History of the Comfort Women of World War II

A young Chinese comfort woman being interviewed by an allied officer in Rangoon, Burma. August 8, 1945.
A young Chinese comfort woman is interviewed by an allied officer in Rangoon, Burma, on Aug. 8, 1945.

Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

During World War II, the Japanese established military brothels in the countries they occupied. The women in these "comfort stations" were forced into sexual enslavement and moved around the region as Japanese aggression increased. Known as "comfort women," their story is an often understated tragedy of the war that continues to strike debate.

The Story of the 'Comfort Women'

According to reports, the Japanese military began with volunteer prostitutes in occupied parts of China around 1931. The "comfort stations" were set up near military camps as a way to keep the troops occupied. As the military expanded its territory, they turned to enslaved women in the occupied areas.

Many of the women were from countries like Korea, China, and the Philippines. Survivors have reported that they were originally promised jobs like cooking, laundry, and nursing for the Japanese Imperial Army. Instead, many were forced to provide sexual services.

The women were detained next to military barracks, sometimes in walled camps. Soldiers would repeatedly rape, beat, and torture them, often multiple times a day. As the military moved throughout the region during the war, women were taken along, often moved far from their homeland.

Reports go further to say that as the Japanese war efforts began to fail, the "comfort women" were left behind with no regard. The claims of how many were enslaved for sex and how many were simply recruited as prostitutes are disputed. Estimates of the number of "comfort women" range from 80,000 to 200,000. 

Continuing Tensions Over 'Comfort Women'

The operation of the "comfort stations" during World War II has been one that the Japanese government has been reluctant to admit. The accounts are not well detailed and it has only been since the late 20th century that the women themselves have told their stories.

The personal consequences for women are clear. Some never made it back to their home country and others returned as late as the 1990s. Those that made it home either kept their secret or lived a life marked by the shame of what they'd endured. Many of the women could not have children or suffered greatly from health problems. 

A number of former "comfort women" filed lawsuits against the Japanese government. The issue has also been raised with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

The Japanese government initially claimed no military responsibility for the centers. It was not until papers were discovered in 1992 showing direct links that the larger issue came to light. Yet, the military still maintained that recruitment tactics by "middlemen" were not the responsibility of the military. They long refused to offer official apologies.

In 1993, the Kono Statement was written by the then-chief cabinet secretary of Japan, Yohei Kono. In it, he said that the military was "directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.” Still, many in the Japanese government continued to dispute the claims as over-exaggerated.

It was not until 2015 that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a formal apology. It was in accord with an agreement with the South Korean government. Along with the much-awaited official apology, Japan contributed 1 billion yen to a foundation formed to help the surviving women. Some people believe that these reparations are still not enough.

The 'Peace Monument'

In the 2010s, a number of "Peace Monument" statues have appeared in strategic locations to commemorate Korea's "comfort women." The statue is often a young girl dressed in traditional Korean clothing sitting serenely in a chair next to an empty chair to signify the women who did not survive.

Guards standing around comfort woman statue in Seoul, South Korean.
Comfort Woman Statue in Seoul, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

In 2011, one Peace Monument appeared in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Several others have been installed in equally poignant locations, often with the intent of getting the Japanese government to acknowledge the suffering caused.

'Comfort Women' Statue In San Francisco on building balcony.
Comfort Women Statue In San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

One of the most recent appeared in January 2017 in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, South Korea. This location's significance cannot be understated. Every Wednesday since 1992, it has seen a rally of supporters for the "comfort women."

Seoul Bus Runs With 'Comfort Woman' Sex Slave Statue Ahead Of Liberation Day
Comfort Woman statue on Seoul public transit bus. Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "History of the Comfort Women of World War II." ThoughtCo, Jan. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-comfort-women-3530682. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, January 7). History of the Comfort Women of World War II. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-comfort-women-3530682 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "History of the Comfort Women of World War II." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-comfort-women-3530682 (accessed March 30, 2023).