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The Japanese Comfort Women System

[Keywords: Comfort women, sexual slavery, collective rape, gender-based violence]

Dorian Wevers, University College Maastricht

“When I was 17 years old, the Japanese soldiers came along in a truck, beat us, and then dragged us into the back. I was told if I were drafted, I could earn lots of money in a textile factory … The first day I was raped and the rapes never stopped … I was born a woman but never lived as a woman…”

– Testimony of Kim Hak-sun, a survivor of the comfort women system (Watanabe, 1999, p.20).

In 1991, the silence around the comfort women system broke when former comfort women publicly spoke out about the atrocities, they and others had suffered under the Japanese military slavery during the 1930s and 1940s in the Asia- Pacific region (ibid., p.19). The term ‘comfort women’ (慰安婦, ianfu) is used as a euphemism for women forced to provide sexual services to the Japanese Imperial Army (Watanabe, 1994, p.3).

The comfort women system is a practice of institutionalised sexual slavery. During the Asia-Pacific War, comfort stations were established across the Asia-Pacific region’s length and breadth wherever the Japanese troops were. The comfort women system is one of the largest and most elaborate systems of trafficking women in history. The operation was unpreceded: the number of women involved, the scale of military organisation, the length of time and the geographical scope in which the system operated (Tanaka, 2003, p.168). Tens of thousands of women and girls were forced into sexual servitude to the Japanese military (ibid., p.181). While some women joined voluntarily, the more significant part of the comfort women was recruited against their own will and lived in misery in the comfort stations (Yoshimi. 2000, p.8). The enslavement of comfort women was a systematically organised policy emanating from the Japanese state’s highest ranks (Tanaka, 2003, p.181). The Japanese military was directly or indirectly involved in establishing and managing comfort stations, the recruitment and transport of comfort women (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.22). The Japanese military and government officials committed rape and sexual slavery crimes against these women during the war in the Asian-Pacific. The crimes were widespread and systematic, being highly organised, heavily regulated and sharing common characteristics. (Carmen, 2003, p.14). The Japanese crimes against the comfort women did not end with the war and the dissolution of the comfort stations but continue today in the form of Japanese negligence and evasion of responsibility (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.21).

This entry describes the comfort women system that operated during 1932-1945 and was used by the members of the Japanese Imperial Army. While the system was implemented with some varieties and the women’s experience differed depending on when and where they were stationed, some general practice patterns can be recognised. Different artifacts were used to facilitate the sexual enslavement of the women. In the case of the comfort women system, smaller violent practices constituted the more extensive practice of sexual slavery. The practice, starting with the organization of the system, including the establishment of the stations, the recruitment of the women, transportation, and station management, is explained. Next, life in a comfort station and the implementation of sexual slavery is illustrated. Further, the impact of the violent practice on the life of the women is described. Finally, some other examples of similar practices in the world are mentioned. The different elements of the practice will be explained regarding the testimonies of survivors, reports from the UN Special Rapporteur on Sexual Slavery, original documents from the time, and historians’ research.


During the Asian- Pacific War and short before (1932-1945), the Japanese government mobilised many Asian women for military brothels to ‘comfort’ the Japanese soldiers stationed abroad. It is unknown when the comfort stations were established precisely. The first confirmed military comfort stations were those in Shanghai in 1932, following the hostilities between Japan and China (Hicks, 1995, p.19). These stations became the prototype for later stations (Yoshimi, 2000, p.45). In 1937, Japan began its full-scale war against China. Around this time, the Japanese military sexual slavery became institutionalized in connection with the atrocities leading up to and occurring after the invasion of Nanking. To restrain the rape and sexual violence committed by the troops, the comfort station plan, as initially introduced in 1932, was revived. The military comfort women plan was adopted as a general policy, and the comfort stations became well interlocked within the military system (Tanaka, 2003, p.13). With the establishment of comfort stations in China, the number of comfort women increased rapidly (ibid., p.15). The facilities expanded in scale and geographical scope as the war spread (UN Human Rights Council, 1996b, p.14). In December 1941, Japan embarked on the war against the US, Britain, Holland, and their allies and occupied vast tracts of Southeast Asia and Islands in the pacific. Early 1941, the Japanese army started expanding the comfort women system into Southeast Asia and the Pacific (Yoshimi, 2000, p.77). The war eventually ended with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by the Japanese surrender on 2 September 1945.

International law prohibited sexual slavery well before the Japanese Imperial Army created the comfort stations (Carmen, 2003, p.375). The institution of comfort women was enabled by the prostitution that was legal in Japan until 1957 (Watanabe, 1994, p.24). Japan could have drawn on its tradition of licenced prostitution at home to excuse sexual slavery abroad (UN Human Rights Council, 1996, p.6). It is quite possible that the first comfort stations employed licensed prostitutes. However, the military regulation transformed these stations into facilities for sexual slavery (Carmen, 2003, p. 376).

