Comfort women were women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied territories before and during World War II.
The name “comfort women” is a translation of the Japanese ianfu a euphemism for “prostitute(s)”,who generally lived under conditions of sexual slavery. Estimates of the number of women involved typically range up to 200,000, but the actual number may have been even higher. The great majority of them were from Korea (then a Japanese protectorate), though women from China, Taiwan, and other parts of Asia—including Japan and Dutch nationals in Indonesia—were also involved.
From 1932 until the end of the war in 1945, comfort women were held in brothels called “comfort stations” that were established to enhance the morale of Japanese soldiers and ostensibly to reduce random sexual assaults. Although some of the women may have participated voluntarily, the great many of them were often lured by false promises of employment or were abducted and sent against their will to comfort stations, which existed in all Japanese-occupied areas, including China and Burma (Myanmar). Comfort stations were also maintained within Japan and Korea. The women typically lived in harsh conditions, where they were subjected to continual rapes and were beaten or murdered if they resisted.
The Japanese government had an interest in keeping soldiers healthy and wanted sexual services under controlled conditions, and the women were regularly tested for sexually transmitted diseases and infections. According to several reports—notably a study sponsored by the United Nations that was published in 1996—many of the comfort women were executed at the end of World War II. The women who survived often suffered physical maladies (including sterility), psychological illnesses, and rejection from their families and communities. Many survivors in foreign countries were simply abandoned by the Japanese at the end of the war and lacked the income and means of communication to return to their homes.
Approximately three quarters of comfort women died, and most survivors were left infertile due to sexual trauma or sexually transmitted diseases.Beatings and physical torture were said to be common.
Ten Dutch women were taken by force from prison camps in Java by officers of the Japanese Imperial Army to become forced sex slaves in February 1944. They were systematically beaten and raped day and night. As a victim of the incident, in 1990, Jan Ruff-O’Herne testified to a U.S. House of Representatives committee:
During the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies, O’Herne and thousands of Dutch women were forced into hard physical labor at a prisoner-of-war camp at a disused army barracks in Ambarawa, Indonesia.
In February 1944, high ranking Japanese officials arrived at the camp and ordered all single girls seventeen years and older to line up. Ten girls were chosen; O’Herne, twenty one years old at the time, was one of them.O’Herne and six other young women were taken by Japanese officers to an old Dutch colonial house at Semarang. The girls thought they would be forced into factory work or used for propaganda. They soon realized that the colonial house was to be converted to a military brothel.
On their first day, photographs of the women were taken and displayed at the reception area.The soldiers picked the girls they wanted from the photographs. The girls were all given Japanese names; all were names of flowers.Over the following three months, the women were repeatedly raped and beaten. O’Herne fought against the soldiers every night and even cut her hair to make herself ugly to the Japanese soldiers. Cutting her hair short had the opposite effect, however, making her a curiosity. Shortly before the end of World War II, the women were moved to a camp in Bogor, West Java, where they were reunited with their families. The Japanese warned them that if they told anyone about what happened to them, they and their family members would be killed. While many of the young girls’ parents guessed what had happened, most remained silent, including O’Herne.
In the decades after the war, O’Herne did not speak publicly about her experience until 1992, when three Korean comfort women demanded an apology and a compensation from the Japanese government. Inspired by the actions of these women and wanting to offer her own support, O’Herne decided to speak out as well. At the International Public Hearing on Japanese War Crimes in Tokyo on December 1992, O’Herne broke her silence and shared her story. In 1994 O’Herne published a personal memoir titled Fifty Years of Silence, which documents the struggles that she faced while secretly living the life of a war rape survivor.
In 1991 the Japanese government admitted publicly for the first time that comfort stations had existed during the war. Two years later, in a statement issued by the chief cabinet minister, the government also acknowledged its involvement in the recruitment of comfort women and its deception of those women, and it apologized for affronting their honour. Although the Japanese government denied any legal responsibility for the sexual assaults, it set up the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995 as an attempt at resolution. However, the fund was sustained from donations from private citizens, not government monies, and Korean activists opposed its existence. The fund ceased operating in 2007.
Comfort women remained a highly sensitive issue in Japan. Although the existence of the wartime program had become general knowledge there, many Japanese—notably right-wing nationalists—continued to refute it, particularly whether the women had been forced to work in the comfort stations. In 2007 Abe Shinzo, during his first term as prime minister, stated that there was no evidence of coercion, though he later retracted his comment.
The topic again surfaced publicly in 2014, during Abe’s second term as prime minister. A Japanese newspaper reported that it had retracted stories from the 1980s and ’90s about women being coerced, after the Japanese man who had claimed responsibility for doing so later denied his involvement. There ensued some discussion among government officials about revising the 1993 apology statement, but that idea was quickly abandoned, in part because of outside pressure (including from the United States). In 2014 Abe’s government also petitioned the United Nations to ask that its 1996 report be revised, but UN officials quickly denied the request.