Case Study: Japanese Military Sexual Slavery – Background and Context
Between 1932 and 1945, at least 200,000 women, many of them from the Japanese colony of Chosun (Korea), were mobilized through an official government policy to support Japan’s imperial efforts abroad through the provision of Japanese soldiers with “comfort” in the form of military-run brothels. Although rape and sexual conquest has long been a part of war, Japanese Military Sexual Slavery was unprecedented in its scale and systematic nature. What circumstances laid the groundwork for such a system to be possible? What is the historical context in which so many women were systematically rounded up and forced to provide sex to soldiers?
1. Imperialism & Colonialism: the global & regional geo-political context
From the late 15th century onward, European nations had begun a process of wide scale colonization around the world. As well as overtly colonizing vast regions of the world and placing settlers there to claim the land, many nations also sought to open up and control foreign trade in order to benefit financially and to create markets for their goods. During this period in eastern Asia, the Shogun government of Japan suspected European traders to be forerunners of military conquest by western powers, and from the 17th century expelled almost all foreign traders in an attempt to keep Japan’s borders closed. Similarly, the adjacent kingdom of Chosun (Korea) closed its borders to foreign trade in a protectionist measure in the 19th century, wary of foreign incursions after centuries of invasions from Japan and Manchuria.
In the mid 1800s, Japan’s national policy of isolationism was challenged by the Dutch and the US, and in 1853 US Commodore Matthew Perry approached Japan with four warships, forcing them to open their ports and into an unequal trade-tariff agreement with the United States. During this time, Japan moved towards joining the western powers in industrialization, promoting rapid economic growth, and finally, through seeking to become an imperial power. With rapid military development, Japan beat both China (1894) and Russia (1904) at war. Seeking to expand their power base, Japan sought to destabilize Chosun’s monarchy and moved towards colonizing Chosun. After a series of forced trade agreements and the assassination of the last empress of Chosun, Japan officially forcibly annexed Chosun in 1910, and went on to colonize Taiwan. The Japanese colonization of Chosun grew more brutal as time went on. As the Japanese government promoted the ethnic and cultural superiority of the Japanese as part of their ethno-nationalistic paradigm, the Korean language was forbidden in public places, all schools were taught in Japanese, and many Korean civilians were forced into the Japanese military or to work as unpaid labourers. Koreans were forced to honour the Japanese Emperor as divine, and were treated as second class citizens in their own country. In time, Japan invaded Manchuria, and sought to subjugate China, and beyond into the rest of Asia, throughout the development of the Asia-Pacific War. It was in this context that the “comfort women” system developed.
2. Patriarchy, Gender and Ethnic discrimination: Systematic Military Sexual Slavery
The social context in which the “comfort women” system developed was patriarchal by nature. Both Chosun and Japan had patriarchal social systems with profoundly circumscribed gender roles in which women had little access to power. Japan had a domestic licensed prostitution system which it exported to its colonies, and both nations had a history of the organized commodification of the female body through prostitution and state-sanctioned courtesans. This logic of male privilege led military officials to conclude that soldiers required “comfort” to keep them happy and active in their imperialistic war, a euphemism for access to sex. Like the military in many other places and times, it was accepted as common sense that prostitution and soldiers go hand in hand, that the role of men is to fight in battle, and that women played a complementary role in nursing and ‘comforting’ men. In addition, the Japanese military officers had noted an ongoing problem of many military personnel contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) through use of civilian brothels. In an effort to both provide ‘recreation’ for the troops and to prevent the spread of STIs, the first military brothels were set up in Shanghai as early as 1932, but the system grew profoundly after the brutal pillage of Nanking, China in 1938. Japan drew international criticism for the wholesale massacre and widespread rape of citizens, and after this time, more systematically began to develop “comfort stations” wherever Japanese troops went in an effort to keep sexual violence contained outside the public sphere.
In an effort to avoid STIs, young women not previously involved in prostitution were sought for the military brothels. The girls and women of Chosun, which had been forcibly colonized well before the start of the Asia Pacific war, were particularly vulnerable to being forced into “comfort stations” as a result of their colonial status. Young girls, many as young as 12 or 13, were lured with false promises of employment, forcibly recruited through the colonial school system, sold into labour by poor families, or snatched off the street. (see survivor testimonies) They began to force local women into the brothels as well, and as the war progressed, women from every region along the war front were also forcibly recruited—China, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Palau, Timor-Leste—everywhere the Japanese military advanced. Some of the “comfort stations” were operated directly by the military and others by civilians with military oversight. In all cases, in order to prevent loss of manpower and medical costs for treating soldiers for STIs, the “comfort women” were tested regularly by military doctors. Women were recruited and moved around by the military in an official capacity, understood as a necessary part of the war effort.
However, let us be clear that they were not viewed as military personnel inasmuch as part of the equipment of war. The women lived in horrible conditions, and were forced to service anywhere from six, to ten, to twenty men per day. While there were rules about wearing condoms, the women had no means to enforce the rules, and were subjected to extreme brutality by the soldiers, as the following excerpt from a survivor’s testimony indicates:
When I was 17 years old, in 1936, the head of our village came to our house and promised me to help me find a job in a factory. Because my family was so poor, I gladly accepted this offer of a well-paid job. I was taken to the railway station in a Japanese truck where 20 or so other Korean girls were already waiting. We were put on the train, then onto a truck and after a few days’ travel we reached a big house at the River Mudinjian in China. I thought it was the factory, but I realized that there was no factory. Each girl was assigned one small room with a straw bag to sleep on, with a number on each door.
After two days of waiting, without knowing what was happening to me, a Japanese soldier in army uniform, wearing a sword, came to my room. He asked me ‘will you obey my words or not?’, then pulled my hair, put me on the floor and asked me to open my legs. He raped me. When he left, I saw there were 20 or 30 more men waiting outside. They all raped me that day. From then on, every night I was assaulted by 15 to 20 men.
We had to undergo medical examinations regularly. Those who were found disease—stricken were killed and buried in unknown places. One day, a new girl was put in the compartment next to me. She tried to resist the men and bit one of them in his arm. She was then taken to the courtyard and in front of all of us, her head was cut off with a sword and her body was cut into small pieces…”
– Testimony of Hwang So Gyun, from UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women’s report, Economic and Social Council E/CN. 4/1996/53/Add. 1
To read more about the history of the “Comfort Women” system, the extent of official military involvement, and additional testimonies, download the official UN Reports on this issue: