This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)

Prostitution is endemic to war. War zones in a wide variety of geographical settings and throughout the course of history, all share the fact that prostitution grows relation to the presence of soldiers. There have been many historical studies on this topic spanning the brothels that served the Western Front during World War One, to the pioneering prostitutes of colonial Nairobi who provided domestic wage labour to soldiers with the tacit approval of the imperial administration. However, the correlation between prostitution and conflict in Japan and other areas of the Asia-Pacific during Asia-Pacific War between 1931 and 1945 is unique. Professor Nishio Kanji of Denki Tsushin University contends that Japan was the first and only country in the world to administer and institutionalise prostitution. 

The Japanese Imperial Army established a system which has now come to be understood as military sexual slavery. It is believed to have been established in order to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and the rape of civilians. Women and girls were abducted from Japanese occupied territories and colonies and employed in comfort stations. These women were taken mainly from Korea, Taiwan, China and the Philippines. The great majority of victims of this system were taken from Korea and around 80% were ethnically Korean. 

These women experienced extensive hardship during their time in comfort stations. Firstly, they had to undertake screening for venereal disease, these procedures left many in constant pain and infertile. During forced employment they lived in poor conditions and were made to service an average of 30 to 40 soldiers per day. Dali Sil-Kim Gibson’s documentary film Silence Broken features interviews with comfort women in which they discuss their suffering in graphic detail, with one woman claiming that the soldiers used them like ‘military supplies’. According to a former military doctor, Yuasa Ken, condoms were sold to soldiers which read ‘let’s attack’. This allusion to violence sets a discomforting scene and indicates the casualisation of wartime rape. Historians have estimated that fewer than 30% of comfort women survived the ordeal through to see the end of the war. 

Despite consistent and repetitive denial from the Japanese Government concerning their involvement in the enslavement of the comfort women, with piecemeal apologies dating as far back as the end of the war, historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi discovered documents in 1992 which provided evidence of Japan’s explicit involvement in managing the comfort stations. These documents were vital in confirming the accusations made against the Japanese military establishment in December 1991 by Kim-Hak Sun and two fellow comfort women. Kim Hak-Sun, alongside her fellow plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government in the Tokyo District Court. As Mina Chang has noted, the comfort women had clear demands of the Japanese government. The women wished to receive an apology which accepting the government’s role in planning and maintaining sex slavery and demanded that the government provide monetary reparations to the victims as symbolic gesture and acknowledgement of the suffering caused.

The case of the comfort women only came to light recently and public debate on the topic is ongoing in both South Korea and Japan. The silence of these women for a prolonged period of time, during which it is thought that the exploitation was common knowledge, and considered shameful, amongst the Korean population, contributed to the two-part suffering the women faced. The shift in public perception that facilitated the comfort women’s confidence to speak out was enabled by the emergence of the Korean democratic movement and the women’s movement. As Chizuko Ueno highlights, these movements shifted the dialogue regarding sexual exploitation from the ‘shame of the victim’ to the ‘crime of the perpetrator.’

In the 1990s, the resolution of the comfort women’s suffering was framed as a national and diplomatic issue. However, it became clear that it would be immensely difficult to attain an apology which would be considered by the victims to be earnest and not a politically motivated tool of propaganda designed to maintain good relations between South Korea and Japan. Both countries accepted a diplomatic compromise in 2015 which was meant to officially shelve the issue. However, Korean President Moon Jae-In expressed concern when he took over from Park Geun-hye in 2017 that this resolution had failed victims by failing to make Japan admit legal responsibility. The diplomatic framing of this issue meant that the apology could not be ‘victim-centred’ but instead was preoccupied with maintaining the fragile and fractured relations between South Korea and Japan. The Japanese government evaded both legal and monetary responsibility. There were some financial reparations, but these were given through private funds in order to circumvent acceptance of guilt by the Japanese. The current Prime Minister of Japan, Shizno Abe, is a vocal denier of the comfort women system and states that it is an issue of ‘international and universal principle’ to keep the 2015 agreement despite ongoing protests against the resolution.

The comfort women hold an immensely important position in relations between South Korea and Japan. Due to the stubborn stance of the Japanese government it appears that this open wound in relations between Japan and Korea will remain for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the comfort women’s memory will live on through protest movements and those determined to receive a real apology. The latest development in the case was a hearing held in a South Korean court in November 2019 without the attendance of the Japanese government. Lee Yong-Soo, plaintiff and former comfort woman, responded to Japan’s absence with the defiant statement: ‘I am living proof of history’.