Reasons for the establishment of comfort stations

“In particular, the psychological effects that the soldiers receive at comfort stations are most immediate and profound, and therefore it is believed that the enhancement of troop morale, maintenance of discipline, and prevention of crimes and VD are dependent on successful supervision of these [comfort stations].”

– Cited from ‘Measures for enhancing military discipline based upon experiences in the China Incident’ which was distributed to all army units by the Ministry of War in 1940 (Tanaka, 2003, p.24).

Internal government documents cite as one of the reasons for establishing the comfort stations the need to prevent anti-Japanese sentiments resulting from the rapes and other unlawful acts by Japanese military personnel against residents in the area occupied (UN Human Rights Council, 1996b, p.14). In a cruel paradox, the institutionalization of sexual slavery facilities was intended to restrain the rape of women, ‘a ready supply of women for the armed forces would reduce the incidence of rape of civilians’ (Tanaka, 2003, p.28). Moreover, the comfort stations were established to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. A regulated system made it possible to take preventative health measures (Yoshimi, 2000, p.69). Besides, the comfort stations were intended to provide ‘comfort’ to the Japanese military man. The Japanese army kept its troops in the field for long periods with an insufficient vacation system. The provision of women was a means of providing the army with some leisure (ibid., p.72). Finally, the comfort stations were established for security. The military leaders believed that spies could easily infiltrate private brothels. According to the army, building its own stations, conducting regular supervision and surveillance was the most secure policy (ibid., p.74).

Organization of the comfort women system

The comfort women system became a general policy of the Japanese Imperial forces. The system was conceived, established, regulated, facilitated and maintained by the Japanese government and military, often with the complicity of local authorities (Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, 2001). During the Asian-Pacific war, the Japanese Imperial forces stationed five armies overseas. The armies were under the supervision of the Minister of War and the Chief of the General Staff, who both subordinated to the emperor (Tanaka, 2003, p.21). In these overseas areas, the Japanese military was, directly and indirectly, involved in the establishment of the comfort stations, the recruitment and transportations of women, and the management of these comfort stations (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.22). The military comfort stations varied in their establishment, management, and recruitment, based on the time and location. It is, however, possible to make some general distinctions.

Establishment of the comfort stations

It is confirmed that military comfort stations were located in China, Hong-Kong, French Indochina, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Britch Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, Burma, Thailand, New Guiana, the Japanese Okinawan archipelago, the Bonin Island, Hokkaido, the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin. However, comfort stations were not limited to these areas; comfort stations were built everywhere Japanese troops were sent (Human Rights Council, 1996b, p.15). The ones responsible for the establishment of comfort stations were all members of the army elite. The decision to set a station up was rarely made arbitrary by army units in the field. Top-ranking officers initiated the establishment of comfort stations, and senior staff officers carried out the actual plan. The senior staff officers of each army issued the orders to establish a station, and the staff officers of subordinate units planned and put it into operation (Tanaka, 2003, p.21). The establishment of military comfort stations was a systematic operation. The concrete measures to set up military comfort stations were predetermined. The Ministry of War was the authority that actively approved and promoted this policy (Yoshimi, 2000, p.58). The methods for setting up comfort stations were taught at the army’s accounting school (ibid., p.60).

“The rooms were divided into small individual rooms. When you opened the door, there was only a small space with a cramped dirt floor. Since women lived in there, their possessions and furniture were all crowded into the space. A strange smell permeated the narrow rooms.”

– Description of the rooms in a comfort station in Shijiazhuang, China in 1941 (ibid., p.134).

The comfort stations located in large cities were used by military units stationed there and those units passing through the cities (ibid., p.89). Multiple buildings were clustered together in these large cities and served as a comfort station district (ibid.). Usually, the comfort stations were set up a certain distance from the military compound. Typically, hotels, restaurants, and large civilian houses were confiscated and used as military brothels. If such facilities were not available near the military camp, school buildings and temples were converted into a comfort station (Tanaka, 2013, p.51). The sites of the comfort stations were surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, well-guarded and patrolled (Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, 2001). The station was usually a one-or two-story building, with a dining or reception area downstairs. The women’s rooms were typically located at the back or upstairs and consisted of cramped, narrow cubicles, with rooms with only a bed (UN Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.9). The rooms were divided by thin wooden walls or curtains. In some comfort stations, there were no walls, but the rooms were separated only by rush math. Sound could travel easily from room to room (Yoshimi, 2000, p.135). The interior facilities and decorations differed from station to station. The comfort stations were generously decorated in large cities, with mats on the floor, a chest of drawers, and colourful bedding in each room. However, most comfort stations only had basic facilities; each room had a bed or a futon or a mat on a wooden floor and a small dressing table. The disinfectant was provided in bathrooms and toilets (Tanaka, 2003, p.51). The commanders of army units stationed in hostile districts set up comfort stations without higher official approval. In such cases, women have been detained not in official comfort stations buildings but dwelling caves (ibid., p.47). Another type of comfort ‘station’ is one attached to a particular army unit. These stations often travelled among the various post where companies from the same unit were stationed. Some comfort stations accompanied units to the front (Yoshimi, 2000, p.90). In a remote frontline of a battle zone, military tents, part of the barracks, ruined civil homes, or temporary wooden shacks were used (UN Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.9). In frontline locations, the women were forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor and were exposed to conditions of cold and dampness (ibid.).

