"Comfort women" or "sex slaves"?
By William Wetherall

First posted 20 August 2015
Last updated 30 August 2023

Nuanced history v. victimhood hysteria

So-called "comfort women" (ianfu) deserve sympathetic recognition, no matter the circumstances that resulted in their sexual servitude in "comfort stations" associated with Japanese Imperial Army and Imperial Navy units before and during the Pacific War. However, they should not be reduced to "sex slaves" or "prostitutes". Nor should any comfort women be exceptionalized on account of their geographic, national, or putative racioethnic origin. And no monument should be desecrated by the propaganda of an ethnonationalist interest group that seeks to collectively enslave comfort women with its ideological history.

The aims and means of the procurement and deployment of comfort women deserve criticism from both past and present standards. However, past and present critical perspectives must be differentiated. Future-oriented present-day activism should not be confused for historical understanding.

I am not an "expert" on so-called "comfort women".

I have not spent a decade, or even a few years making sense or nonsense of primary documents and oral testimony.

I have spent only a few hundred hours, possibly a thousand hours, spread out over a few years, pouring through contemporary primary documents and older and more recent secondary publications of varying quality. I have also reviewed the transcripts of statements made by a few former comfort women and other witnesses of comfort station life.

But already it is clear to me that comfort women were neither "sex slaves" nor "prostitutes". Or to put it another way, a few were one or the other, and many were not quite one or the other. These two terms are the ones most generally used by activists on the "accusationist" (they were sex slaves) and "denialist" (they weren't sex slaves but prostitutes) extremes of the "tabloid history" spectrum.

I find both extremes to be based more on misinformation and propaganda about the past, than on historical facts. The "sex slave" and "prostitute" categories are the products of emotionally "offensive" or "defensive" political posturing, rather than the fruits of objective and ideologically neutral quests to understand the human condition in the past.

I find it more constructive to view comfort women as women who found themselves in unfortunate circumstances during the conflicts and wars in Asia and the Pacific from the 1930s to 1945. Most of the women came from various quarters of society in Japan, including the prefectural Interior, Taiwan, Karafuto, and Chōsen. Some were recruited in countries that Japan invaded and partly occupied during this period, including China, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

In this respect, comfort women were generally no different from the soldiers they comforted, or from others -- male or female, young or old, military or civilian, friend or foe or victor or vanquished -- who got caught up in the events that determined their wartime fates. Most were there because, like most other people, they felt they had little say about their destinies.

What woman would have have wanted to be there? If not for the money, or if not abducted or deceived? Some were there because they had already been providing "comfort" while working out of places of entertainment. Some were there on account of family poverty leading to their voluntary or involuntary entry into indentured servitude -- bound by a contract to pay off debts incurred by themselves or by their their parents. A few were there as a result or strong-arm tactics or lies on the part of dishonest labor brokers.

Did no woman regard her comforting work as a contribution to military morale? Willing or not, positive or resigned, comfort women contributed to the war on a par with cooks, medics, and nurses, and all manner of military and civilian non-combatants who supported combat units.

And what soldiers, or others for that matter, wanted to be where they were? As opposed to being there because they had no more say in their destinies than most comfort women?

My tentative findings are as follows.

  1. Not generally "sex slaves"
    I find no evidence that comfort women were generally "sex slaves" -- except in terms of recent re-definitions of "slave" according to which even the soldiers the women comforted qualify as "slaves" -- and according to which even today's "sex slave" activists, and I and other researchers and writers, are "slaves". Defining new standards of morality and human rights for the present and future is one matter. Understanding history in its own often terms, however unpleasant by present-day standards, is quite another matter.
  2. Not generally "prostitutes"
    I find no evidence that comfort women were generally "prostitutes" -- unless, again, the term "prostitutes" is imposed on women who did not think of themselves as such. Some comfort women were licensed or unlicensed prostitutes at the time they were recruited. Others were deceived pressured by their procurers, or otherwise induced by circumstances, into submitting to employment as women paid to let men use their bodies for sexual relief.
  3. Government approved and supported
    I find all manner of evidence that the Japanese government sanctioned the establishment of comfort stations as privately managed operations attached to military units, and logistically supported such operations.
    1. Imperial Army and Navy commanders had the authority to make arrangements with civilian brothel operators to establish and operate comfort stations for use by units under their commands.
    2. Military commanders were responsibility for establishing regulations on the use of comfort stations attached to units under their commands, and for the medical well-being and general safety of comfort women employed by otherwise privately operated stations.
    3. Competent government ministries and agencies recognized comfort station operators and prostitutes as legitimate vocations when classifying Japanese permitted to leave Japan -- meaning the prefectural Interior, Chōsen, Taiwan, and Karafuto within its sovereign dominion, and Kwantung Province within its larger legal territory.
    4. Government bureaucrats and military officers responsible for logistics participated in the "accounting" for comfort stations as "amenities" for fighting soldiers.
  4. No direct government involvement
    However, I find no evidence that Japanese military forces, much less police, were directly involved in the procurement or deployment or comfort women. Military units typically negotiate contracts with civilians to provide supplies and services for fixed and mobile units. Comfort stations were no exception.
  5. No systematic coercion
    Nor do I find any evidence that the government of Imperial Japan, represented by its military and police forces, was involved in abductions of women or men for any purpose. Some testimony suggests that there may have been a few cases of abduction by military or police personnel, but private procurers are the more likely culprits. Other personal accounts, and some news reports, relate that coercive or fraudulent recruitment was illegal, and that offenders were punished.
    1. All Japanese -- meaning Interiorites, Chosenese ["Koreans"}, Taiwanese {"Formosans"}, and Karafutoans -- were subject to national labor conscription if qualified. And all qualified males were subject to military conscription. There were also volunteer youth labor corps, and qualified males could enlist in the military. But comfort women were neither labor conscripts nor labor volunteers -- allowing, however, for exceptional and illegal cases of deception on the part of labor procurers.
  6. 20,000 to 50,000
    I find no evidence to justify claims of "200,000" comfort women whether "about" or "as many as" or "at least". Estimates of 20,000 to 50,000 are better supported by realistic extrapolations from actual figures.

William Wetherall
Abiko, 20 September 2015