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

First posted 20 August 2015
Last updated 6 October 2023

Accurate history v. ideological exaggeration and denial

So-called "comfort women" (ianfu 慰安婦) deserve sympathetic recognition, no matter the circumstances that resulted in their sexual servitude in "comfort stations" (iansho 慰安所) associated with Japanese imperial army and navy units before and during the Pacific War. However, they should not be reduced to either "sex slaves" or "prostitutes". As a class, they were neither. As individuals, they represent different ways they came to be "comfort women", and different deployment conditions.

Nor should any cohort of comfort women be exceptionalized on account of geographic origin, civil nationality, or putative race or ethnicity. If any comfort women are be memorialized because they were comfort women, then all comfort women deserve equal recognition as victims of life's circumstances. This means that no monument to comfort women should be desecrated by propaganda of an ethnonationalist interest group that seeks to enslave the history of comfort women with its ideology.


Speaking of enslavement -- people in the business of sympathizing with victims of nationalism run amok in the form of war, should recognize that practically every Imperial Japanese soldier who partook of the flesh of a comfort woman, had been conscripted into military service, and was brutalized by the conditions he did not choose -- other than to submit to the demands of the imperial state rather than face the consequences of refusal. In other words, most soldiers who sought sexual relief with woman at comfort stations were as enslaved to their circumstances as the women.

This is not to say that the notion of providing male soldiers with sexual relief in the form of comfort women was "justified" by even contemporary standards of morality and decency. Clearly, comfort stations violated the general notion that -- however women were depreciated relative to men in family law and social intercourse, and however marriage was thought to privilege a husband with the right to expect his wife to satisfy his sexual desires -- women were not to be sexually assaulted. Even in the gay quarters, in the lowest class tea houses, there were understandings about how the women were to be treated by their overseers and customers. And there were measures for dealing with treatment considered cruel or criminal. Whether a women or girl was at the house by choice or indentured, she was due protection as an asset of the house if not as a human being.

War and occupations zones, however, were not gay quarters. And whatever their conditions, the flesh markets in gay quarters were barnyards compared to the slaughter houses of comfort stations. If wars bring out the best in some people, they bring out the worst in others. They are not meant to be civil. They are meant to kill or be killed. And human beings -- including the women and girls who found themselves at comfort stations, and the men and boys who queued in line for a first or last orgasm -- are incredibly adept at adopting to the worst imaginable conditions in order to survive or die trying.

Comfort women system

The comfort women "system" was what it was -- complex and irreducible to simplistic characterizations, except in ideologically distorted understandings of the history of the human condition. Comfort stations -- as part of a system for providing male soldiers with female sexual relief -- were not contrived of as places for soldiers to assault, rape, mutilate, or murder women. The women, like the soldiers, were disciplined to accept their circumstances and submit to the routine of mechanical sexual intercourse without the emotions of attachment that would be expected in normal consensual sexual relations.

However, not all parties to the assembly line orgasms at comfort stations were able to suppress their human feelings. Some developed attachments that amounted to personal respect if not love. And others resorted to acts of violence, including rape and murder, for which they might be punished -- or, as in civilian societies, might get away with their infractions of codes.

The complexities of the lives and conditions of comfort women -- as neither sex slaves or prostitutes, but as human beings -- are neither here nor there in the ideological wars that rage between the "sex slave" and "prostitute" camps.

Assuming that eventually a more truthful history will materialize from the ideological fallout, the question is whether postwar political campaigns to end violence against women and human trafficking in today's world should impose their definitions of "sexual slavery" and "trafficking of women" on past events that occurred under different social circumstances and concepts of what constituted sexual enslavement.

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. The future-leaning mission of present-day anti-sexual slavery activism justifiably draws inspiration from the past through the recognition and even condemnation of historical practices that should not be repeated today. And the mission might include erecting monuments that memorialize unfortunate historical events. But it should not seek to reduce the complexities of the past to the sort of ideological exaggerations and falsehoods inscribed on many comfort women memorials.


I will not claim to be an "expert" on comfort women issues. I have, however, spent a couple of thousand hours, spread out over several years, examining and digesting contemporary primary documents and older and more recent secondary publications of varying quality, and reports by activists of every stripe. I have also reviewed the transcripts of statements made by some former comfort women and other witnesses of comfort station life, and looked at lawsuits and judgements related to comfort women.

