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 sexual services. Unlike the practice of geisha escorts, so-called "comfort women" were used not for companionship but specifically for sexual relations. 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 women 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 sexual servitude to meet the needs of its men. Japan's notorious WWII offenses throughout Asia included infamous acts against women, like the government-sanctioned trade of women and children and institutionalized enslavement, among others.
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.
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.
Since the early 20th century, the Japanese government commandeered local cathouses for exclusive use by the military, and doctors were placed at the new "comfort houses" to combat diseases. Comfort houses, also referred to as "comfort stations," soon included not only pay-for-play establishments but new places for the men to forcefully obtain sexual services.
"Comfort" was a euphemism for sexual relations, 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, covertly transporting women across borders 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 or in factories. Faced with difficult economic circumstances, the women acquiesced (or were indentured by their families), unaware they were being taken to Japan for their bodies.
Some of the comfort women were so busy, they didn't have time to sleep. One comfort woman told of serving "an average of 30 to 40 men each day." Yet another woman said she had relations with anywhere from 10 to 20 men per day and was constantly "raw."
The UN's 1996 report recounted this memory from a Korean comfort woman:
One Korean girl caught a venereal disease from being [assaulted] 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.
In order for a comfort woman to be sent out of Japan, she was supposed to be at least 21 years old, but this was not always the case. Transporting minors for sexual services became common.
Deutsche Welle published the story of a former slave named Lee Ok-Seon, who was was 14 "when she was thrown into a car and [taken] to a [...] so-called 'comfort station.'" Another former comfort woman, Chong Ok-sun, had a similar story:
One day in June, at the age of 13, I had to prepare lunch for my parents who were working in the field and so I went to the village well to fetch water. A Japanese garrison soldier surprised me there and took me away, so that my parents never knew what had happened to their daughter. I was taken to the police station in a truck, where I was [assaulted] by several policemen.
One account from a pastor who visited a comfort house in Shanghai described "women ranging from teenagers to 30-year-olds" laying on the floor naked, speaking different dialects, and waiting to be chosen by one of the Japanese men walking through the room. If they resisted, the guards beat them.