Recruitment of the women

The total number of comfort women is unknown; estimates vary from 20,000 up to and over 200,000. The replacement of comfort women due to death, suicide, flight, illness, injury, and death during battles, or returning home after the expiration of contracts is estimated to be high (Yoshimi, 2000, p.92). Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Filipina, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Burmese, Dutch and Australian women were rounded up to serve as comfort women (Tanaka, 2003, p.60). In the first instance, professional Japanese prostitutes were used. However, as the war continued and the number of Japanese soldiers based in the various parts of East Asia increased, the demand for military sex slaves rose. It became more difficult to recruit enough women to satisfy the demand. To avoid negatively impacting the military’s morale by seeing Japanese women conscripted into the comfort system, Japan turned to its colonies Korea and Taiwan as a source of girls and women (Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, 2001). First, residents were exploited as comfort women. However, this policy was changed in China, and the comfort stations were staffed with Koreans rather than local Chinese women. This switch was made because of the rising anti-Japanese sentiment among the local Chinese civilians by seeing women forced into slavery. Moreover, there was also a fear that the Chinese forces could use the local women as spies (Tanaka, 2003, p.45). Nonetheless, there are also cases in which local women were forced to serve the Japanese troops in their home region, such as the Taiwanese aboriginal women (ibid., p.44). Government reports on the victims register that the age of the women conscripted into sexual slavery ranged from 11 to 27 (ibid., 60). Nevertheless, formal illegal minors were forced to serve. The recruitment was targeted at young, unmarried, sexually inexperienced women because they had a low chance of carrying venereal diseases (ibid., p.30).

The ‘recruitment’ of the women was highly regulated. The rounding up of the women was organised in different ways. In Japan, Korea and Taiwan, military personnel was often not directly involved in recruiting the women; Japanese or local ‘agents carried out the recruitment. The army selected its own recruiting agents, often managers of already operating comfort stations or private brothel owners. These agents were sent to Korea, Taiwan, and Japan to secure women as military sexual slaves with the support of the police (UN Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.11). Some of these agents procured the women themselves. Other agents commissioned sub-contractors, local employment agents or labour brokers to procure the women. These agents would travel from city to city to secure enough women and travel back to the comfort station (Tanaka, 2003, p.38). Another approach involved cooperation with local civilians in the occupied territories. For example, staff officers attached to army divisions requested local leaders to supply a certain number of young women (ibid., p.22). In contrast to the military authorities ‘behind the scenes’ approach in the Japanese colonial territories and the Dutch East Indies, in the Philippines and China, the Japanese troops directly secured comfort women, recruiting women in occupied territories (ibid., p.48). The Kempeitai, the military police, and the local police forces assisted in some instances with the recruitment of women (UN Human Right Council, 1996a, p.11). Various methods rounded up the women; recruitment of voluntary women who worked already as prostitutes, luring women with the offer of well-paid work or education, and large-scale coercion and violent abduction (ibid., p.8).

One manner of recruitment was the enlistment of women who were already involved in prostitution and agreed to start working as comfort women. However, the recruitment of large numbers of professional women was difficult. For this reason, the exploitation of women was planned and implemented (Tanaka, 2003, p.18). In these cases, more dubious methods were used, including deception, intimidation, violence, and kidnapping. Besides, all the women, once part of the system, suffered the same slave-like conditions. In the few cases that licensed prostitutes were brought in to work, their confinement would also be characterised by coercion, mistreatment, and sexual abuse to the extent that these women became sexual slaves too (Carmen, 2003, p.378).

“He [Oh, the recruiter] added that the factory would pay travel expenses and that many girls would be going. He also said that I could leave at any time if I didn’t like the work there. He came and asked me if I wanted to go, and I answered that I would like to, given such good terms”

– Testimony of Yi Sunok, survivor of the comfort women system (Howard, 1995, p.117).