It takes, however, only a week or so of intense, objective, open-eyed study of historical materials -- putting aside the madness in the "sex slave" versus "prostitute" wars raging in academia, journalism, social media, municipal assemblies, and national governments -- to conclude that (1) comfort women cannot be reduced to either "sex slaves" or "prostitutes", (2) neither the Japanese government nor its military forces, while obviously involved in some aspects of the "comfort women system", were not in the business of operating comfort stations or abducting or otherwise procuring women and girls for trafficking to the stations, and (3) the number of women and girls who became comfort women -- whether voluntarily, or through indenture, deception, or kidnapping -- is probably less than one-fourth the 200,000 from which most "Japanaese military sex slaves" publicists begin.

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. A few comfort women may have been sex slaves and a few may have prostitutes, and some may have been both, but most were either not quite one or the other, or neither. These two terms are the ones most generally used by activists on the "accusationist" (sex slave) and "denialist" (prostitute) extremes of the "tabloid history" spectrum.


I find it more constructive to view comfort women as women and girls who found themselves in unfortunate circumstances during the conflicts and wars in Asia and the Pacific from the 1930s to 1945 and even thereafter. Most of the women came from various quarters of society in Imperial Japan -- which included the prefectural Interior, Taiwan, Karafuto, and Chōsen. Some were recruited in countries that Japan invaded and partly occupied during this period, including China and several Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, and allied countries where Japan had stationed military forces, like Manchoukuo and Thailand,

In this respect, comfort women were generally no different from the soldiers they sexually relieved, or from others -- male or female, young or old, military or civilian, or friend or foe -- 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 to say about their destinies.

What woman would have have wanted to be there? If not on their own volition for the money, or if not having been sold, deceived, or abducted? 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. Some were there because dishonest labor brokers misrepresented the nature of the work they would be doing. And some were there as a result or strong-arm tactics.

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 fighting troops.

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 definitions of "sexual slavery" 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" to our habits, commitments, and missions. Defining new standards of morality and human rights for the present and future is one matter. Understanding history in its own terms, however convoluted and 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 want to engage in what amounted to vending machine sex. 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 some Japanese government organs sanctioned the existence and establishment of comfort stations as privately managed operations, which followed military units, from which they commonly received various forms of logistical support. However, the government does not appear to have instigated the "comfort women system" or played the role of overseeing it as a government operation.
    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, Kwantung Province within its larger legal territory, and Manchoukuo and other countries in which imperial military units were deployed.
    4. Government bureaucrats and military officers responsible for logistics were to some extent involved in the "accounting" for comfort stations as "amenities" for fighting soldiers. However, there appears to have been no systematic bean counting of the kind that invariably took place in operations under direct government or military control. Most record keeping, such as it was, would have been the prerogative of civilian comfort women operators.
  4. No systematic government or military involvement
    However, I find no evidence that Japanese officials, military forces, or police, were systematically (according to policy, routinely, normally) involved in the procurement or deployment or comfort women. Involvement was generally in the form of accommodation and regulation, and at times logistical support.
  5. No systematic coercion
    Nor do I find any evidence that the government of Japan, or its military or police forces, were systematically involved in abductions of women or men for any purpose. Some testimonies suggest that there were cases of abduction by people who appeared to be military personnel or police, but private procurers are the more likely culprits. Other personal accounts, and some news reports and government documents, show that fraudulent or coercive procurement was illegal, and that known offenders were subject to apprehension and punishment.
    1. All Japanese -- meaning Interiorites, Taiwanese ("Formosans"), Chosenese ("Koreans"), and Karafutoans (who became Interiorites in 1943) -- were subject to national labor conscription if qualified. And all qualified males with Japanese nationality (including dual nationals) 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 deceptive recruiting on the part of some comfort women procurers.
  6. 20,000 to 50,000
    I find no evidence to justify claims of "about" or "as many as" or "at least" 200,000 "or more" comfort women. Estimates of 20,000 to 50,000 are better supported by realistic extrapolations from available figures -- which favor lower estimates.

Of course, whatever happened on the watch of the government of Imperial Japan involving comfort stations associated with imperial military forces, and the procurement of comfort women of any nationality, by Japanese (including Interiorites, Taiwanese, and Chosenese) -- whether at the government's instigation or with its approval -- is the responsibility of the government that lawfully succeeded it from 3 May 1947. However, pursuant to terms in the San Francisco Peace Treaty effective from 28 April 1952, Japan and the Republic of Korea, in 1965, concluded a Basic Treaty formally establishing and normalizing their relationship,; and with it a property and claims agreement, in which the two countries agreed that all claims about the past by one government against the other, or by their nationals, including juridicial persons, concerning matters before 15 August 1945, were deemed to "have been settled completely and finally" (kanzen katsu saishū-teki-ni kaiketsu sareta 完全かつ最終的に解決された).

William Wetherall
Abiko, 20 September 2015
Revised 6 October 2023