As the Japanese Imperial military set out to dominate Asia in the years preceding WWII, it sought to provide the best possible conditions for their predominantly male army, including free sex. Unlike the practice of geisha escorts, so-called "comfort women" were used not for companionship but specifically for sexual acts. These women were initially drawn from the ranks of legal sex workers in Japan, but when the demand for women exceeded the supply, Japan's expectation for readily accessible military sex escalated.
As the army branched out into various regions of Asia, the Japanese government began luring women from China, Korea, and the Philippines into forced sex slavery to meet the needs of its men. Government-sanctioned trafficking, violence, institutionalized slavery, and other unspeakable crimes against women throughout Asia became just part of the notorious list of Japan's war crimes.
Accounts of what life was like for Japanese comfort women before, during, and after the 1930s and 1940s reveal the realities of women losing their freedom, their bodies, and, often, their lives. The country's treatment of women during WWII remains an extremely controversial risk to the country's modern-day diplomacy with South Korea.
Japan Wanted To Control Sex Along With Everything Else
In the 1930s, governments were actively looking to find ways to deal with economic decline and social unrest. Japan was no exception: in 1931, the nation was on its way to building its global empire in Asia, beginning with the invasion of Manchuria. Japan's imperial military was key to maintaining dominance in the region and, after experiencing internal strife in 1932, was also necessary for controlling its own country.
As early as the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, Japan sought to provide safer sexual options for their soldiers to boost morale and to keep the men safe. Many local brothels were commandeered by the Japanese government for exclusive use by the military, and doctors were placed at the sex houses to combat disease. Comfort houses, or stations as they became known, soon included not only brothels but new places for the men to forcefully obtain sexual services.
Women Were Tricked And Forced Into Lives Of "Comfort"
"Comfort" was a euphemism for sex, and "comfort woman" implied the women were voluntary participants. During the early stages of the government's campaign to sexually satisfy Japanese servicemen, legal prostitution was the initial recourse. However, the demand for women soon exceeded the licensed supply. Soon, trafficking became a common means of filling comfort stations with women and underage girls to meet the needs of Japan's vast military presence throughout Korea, China, the Philippines, and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Korean women in Japan, for example, were often told they were going to work as medical assistants and orderlies. Others were told they were going to work in factories. Another ploy was to tell a woman she was going to work in a restaurant — a common front for a comfort house — or even that she was going for a simple meal. Faced with difficult economic circumstances, the women acquiesced (or were indentured by their families), unaware they were being trafficked for their bodies.
Comfort Stations Popped Up All Over Southeast Asia To Meet Japanese Demand
Initially, the Japanese government contracted Japanese prostitutes to service the military. Prostitution in Japan was longstanding yet complex, and legalized brothels existed there as early as the 1860s.
When Japan advanced into Korea, they found a licensed yet declining prostitution industry. Brothel owners were more than happy to take advantage of Japanese military dollars, and opened up their businesses to the soldiers. Some Korean proprietors even moved into China and other Japan-occupied regions — taking women and girls with them — to open comfort houses and take advantage of the business the military provided. In China, there were efforts to end prostitution in 1929, but after Japanese occupation, those attempts were undone. In Burma, Indonesia, and other parts of Southeast Asia where the Japanese took control, comfort stations were set up as well.
Women And Girls Serviced Up To 40 Men Each Day
Some of the comfort women were so busy, they didn't have time to sleep. One woman told of serving "an average of 30 to 40 men each day" while another recounted how officers would stay overnight and "keep harassing me, demanding sex several times, and allowing me no time to get to sleep." Yet another woman said she had sex with anywhere from 10 to 20 men per day and was constantly "raw."
According to doctors' reports, some women wouldn't be able to walk after a day of servicing so many men while others had genitals that were "purple" or "oozing" from all of the sexual activity. The UN's 1996 report on comfort women recounted this memory from a Korean comfort woman: "One Korean girl caught a venereal disease from being raped so often and, as a result, over 50 Japanese soldiers were infected. In order to stop the disease from spreading and to 'sterilize’ the Korean girl, they stuck a hot iron bar in her private parts."
The same woman recounted being part of a 400-member contingent of women expected to serve at least 5,000 Japanese soldiers per day. When another girl questioned the extreme quota, Japanese commanders punished her with a sword beating.