The most frequently used method to round up women was deceit. Recruiters made false promises of employment or study in Japan or other occupied territories. High salary promises attracted young women from poor peasant families (Carmen, 2003, p.378). In the cases that the recruiters mentioned the comfort stations, they misrepresented the nature of these stations. For example, qualified nurses were recruited under the pretence to be sent overseas as military nurses. The women assumed that the comfort service consisted of visiting wounded soldiers and generally making soldiers happy. The girls only found out about the true nature of the work until they arrived at the comfort stations (United States Office of War Information, 1994). In the Dutch East Indies, the internment camps’ worsening living conditions lure women into prostitution (Tanaka, 2003, p.67). The method of deceit was mainly used in Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia.

“M.739 purchased 22 Korean girls, paying their families from 300 to 1.000 according to the personality, looks, and age of the girl.”

– Cited from the Psychological Warfare Interrogation Bulletin No. 2 (SEATIC, 1944, p.10).

In other means of recruitment, young women were purchased from their economically destitute families or became debt bonded (Carmen, 2003, p.378). In Burma, for example, a Japanese comfort station manager purchased Korean women from their families for 300 to 1000 yen depending on their character, age and appearance (SEATIC, 1944, p.10). Servitude contracts varied from six months to a year, depending on the size of the family debt advanced. However, in many cases, the women could not leave after fulfilling their contracts (Carmen, 2003, p.378).

“At the first VD check-up, one girl was too shy to take off her trousers for the examination of her sexual organ. My interpreter and the head of the local security council yelled at her, to force her to take them off. When I made her lie on the bed and started examining, she frantically scratched at my hands. When I saw her face, I realized that she was crying. Later I was told that she kept crying for a while, even after she left the examination room. The next girl also behaved the same way. I felt I would like to cry, too… I wonder whether these girls unwillingly came to see me because local leader stalked them into complying for the sake of the village’s peace.”

– Testimony of Yamaguchi Tokia, medical officer (Tanaka, 2003, p.22).

Another approach was intimidation. The heads of small villages were asked to round up women and deliver them to the Japanese forces for work. If these local leaders or the women refused, the Japanese threatened to take violent measures for the whole village (Carmen, 2003, p.378). In addition, the school system was exploited for the acquisition of girls. This method recruited school-age virgins without sexually transmitted diseases (Seiji, 1983, pp.24-25). As a result of their young age, many girls did not question the good employment opportunities and were often strangers to any understanding of prostitution. Moreover, they were unable to resist forcible removal. Schoolteachers, local police and village authorities were threatened to help in the recruitment process (UN Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.9).

“One night in 1942, two Japanese soldiers invaded the home of 13-year-old Tomasa Salinog and her father in Antique on Panay Island. As the two soldiers intruded, another two stayed outside on watch. Tomasa’s father resisted the soldiers as they tried to take the child away. One of the Japanese, Captain Hirooka, suddenly drew his sword and severed the man’s head in front of the girl’s eyes. She screamed loudly at the sight of her father’s head lying in the corner of the room, but the Japanese dragged her out of the house.”

– Cited by Yoshimi Yoshiaki in his book comfort women (Yoshimi, 2000, p.44).

A different method was forced abduction and kidnapping. Soldiers abducted women from home, work, or walking in the streets (Carmen, 2003, p.378). The Japanese military or recruitment agents employed any form of violence to obtain the increasing number of women needed to comfort soldiers (UN Human Rights Council, 1996b, p.17). The forms were wanton, including rape and violence. In many of these cases, women witnessed the Japanese army or its recruiter’s murder of family members (Tanaka, 2003, p.49). In Java, the Japanese army took young unmarried women forcibly from internment camps, despite their protest and resistance (Hicks, 1994, p.57). There were numerous forcible abductions in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region, but not many Japanese colonies of Korea or Japan (Carmen, 2003, p.378).

Transportation of the women

“We boarded a ship and were told that a convoy of eleven boats would be sailing together. They were big ships. We were taken into the last one. It was already crowded with Japanese sailors. We were the only women.”

– Testimony Yung Soo Lee, a survivor of the comfort women system (Hearing before  the Subcommittee, 2007, p.20).

