Are comfort women different from prostitutes?

comfort women

Comfort women worked in the comfort stations where Japanese military was involved in the establishment and management during World War II.

It seems that comfort women were talked about as a secret history among the military personnel without any public announcement during the World War II.

However, on August 14, 1991, Kim Hak-sun came forward and claimed to have been a comfort woman, and the issue began to attract attention.

The word “prostitute” has a similar meaning to “comfort woman”.

In this article, definition of comfort women and the prostitution system back then will be explained.

Who are comfort women?


Comfort women are women who provided sexual services to the Japanese military mainly during World War II.

Some former comfort women claim that they were forced to work, and such kind of discussion is included in the term comfort women issue.

On the other hand, there are also scholars who believe that “the forced recruitment theory” is not credible because it is based only on the testimonies of some former comfort women whose testimonies change from time to time. Considering the historical background of the time, they conclude that comfort women fall into the following categories.

    • Became comfort women voluntarily due to financial problems.
    • Born into a poor family and sold by their parents to become a comfort woman.
    • Tricked into becoming a comfort woman by a malicious intermediary.

In any case, it is important to know the truth based on the documents of the time, which cannot be falsified.

History of Comfort Women

During wartime, many countries set up military brothels. Even countries that ostensibly did not approve of military brothels tacitly allowed their generals to visit brothels in the places where they were deployed.

It is said that Japan’s comfort stations were also created in the process of occupying various parts of Asia in the early 20th century.

After the Shanghai Incident in 1932, Japanese high-ranking staff officer wrote in his diary about necessity of measures to prevent rape and solve the sexual problems of soldiers as follows:

Recently, soldiers have been prowling around everywhere looking for women, and I often heard obscene stories [about their behavior]. As long as conditions are peaceful and the army is not engaged in fighting, these incidents are difficult to prevent. Rather, we should recognize that we can actively provide facilities. I have considered many policy options for resolving the troops’ sexual problems and have set to work on realizing that goal. Lieutenant Colonel Nagami [Toshinori] will bear primary responsibility in this matter.

引用:「Teaching about the Comfort Women during World War II and the Use of Personal Stories of the Victims|Association for Asian Studies」

Comfort stations

The former Japanese military created the comfort stations for the following reasons:

  • To ensure that venereal diseases would not spread among the soldiers.
  • To prevent Japanese soldiers from committing rape.
  • To avoid increasing hostility among the inhabitants of the occupied territories.

In fact, rapes by soldiers in occupied territories during wars have been carried out in many parts of the world. While the large-scale rape cases by Soviet soldiers are well known, South Korea deployed about 320,000 soldiers during the Vietnam War, second only to the U.S. military, and caused many rape cases in central Vietnam.The number of rapes by Korean soldiers has ranged from 1,500 to 30,000.

The establishment of comfort stations can be seen to lessen rape cases.

Reference:Teaching about the Comfort Women during World War II and the Use of Personal Stories of the Victims

Were comfort women sex slaves ?

Some comfort women support groups and former comfort women claim that they were sex slaves who had no freedom to live, go out, or refuse to serve customers.

However, official U.S. document contains records of interrogations of 20 Korean comfort women who were captured in Myanmar in 1944. The following information was obtained.

  • The average Korean comfort woman was about 25 years old.
  • Many women applied for the job at the invitation of the brokers and worked for six months to a year with an advance of 200 to 300 yen.
  • Comfort women who paid off their debts were allowed to return home.
  • Comfort women earned a total of about 1,500 yen in a normal month. She gave 750 yen to her master.
  • They were given plenty of money to buy the items they wanted, so their living conditions were good.
  • In addition to gifts from soldiers, they were able to buy clothing, shoes, cigarettes, and cosmetics.
  • Attended sporting events, picnics, and dinners with soldiers.
  • They were given the right to refuse sexual services.
  • There were many cases of marriage proposals by Japanese soldiers, and some marriages were consummated.

Looking at the above interrogation records, the term “sex slaves” does not fit the description of the women.

Reference: Psychological Warfare Operations Group Japanese POW Interrogation Report No. 49

What is prostitution?

In this chapter, we will explain the difference between comfort women and prostitutes.

Prostitution is defined in the Japanese law “Anti-Prostitution Law” as follows:

Prostitution” means having sexual intercourse with an unspecified other party for compensation or with the promise of receiving compensation.
From the Anti-Prostitution Law (Law No. 118 of 1956)

Licensed prostitution

The comfort women system is positioned as the wartime version of the licensed prostitution system from pre-war Japan.

During the Edo period (1603-1867), the shogunate granted official licenses to the three major brothels (Edo Yoshiwara, Kyoto Shimabara, and Osaka Shinmachi).

However, in order to stop the practice of human trafficking existed from the Edo period, the Meiji government issued an ordinance for the liberation of geisha and prostitutes in 1872, and in 1900 issued Prostitution Control Regulations in an attempt to create uniform nationwide standards for the practice. This set of regulations is said to have established the modern system of licensed prostitution in Japan. Against the backdrop of the worldwide anti-licensed prostitution movement, some prefectures in Japan also declared the abolition of prostitution. However, the recession of the early Showa period, which began with the Great Depression, led to the large-scale phenomenon of women being sold by their parents especially in rural areas. As the Sino-Japanese War progressed, the prostitution system also changed. This led to the introduction of the comfort women system.

In Korea, many women were forcibly taken away as living tributes by the Chinese Empire, and those who came back had no choice but to live in prostitution as government-owned slaves. Many of these government-owned slaves were kisaeng. Although they were of the very lowest rank, kisaeng studied entertainment and provided sexual services to the royal household and to men in the upper crust of society. Systematized in the 10th century, kisaeng existed to the end of the Yi Dynasty.

After the annexation of Korea in 1910, the Japanese licensed prostitution system was also introduced to Korea. According to the Government General of Korea Statistical Yearbook, in 1910 there were about 4,000 Japanese and 1,000 Koreans working as licensed prostitutes, but the number of Koreans increased and by the 1930s it had reversed. By the 1940s there were 9,580 Korean licensed prostitutes in Korea.

Compared to the 100-200 Japanese brokers, the number of Koreans was overwhelmingly large, numbering between 2,300 and 3,700. We can surmise that these Korean brokers were also in charge of recruiting comfort women.

Rural areas in Korea were poorer than those in Japan, and selling one’s body was rampant among Korean farm women, like that in Japanese farming villages. In the 1920s, the number of Korean women sold to brokers reached 30,000 a year, with long yearly contracts. Bothe advance money and earnings were less than half of those in Japan, and the exploitation by the brokers was even more severe. Furthermore, in 1940, the wartime regime was further strengthened in Korea, and the management of the prostitution business suffered a major blow due to tighter controls. It is thought this provided the opportunity to encourage many women to go to work as comfort women in the war zones.

What is the difference between comfort women and prostitutes?

As mentioned above, we can say the comfort women system was a result of the licensed prostitution system in Japan and Korea in the pre-war period expanded as the Japanese military occupied Asia.

In the background was the poverty of the rural areas at that time, where parents had to sell their daughters.

Even after the end of the WWII, there are still brothels around the military bases around the world. Some women entered the world of prostitution on their own to earn money, while others became prostitutes due to poverty. Others, like the Korean comfort women who provided sexual services to American soldiers were forced into prostitution because the Korean government told them that earning dollars was good for the country.

Both comfort women and prostitutes have similar backgrounds. Since the comfort women system is an extension of the modern licensed prostitution system, it would be difficult to completely separate comfort women and prostitutes.

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