulty sources. For truth and justice, one must keep an open mind and investigate until facts can be distinguished from fiction. The following Q & A section provides a more detailed introduction, in hope of shedding light on the socioeconomic and cultural factors that led women to become comfort women, as well as other aspects of this widely misunderstood subject.
Q & A
How did all this misinformation start and spread?
Ironically, it was the Japanese themselves. In his 1983 memoir, My War Crimes, a Japanese man, Seiji Yoshida, wrote that he forcibly rounded up Korean women during the Second World War. Some years later, Japanese newspapers picked up on the story, particularly the left-leaning Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, which published a series of articles based on the book. This news created a firestorm of protest in South Korea, as well as in Japan. However, subsequent, on-site investigations by researchers, journalists, and others demonstrated that the events in his book could not be corroborated by anyone who lived on the island where Yoshida claimed the events had occurred. In 1995, Yoshida, himself, admitted that his account was fiction; it was never learned why he fabricated his stories – perhaps a desire for fame and fortune and/or a dislike of the Japanese establishment and military, which had imprisoned him for misconduct. Years later, Asahi Shimbun admitted that their news articles were inaccurate and retracted many of them. Unfortunately, the avalanche of protest and hatred created by Yoshida and Asahi spread rapidly, resulting in various activists and organizations ignoring the later facts disproving Yoshida’s story and Asahi’s articles. Anti-Japanese groups, leftist Japanese organizations, attorneys pushing lawsuits, politicians seeking votes, and certain activists further exaggerated and spread the misinformation, creating a ‘snowball’ effect since then.
Do the Japanese deny the existence of comfort women?
Absolutely not. The Japanese people are well-informed about the history of comfort women. Many Japanese correctly believe that most comfort women were not kidnapped or treated as “slaves” reminiscent of antebellum America. Many believe that they were paid prostitutes, as stated explicitly in the U.S. Office of War Information document. (Ref. 1) Moreover, the Japanese people are also aware that some of these women may have been deceived about the nature of the job by the civilian agents and recruiters, not the Japanese military. Because of this deception and the small fraction who were forced (e.g., in Indonesia), many Japanese feel remorse and sympathy for those who were made to do things against their will. As such, Japan and the Japanese apologized and paid compensation to the comfort women (see below).
Certain women have stated that they were “kidnapped” or “abducted.” What really happened?
Former comfort women did not publicly state that they had been abducted until after Yoshida falsely claimed that he forcibly rounded up Korean women in his 1983 book. The subsequent media coverage (especially by Asahi Shimbun) created a torrent of anger, whereby later investigations disproving Yoshida’s account were largely ignored. Before the comfort women issue became worldwide news, most Korean comfort women survivors stated that they had been “sold” by their parents or became comfort women of their own accord, albeit possibly deceived by recruiters about the nature of work. (Ref. 2) There were clear exceptions, such as in Indonesia (mentioned above) and the Philippines, and there were instances of women being taken away by civilian agents and recruiters, not by the Japanese military in an official, institutionalized capacity.
Why did young women become comfort women?
Unlike today, many people in Asia, including Japan and Korea, lived in abject poverty during the first half of the 20th century. Even finding enough to eat was difficult for many. As mentioned in the Historical Background section, working as a comfort woman was one way to survive. At the time, prostitution was legal under Japanese law, and comfort women could be paid considerably more than most other workers. (Ref. 1) Parents in debt offered the services of their children. Historically, this was a common practice across Asia (e.g., offering daughters to a brothel via a broker, sending them to a geisha house, etc.) in return for payment. It has been described by some that these parents “sold” their daughters, which may have contributed to the misconception that they would be treated as “slaves,” and thus were “sex slaves.”
An important point that often has been ignored is the fact that many comfort women were from Japan. The Japanese comfort women experience, however, has been rarely discussed in the English-language literature.
How were the work conditions for comfort women?
Here is a description of conditions for a group of comfort women stationed in Burma: A comfort woman’s average age was about 25 years old. These comfort women earned approximately 750 yen per month, lived and worked in conditions similar to an upscale brothel, and were in good health. By comparison, a low-ranking Japanese soldier earned 10 yen per month; thus, a comfort woman earned potentially 75 times more than some Japanese soldiers. They had time to participate in recreational activities: “While in Burma they amused themselves by participating in sports events with both officers and men; and attended picnics, entertainments, and social dinners. They had a phonograph, and in the towns, they were allowed to go shopping.” Most significantly, comfort women “were allowed the prerogative of refusing a customer.” Certain women “who had paid their debt could return home.” (Ref. 1) Finally, “There were numerous instances of proposals of marriage and in certain cases marriages actually took place.” (Ref. 1)
Still, some former comfort women have mentioned that they were mistreated. Undoubtedly, some comfort women were mistreated, but who was responsible (e.g., civilian brothel operators, many of whom were Korean, or individual soldiers) and the prevalence of mistreatment are difficult to determine. Wholescale abusive behavior by soldiers was highly unlikely, as strict guidelines of conduct existed for soldiers during their visits.
Why is there a belief that very young girls were conscripted to become comfort women?
For the war effort, the Japanese government recruited female civilians, including Japanese and Koreans, to work in factories, e.g., make munitions, etc. (Ref. 3) They were called teishintai (“Volunteer [labor] Corps”; chongsindae in Korean), and these ‘recruits’ did include young girls (e.g., toward the end of the war, Japanese girls and women between ages 12 and 39 were mobilized for this labor force). The exact number of female Japanese and Koreans recruited into the Volunteer Corps is unknown, but the number “200,000” was reported by certain sources. Unfortunately, the Volunteer Corps was conflated with comfort women by certain newspapers (e.g., Asahi Shimbun) and others, and became the basis for the fallacious statement: “200,000 girls were ‘forced’ to become ‘sex slaves.’“
Did Japan apologize and pay compensation to Korea and comfort women?