The extensive transport of the comfort women was designed and implemented at a high level. From 1938, the Foreign Ministry lost jurisdiction over the comfort women. From that moment onwards, the army and the navy exercised authority over the travel of comfort women and comfort station operators in Southeast Asia and the Pacific (Yoshimi, 2000, p.82). Various government organisations cooperated in the transportation of comfort women. The Ministry of War needed the cooperation of other government organisations, such as the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Government-General of Korea and Taiwan, to facilitate women’s procurement and transportation (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.7). When the recruiters had to transport comfort women by ship or other means of transportation, the Japanese military approved requests for their travel. The Government-General of Korea and Japan and the Home Minister of Taiwan supervised issuing ‘travel identity papers’ (Yoshimi, 2000, p.63). Comfort women were granted special status similar to personnel serving in the military (Human Rights Council, 1996b, p.17). It was impossible to travel without the military travel documents the comfort women received from the Minister of War (Yoshimi, 2000, p.82). Free pass tickets were provided by the army’s Head Quarters. The Japanese Imperial Army paid for the transportation of the comfort women (SEATIC, 1944, p.10). The comfort women were transported by army cargo ships from Japan and Korea to many places in the Asia-Pacific region. In cases where Korean women were sent to China from Korea, the Kyogi Railway in Korea and Southern Manchurian Railway in Manchuria were used. In China, local railways controlled by the Japanese army were used for this purpose. In places where the railroad could not be used, army trucks were deployed. In some exceptional cases, women were flown by army planes. (Tanaka, 2003, p.25).

Management of the comfort stations

The Japanese authorities were involved in establishing and managing comfort stations by granting permissions to open the facilities, equipping the facilities, drawing up the regulations, and stipulated matters as precautions for using the facilities. (UN Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.29). In the Ministry of War, the relevant bureau gave the army instructions regarding the comfort women system. For example, the Medical Bureau was responsible for advice on venereal diseases and sanitary affairs (Tanaka, 2003, p.22). If the Ministry of War issued instructions to each army’s headquarter, the staff section of each army was responsible for dealing with the comfort women (ibid., p.21). Their army adopted different types of management approaches to the comfort stations. First, there were military comfort stations directly managed by the military. These comfort stations were for the exclusive use of military personnel and civilian military employees. The stations’ direct operation by the army did not continue as the norm for comfort stations in more settled environments. The second management approach, the comfort stations were formally operated by civilian operators. These stations were strictly supervised and regulated by military personnel. (Human Rights Council, 1996b, p.5). Finally, there were facilities designated as comfort stations at which the military personnel was given special priority, but they were open to the public. These are rough distinctions; in practice, there was a broad range of management forms (Yoshimi, 2000, p. 89). The regional military headquarters controlled each comfort station, even if owned and run by a civil operator. The Japanese military meticulously recorded the details of the prostitution system. Different records of regulations in various parts of the Japanese Empire have been preserved. For example, the rules for comfort stations in Shanghai and Okinawa survived the war (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.6). The details differed from region to region, but they had a similar format. Regulations set out the assignment of clients to each unit, business hours and available time for each soldier, the rates, hygienic and sanitary conditions, and venereal diseases examinations (Tanaka, 2003, p.51).

Life in a comfort station

For the military men visiting a comfort station, the experience was often not significantly different from purchasing services of a prostitute at a civilian brothel. From their perspective, the sexual service rendered by women took the form of a commercial transaction, an exchange between sexual service and financial reward (ibid., p.173). However, for the comfort women, their life was very different from the life of a voluntary prostitute in a civil brothel. The women were forced to provide sexual services, while the military men exercised constant control over their bodies and minds. The women were subjected to cruel treatment and abuse and had to live in poor conditions. The army provided food and clothing. However, some testimonies of women indicate that they were kept short of food for long periods (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.10). The violent practice was executed differently throughout the war; however, general patterns and artifacts can be recognized. This section describes the life of sex slaves in a comfort station. 

“My own name was replaced with a Japanese name ‘Takeda Sanai.’ [..] The soldiers gave out numbers to us. I was #4.”

– Testimony of Kim Sang-hi, a survivor of the comfort women system (Schellstede, 2000, p.31).

“One Korean girl who was with us once demanded why we had to serve so many, up to 40, men per day. To punish her for her questioning, the Japanese company commander Yamamoto ordered her to be beaten with a sword. While we were watching, they took off her clothes, tied her legs and hands and rolled her over a board with nails until the nails were covered with blood and pieces of her flesh. In the end, they cut off her head“.

– Testimony of Chong Ok Sun, a survivor of the comfort women system (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.15).

In each comfort station, several house rules were applied. These included the prohibition of alcohol and swords, regulation of service hours, reasonable payments, and other attempts to impose fair treatment. However, this decorum of fair treatment was in stark contrast with the brutality and cruelty of the practice (Human Rights Council, 1996a p.6). The soldiers and their managers have maltreated the women. The comfort stations’ managers beat the women as punishment if they failed to meet their daily quota of tickets, contracted venereal diseases, or became ill and could not work (Tanaka, 2003, p.57). The soldiers used violence when the women refused to have sex with them (ibid., p.51). Besides physical abuse, the Japanese military exercised psychological control over the women and to deter them from speaking up. The women were given Japanese names and were forbidden to speak their languages. They were forced to give up their nationality, identity and culture (Watanabe, 1999, p.23). The women’s history and social background were irrelevant to the brothel’s managers, clients, and military organisers. From the soldiers’ perspective, a comfort woman was only a sexual object; she was simply a commodity, not an individual with human value and dignity. (Tanaka, 2003, p.173).

“From then on, I realized that during the first year I, like all the other Korean girls with me, was ordered to service high-ranking officials, and as time passed, and as we were more and more ’used’, we served lower-ranking officers.”

– Testimony of Kum Ju Hwang, survivor of the comfort women system (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.15).

The Japanese Imperial Army divided comfort women according to class, ethnicity to the rank of soldiers. Special comfort stations were reserved for officers. The comfort women in these stations were primarily professional Japanese prostitutes. They often experienced better conditions than other Asian comfort women (Tanaka, 2003, p.52). In Indonesia, white Dutch women were placed at the officers’ comfort stations. High ranking officers, such as staff officers of the headquarters, sometimes had Dutch concubines (ibid., p.65). There were also comfort stations for non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. The comfort women in these stations were Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, South-East or from the Pacific Islands (Yoshimi, 2000, p.90)

“Come on, hurry up!” their eyes were bloodshot and their legs shook as they waited impatiently. Some even began to undo their belts and their bodies shook, even though there were many ahead of them in the queue. Most soldiers finished within twenty or thirty seconds and came out one after another in an infatuated state, which greatly contrasted their behavior while waiting. Some, however, took five minutes or more, although if they took too long, a veteran soldier who acted as a supervisor would grab the offending soldier by the scruff of the neck and drag him out of the room.”

– Testimony of Nishihira Junichi, factotum of a comfort station in Okinawa (Tanaka, 2003, p.52).

Rank-and-file soldiers were allowed to visit the station in the morning and afternoon. The visiting time for non-commissioned officers is in the evening. Night or early morning was exclusively for the officers (Tanaka, 2003, p.51). The schedule was set up so that enlisted men, non-commissioned officers and officers would never overlap in the comfort station (ATIS, 1945 p.16). The comfort women were not given any special days off, approximately one or two days per month (Yoshimi, 2000, p.141). The women had little free time off, and the free time dictated in the regulations was often ignored by officers who wished to stay longer or visit at different times (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.10). Each woman had to serve several men up to 10 on an average day. Shortly before and after a combat operation, this number increased. These days, women were forced to serve 30 to 40 men a day (Tanaka, 2003, p.52). The women were forced to continue always serving men, also during their menstrual periods (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.10). In addition to the sexual servitude, the women were required to perform domestic labour (ibid., p.11)

“The Japanese soldiers never gave us anything or any money. They didn’t even give us enough to eat, never mind paying us.”

– Testimony of Huang Youliang, survivor of the comfort women system (Qiu, Su & Chen, 2014, p.129).

A soldier paid the fee at the front desk and received a ticket in return. The fee that the solder paid for the sexual services differed little between establishments. Charges were set according to the rank of military clients. The amount of money paid for a visit was relatively high compared to the monthly salary of a soldier (ATIS, 1945 p. 16). The money paid by soldiers for the sexual services did not only go to the comfort women. There were percentages set up of the fees that would go to the women. In case of pregnancy or illness, while working, 50% of the cost would be covered; for other illnesses, women had to bear all the costs themselves. Very few women, according to their testimonies, ever received the money they had earned. Most women received little or no payment from their manager (UN Human Right Council, 1996a, p.7). The women who could save some money lost most of it when their old yen was converted to new yen, and inflation soared after the war. Those born in colonies were unable to withdraw their money. The women who were forced to accept the military currency for their pay lost everything because it was worthless after the defeat. The comfort women ended up penniless at the war’s end (Yoshimi, 2000, pp.143-144).

“The proprietor told me to go into a certain room, but I refused. He dragged me by my hair to another room. There I was tortured with electric shocks. He was very cruel. He pulled out the telephone cord and tied my wrists and ankles with it. Then, shouting ‘konoyaro!’ he twirled the telephone receiver. Lights flashed before my eyes, and my body shook all over. I couldn’t stand it and begged him to stop. I said I would do anything he asked.”

– Testimony of Yong Soo Lee, a survivor of the comfort women system (Hearing before the subcommittee, 2007, p.18). 

“The soldiers starting lining up again. So soldiers they lined up, and they came in, and the soldiers they have the thing that they have to put on their——”

– Testimony of Koon Ja Kim, a survivor of the comfort women system (Hearing before the subcommittee, p.30).

