Stories of the comfort women from World War II reveal acts committed by the Japanese Imperial Army.
Text: A lesser known tragedy of World War II is the plight of the Japanese comfort women. “Comfort woman” is a translation of a Japanese euphemism for prostitute, “ianfu.” But these women were not prostitutes in the usual sense; they were women who offered their services to soldiers. Their heart-rending stories were first revealed through military and humanitarian reports conducted after the war.
The Japanese military stationed brothels in many of the countries it occupied, such as Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Dutch Indies, and Timor. Prostitution was still legal in Japan, so people saw the comfort stations as a way to prevent soldiers from raping local women. This would presumably decrease hostilities in the occupied region.
However, the women were frequently still local. Testimonies reveal that brokers, dubbed “middlemen,” would recruit young, uneducated women from nearby villages and then traffic them to brothels. These middlemen often advertised in newspapers, particularly early in the war. Perhaps the saddest way they obtained women was from families who sold their daughters.
One testimony comes from Kimiko Kaneda, a South Korean woman who was half Japanese. When her father, a priest, was arrested for vilifying Japanese shrines, she was sent to live with relatives in Korea and began working in Seoul as a housemaid at 16. Soon afterwards, she was recruited as a comfort woman and sent to Zaoqiang, where she became addicted to opium. She recounts:
“How did I feel? I felt as if we were taken here to be killed. I could not but weep. No one talked. All were weeping. That night we slept there and in the morning we were put in those rooms. Soldiers came to my room, but I resisted with all my might. The first soldier wasn’t drunk, and when he tried to rip my clothes off, I shouted “No!” and he left. The second soldier was drunk. He waved a knife at me and threatened to kill me if I didn’t do what he said. But I didn’t care if I died, and in the end he stabbed me. Here.” (She pointed her chest.)
“He was taken away by the military police, and I was taken to the infirmary. My clothes were soaked with blood. I was treated in the infirmary for twenty days. I was sent back to my room. A soldier who had just returned from the fighting came in. Thanks to the treatment, my wound was much improved, but I had a plaster on my chest. Despite that the soldier attacked me, and when I wouldn’t do what he said, he seized my wrists and threw me out of the room. My wrists were broken, and they are still very weak. Here was broken…. There’s no bone here. I was kicked by a soldier here. It took the skin right off… you could see the bone.”
Kimiko Kaneda’s experience was sadly not unusual. Historians have struggled to produce an accurate figure for the number of comfort women, since official records are lacking. Estimates start at 20,000, and one report suggested a number much higher. However, the Japanese newspaper that provided this figure, Asahi Shimbun, later declared it mistaken. The report probably stated the total number of women who were in the civil labor corps during World War II. Regardless, there were many women engaged in the brothel system.
Decades after the war ended, Japan finally issued apologies and monetary compensation to the surviving comfort women (the 2015 Comfort Women Agreement). This tribute established their legacy and ensures that their suffering will be remembered as Japan continues to build itself anew.