Absolutely yes. These facts have been drowned out by a massive disinformation campaign, and the details are more complex than commonly known. In 1965, Japan and S. Korea signed a treaty and a concomitant agreement that normalized relations and settled any and all grievances (Ref. 4): Japan provided S. Korea $800 million in payment and loans as reparations – a tremendous amount in 1965. This arrangement settled, “completely and finally,” all issues and claims between Japan and S. Korea. Specifically, the “Agreement Between Japan and the Republic of Korea Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation” states, in Article II, paragraph 1:
“The High Contracting Parties confirm that the problems concerning property, rights, and interests of the two High Contracting Parties and their peoples (including juridical persons) and the claims between the High Contracting Parties and between their peoples, including those stipulated in Article IV (a) of the Peace Treaty with Japan signed at the city of San Francisco on September 8, 1951, have been settled completely and finally.”
Because this Agreement explicitly states that both nations “confirm that the problems…and interests” of both nations and “their peoples” and “the claims between” both nations and “between their peoples…have been settled completely and finally,” it became the S. Korean government’s responsibility to compensate its citizens who had suffered during the Japanese annexation period.
The treaty details were negotiated between S. Korea and Japan over a period of nearly FIFTEEN YEARS (1951-1965). Thus, it was more than sufficient time to bring up all grievances. The issue of comfort women was never brought up; therefore, there was no mention of comfort women in the treaty, consistent with the S. Korean government’s concerns. If nearly “200,000” Korean girls and young women were kidnapped, abused, and raped (as some claim), it seems unfathomable that the S. Korean government would ignore them in a treaty that was designed to settle all claims “completely and finally.”
Nevertheless, Japan and the Japanese people went above and beyond their international legal obligation to make amends when the comfort women issue heated up as a result of the publication of inaccurate stories and fabricated reports arising from Yoshida’s false claims that he abducted Korean women. To diffuse the growing criticism from the S. Korean people and government, the Japanese government made an official apology: on August 4, 1993, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yohei Kono, as part of a more comprehensive apology, stated the following: “The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” (Ref. 3)
The wording of the comprehensive apology was done in collaboration with S. Koreans to satisfy their wishes in hopes that there would finally be a resolution to this issue. To Japan’s chagrin, by using wording to please S. Korea, the apology has led to disastrous consequences, as seen today, where Japan appears to have admitted that the Imperial military high command authorized certain systematic misconduct that it actually had not.
Moreover, even though the 1965 treaty indemnified Japan from claims by S. Korea and the S. Korean people (and the reparations should have been paid to comfort women by the S. Korean government), Japan and the Japanese paid compensation to comfort women survivors to atone for the actions of the then Imperial armed forces. Specifically, going above and beyond their international legal obligation, Japan and its people created what was called the “Asian Women’s Fund” in 1994 and paid millions of dollars in compensation to comfort women of different nationalities. Unfortunately, many former Korean comfort women rejected the compensation because of pressure from an anti-Japanese political organization known as Chong Dae Hyop and the media, thereby giving anti-Japanese groups a means to claim that comfort women were never compensated by Japan. Because the Japanese government had already fulfilled the 1965 treaty and paid the S. Korean government for all claims by its citizens, the Japanese government did not wish to de-legitimize the treaty terms and instead created the Asian Women’s Fund.
What key publications and reports utilized erroneous, fabricated, biased, or questionable source materials?
(a) George Hicks’ 1995 book “The Comfort Women”;
(b) Radhika Coomaraswamy’s 1996 U.N. Commission on Human Rights report;
(c) United States House Resolution 121 (passed by Congress in 2007).
Revealingly, (c) cites (b) and other earlier sources; (b) cites (a) and earlier sources; and (a) relies almost totally on evidence gathered by a single activist of Korean descent, who “found about 80 percent of the material (much of it exceedingly obscure) used in the writing of this book.” All these works rely, directly or indirectly, on Seiji Yoshida’s fabricated account of “comfort women hunting,” the erroneous Asahi newspaper articles, the subsequent testimonials of certain comfort women whose stories have changed, and English-language documents (many by authors who cannot read or communicate fluently in Japanese). The vast majority of the historical documents on the Japanese comfort women system are in Japanese, but most of these salient documents were ignored, dismissed, or misinterpreted.
Is there more to this story?
Yes, much more information exists demonstrating that the Japanese military did NOT systematically dragoon 200,000 women for sexual enslavement. Most of the information, however, is written in Japanese; nevertheless, the references below provide a starting point for those interested in learning the facts.
(1) UNITED STATES OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION Psychological Warfare Team Attached to U.S. Army Forces India-Burma Theater, Japanese Prisoner of War Interrogation Report No. 49, 1944:
(2) A few examples: (a) 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 the fourth time and sent off to a military comfort station in Manchuria in 1941.” The Comfort Women, by C. Sarah Soh, The Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008, p. 11. (b) Kun-ja Kim’s original testimonial, “published in 1999, revealed that her foster father ‘sold’ her.’’ Kim also reportedly stated she “hated the father more than the Japanese military.” Ibid., p. 101. (c) Yong-Su Yi originally stated, “Without letting my mother know, I simply left home by following my friend.” Ibid., pp 99-100.
(3) The ordinance for a Women’s Voluntary Labor Corps was promulgated in August 1944. Ibid., p. 18
Nota bene: Please view the 3 minute YouTube video by Dr. Robert J. Shapiro, former Undersecretary of Commerce, for his message to S. Korean President Park related to press freedom and comfort women: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEvDZODg2WA
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