After payment, the soldier would hand the ticket to the comfort women when entering the room. The comfort women would give all the collected tickets to her manager (Tanaka, 2003, p.55). Some girls refused to render sexual services and were made slaves. Their resistance was met by force, often by torture, to get their consent and deter others from speaking up; some were maimed or killed (ibid., p.51). Consent or conditions for consent were absent. Women were intimidated by the military men and frightened by their threats of using their weapons and saw no other option than to obey (Carmen, 2003, p.11). Soldiers were strictly ordered to use condoms provided by the supply department to each soldier through its until or to the comfort station directly (Tanaka, 2003, p. 53). However, most soldiers refused to use condoms (Human Rights, Council, 1996a, p. 16). In remote areas, the supply of condoms was sometimes insufficient. The comfort women would wash and disinfect the condoms and use them several times (Tanaka, 2003, p.53). Comfort women were instructed to wash their private parts each time after sexual intercourse (ibid., p.51).

“Yet, even though I had no venereal disease, I had to have treatment, because I kept bleeding and couldn’t pass water. Perhaps it was a bladder infection. There were some women whose vaginas were so swollen and were bleeding so profusely that there was no space for a needle to be inserted inside.”

– Testimony of a survivor of the comfort women system (ibid., p.52).

“It was common for girls to become pregnant and to contract sexually transmitted diseases. But if a girl became pregnant, she was forced to have an abortion. I was one of those girls.”

– Testimony Koon Ja Kim, a survivor of the comfort women system (Hearing before the Subcommittee, 2007 p.32).

The comfort women received periodic health check-ups conducted by a military doctor. Usually, these checks were conducted once a week or once every ten days (ATIS, 1945, p.13). The mandatory check-ups were carried out for hygienic control to prevent the spread of venereal diseases. Despite the regulations and regular examinations, the risk of contracting a venereal disease was high because many men forced women to serve them without condoms. If women had contracted a mild case of diseases, they were forced to work anyway. Many women suffered from venereal diseases. The most common treatment for these diseases, an injection of salvarsan or NO. 606, let to severe side effects (Tanaka, 2003, p.53). The extreme sexual abuse caused physical pain and health problems to the comfort women. However, little notice was taken during the health checks of the bruises, bayonet stabs, and broken bones inflicted on the women by soldiers (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.10). If a woman was found to be pregnant, medical officers carried out an abortion. Sometimes women performed abortions on themselves. If a woman gave birth to a child, she was forced to give it away because children were not allowed to be kept at the stations. (Tanaka, 2003, p.53).

At the moment, the girls were informed about the work’s real nature; most of them refused to work as comfort women. Some women demanded to be sent back home. The manager would inform the girls that large advance payments made to their parents first had to be paid back. If no advance payment had been made, the manager would demand repayment of the costs of transport, cost of daily meals and clothes, plus interest on those costs (ibid., p.50). Comfort women could not leave the stations because they were made into indentured slaves by their cash advances. Comfort women who wanted to return home because they had fulfilled their contracts and pursued to remain others had no means of transport to go back home (Yoshimi, 2000, p.147). The sites of the comfort stations were surrounded by a barbed wire fence and well-guarded, which made it difficult to escape (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.9). Testimonies of former comfort women indicate that other physical or logistical barriers restricted movement, even when the women were not physically restrained or obstructed from leaving. In many cases, the women had been transported far from their homes.

Nevertheless, some women contemplated escaping from the stations. Often, they did not know where they were and how they could find their way home. They did not speak the local language, and their customs and habits were different; even if they managed to hide among the local population, they had no way to get home because, to travel through Japanese territory, one needed permission from the army (Tanaka, 2003, p.58). Those who attempted to escape and failed were subjected to exceedingly cruel torture and public humiliation upon recapture designed to punish them and deter others from attempting to escape (Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, 2001). Other women resorted to using narcotics to escape the physical and psychological pain. They used Opium and Philopon (Tanaka, 2003, p.58). Some women could not endure life as sex slaves and were driven to suicide or in escape attempts, with death as a risk of failure (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.10). There were also cases in which a depressed soldier forced a favorite comfort woman to commit double suicide with him (Tanaka, 2003, p.78).


“For fifty years, the “Comfort Women” maintained silence; they lived with a terrible shame, of feeling soiled and dirty. It has taken 50 years for these women’s ruined lives to become a human rights issue. The war never ended for the “Comfort Women”. We still have the nightmares. After the war I needed major surgery to restore my body.”

Testimony of Jan- Ruff O’Herne, a survivor of the comfort women system (Hearing before the Subcommittee, 2007, p.28).

