IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 18 | Regions |East Asia

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Japan's 'Comfort Women'

The term 'comfort women' is a commonly used rendition of the English translation of júgun ianfu ('military comfort women' in Japanese), and categorically refers to young females of various ethnic and national backgrounds and social circumstances who became sexual labourers for the Japanese troops before and during the Second World War.

By Chunghee Sarah Soh

The issues involved in the comfort women case are complex, running the gamut from the problem of 'militarized prostitution' to that of sexual slavery based on gender, age, social class, and ethnicity. The coerced sexual labour, i.e., sexual slavery, was inflicted primarily upon lower class young females of colonial Korea by imperial Japan during the Pacific War, but not every former comfort woman had been forcibly drafted. In addition, while women from colonized Korea constituted the overwhelming majority, Japanese women and women of other occupied territories (such as China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, and Thailand) were also used as comfort women during the 15-year war of aggression imperial Japan pursued, starting from the Manchurian invasion in 1931 to its unconditional surrender in 1945.

The estimates of the number of women used as comfort women range between 80,000 and 200,000. It is believed that about 80% of them were Korean and that only about 30% of the comfort women survived the War. There is no way to determine precisely how many of them were forced to serve as military comfort women. The only document, to my knowledge, that deals with the question is the 1994 'Report of a study of Dutch government documents on the forced prostitution of Dutch women in the Dutch East Indies during the Japanese occupation.' The study concludes that of the two hundred to three hundred European women working in the Japanese military brothels in the Dutch East Indies, some sixty-five were most certainly forced into prostitution, and that 'the majority of the women concerned does not belong to the groups of women forced into prostitution.' If the Dutch experience is in any way comparable to the other ethnic groups, then, the ratio of the women who were forced to serve as comfort women, one may surmise, was approximately one-third of the total number.
The issue of the wartime comfort women for the military of imperial Japan leapt to the attention of the world community nearly half a century after the end of the War, with a series of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) hearings that began in 1992. Since then, the UNHRC has held a series of hearings and reviewed special investigative reports, and in August 1998 the final report on Wartime Slavery was submitted by Gay J. McDougall, the special rapporteur. McDougall, an American lawyer, regards the comfort stations as the 'rape centres' and recommended concrete measures to resolve the wartime comfort women issue, including the setting up of a new panel of national and international 'leaders with decision-making authority' to help provide state compensation to the individual survivors. The Subcommission passed a unanimous resolution to support McDougall's report on August 21, 1998.

Drastic shift

The significance of the series of UNHRC's formal hearings on the comfort women issue is that it has irrevocably transformed the nature of the comfort women debate, from a bilateral dispute over a class action suit (brought about by three former comfort women and other war victims in Korea against the Japanese government in December 1991) to an international human rights issue. In fact, the precedent-setting international debate at the United Nations has resulted in a drastic shift in the paradigm for representing the comfort women. In contrast to the pre-movement view of the comfort women as prostitutes, the international community has now come to define them as victims of military sexual enslavement perpetrated by the Japanese state. However, in Japan, where licensed prostitution existed during and after the war until mid-1950s, many do not agree with the definition of the comfort women as sex slaves.
As a historical reality, the comfort women issue is complex, interpenetrating the dimensions of gender, social class, ethnicity, and state power. The symbolic representations of comfort women vary in accordance with the perspective of the subject position, as reflected in the variety of the names used to refer to them such as shakufu (waitresses, in Japanese), the 'p' (a Chinese slang term for the female sexual organ), and the chongsindae ('Volunteer' Labor Corps, in Korean). The success of the comfort women movement is largely due to the Korean women leaders' commitment to seek justice on behalf of the downtrodden comfort women and to change the patriarchal sexual culture, which is characterized by the double standard of sexual behaviour for men and women. The comfort women issue, as I see it, is embedded in the concentric layers of culture, politics, and justice. The categorical representations of comfort women as either prostitutes or sex slaves, I argue, are only partial truths deriving from the narrative frames that reveal and serve the political interests and the ideological stances of the opposing camps, namely, the Japanese state denying its legal responsibility for the survivors versus international human rights specialists and feminist NGOs in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere demanding Japan's formal apology and state compensation to the survivors in the context of post-Cold War world politics of human rights. The very contestation over the representations of comfort women as prostitutes versus sex slaves underline the multiplicity and variability of 'the truth' inherent in the interpretations of controversial historical institutions such as the comfort system.

(A précis of the IIAS lecture given at the CASA of the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research, 22 September 1998.)
Dr Chunghee Sarah Soh was a Senior Visiting Fellow at the IIAs from 1 September to 15 October 1998. She is currently attached to the San Francisco State University and can be reached at e-mail: soh@sfsu.edu.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 18 | Regions |East Asia