The end of the war brought no relief to most of the comfort women. After Japan’s surrender, many comfort women were killed by the retreating Japanese troops or abandoned (Hicks, 1995, p.115). Some were rescued by the allied forces and eventually sent home. Others had to find their means of travel to go home (Tanaka, 2003, p.59). Some women decided not to travel back home because they felt stigmatised by the sexual abuse they were subjected to. They preferred to stay in a foreign place and service as second-class citizens (ibid.).

The war crimes are still a cause of great suffering in the present. Former comfort women suffered from the aftereffects of diseases, injuries and psychological trauma and social discrimination. Many women had to deal with physical affliction, such as sexually transmitted diseases, uterine diseases, and hysterectomies (Yoshimi, 2000, 193). The women were deprived of not only their sexual desire but also the ability to have children (Watanabe,1999, p.24). Besides the physical scars on the women’s bodies, mental pain tortured them throughout their lives. Women suffer from mental illnesses and trauma such as nervous diseases, depression, speech impediments, PTDS, lack of sleep and nightmares (UN Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.16). In addition to the deep-rooted and long-lasting trauma of the sexual abuse, social discrimination oppresses the former comfort women (Yoshimi, 2000, 194). The survivors have endured and struggled with sexual violence and servitude, which damaged their marriage, work, and community relations. Shame and fear kept the women from coming forward for so long (Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, 2001).

Not only Japan’s wartime conducts but also its continuing post-war failure to atone for that conduct by issuing an unambiguous, comprehensive apology and compensating victims sustain the suffering of the women. Japan issued an apology in August 1993, in which the Japanese government acknowledged the military and policy participations and the coercion of the comfort women (Watanabe, 1999, p.21). However, a thorough explanation of the truth, acknowledgment of the crimes, compensation and an outline of steps taken to prevent recurrence of the crimes is lacking (Yoshimi, 2000, p.197). The government solicited donations from Japanese civilians through the Asian Women’s fund, avoiding taking any legal or financial responsibility (Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.21). Japan failed to fulfil the duty to make reparation in case of a breach of the obligation under international law to ensure and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. This duty includes preventing violations, investigating violations, taking appropriate actions against the violators, and affording remedies to victims (UN Human Rights Council, 1996a, p.23).


The military comfort women system was a system of sexual slavery. The comfort system was designed and maintained to facilitate the rape and sexual slavery of tens of thousands of women from the occupied territories in the Asia-Pacific region to promote the war effort. The scale of the system was enormous, and the operations were consistent. Officials at all levels participated in facilitating and utilizing the system. The women were forced into sexual servitude by illicit methods of procurement. There was a harsh control over their movement; the women were confined and punished for attempts to escape. The women were mistreated and deprived of their sexuality. The Japanese military subjected the women to rape and other forms of sexual violence. Furthermore, the women were victims of mental and physical violence. Consent was absent, the women were tortured, mutilated, and punished for disobedience. In the case of pregnancies, the women were forced to have an abortion or to give up their children. The living conditions in the facilities were miserable; the women had to live in inhumane detention conditions. Finally, when the services were no longer of use, the women were killed or abandoned. The practice of trafficking of women, forced labour, torture, rape constituted the more extensive practice of sexual slavery.

This entry aimed to outline the comfort women system as well as possible. However, multiple factors make it impossible to accurately describe the system’s organisation and the comfort women’s experiences. First, the Japanese military and government systematically destroyed documents at the end of the war. Many documents are classified, not accessible to the public. The people directly involved in setting up and implementing the system remained silent (Yoshimi, 2000, p.97). Moreover, the testimonies of former comfort women are not without lapses. When the first women opened up about their experiences, the events were already fifty years old. There are also things the witnesses do not want to recall (ibid., p.98). Finally, there are too many personal stories; it is impossible to cover them all. This article describes the broad outlines of the system and the experiences in a general sense, based on what is known.

The practice of the trafficking of women did not end with the comfort women in World War II but has expanded. In Japan, Asian women of today have been tricked, imprisoned, and forced to work as prostitutes. Flourishing prostitution industries have given rise to trafficking in women and the never-ending flow of sex tourism (Watanabe, 1999, p.23). In addition, systematic rape, institutionalised prostitution, and sexual abuse have marked conflicts across the globe. The rape centres set up by the Serbian forces during the Bosnian war are another example of the sexual enslavement of women during an armed conflict (Boose, 2002). A more recent example of sexual slavery during an armed conflict is the Yazidis women captured, raped and forced to become sex slaves for ISIS (Nicolaus & Yuce, 2017).

Dorian Wevers studied liberal arts and sciences (BA) at University College Maastricht, focusing on international relations. She wrote her entry during an Applied Research Internship at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (November 2021)


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