Flying Tigers

Sex slaves for the Emperor:
the 'Comfort Women'

Comfort Women
Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II

(Yoshimi Yoshiaka)

An unsparing look at one of the great war crimes of the 20th century

To this day, many Japanese argue that their country was the victim and not the perpetrator of the Pacific War, and that even in losing the war, Japan can be proud that it led to the end of western colonialism in Asia. Of course this blinks the fact that Japan was one of the worst colonialists ever to set foot in another country. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Japanese military's infamous "comfort stations"--largely staffed by unwilling young women from the colonies.

The largest number of "comfort women" were Korean and Chinese, followed perhaps by prostitutes recruited in Japan itself. (Even where the comfort women had earlier worked in "the shameful profession," as the Japanese military called it, there's a question as to how voluntary this was. As late as 1933, Japanese prostitutes were confined to red-light districts, and extreme measures were used to prevent them from escaping.) But everywhere the Japanese army and navy went, local women were rounded up and sent to the military brothels. Catholic Filipinas, Dutch Indonesians, Pacific Islanders, and perhaps Australian nurses--all were grist for sexual slavery.

As a Japanese trying to convince a reluctant public to accept the facts of the comfort stations, Yoshioki spends too much time trying to prove a connection between them and the military high command. Personally, I was willing to take this connection on faith, knowing what I do about how how Japan treated its male captives. Then, too, I could have done without the translator's introduction, with its almost-comical attempt to put sexual slavery into the context of today's women's studies. Really, Ms O'Brien, I didn't need your ruminations on the patriarchy!

These faults aside, Comfort Women is a spellbinding and terrible recital of crimes that can never be forgiven. Girls as young as 10 were rounded up in the Philippines. Sometimes the recruits were bought as chattel, from their families or from brothel-keepers; more often they were tricked with promises of jobs as nurses, laundrywomen, and factory workers. Typically they were given a rough medical examination, which to an ignorant virgin was terrifying enough. Then they were raped by officers. Finally they went into the comfort stations, often thousands of miles from home, sometimes in combat zones (where they were indeed required to serve as nurses). In distant places, the headman would be ordered to supply the women, an order that was met by handing over the village's widows.

A day's schedule at the comfort station might go like this: from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., private soldiers had the run of the place. From 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., the comfort station was reserved for non-commissioned officers. (Note that the women had half an hour to clean up for the second shift.) At 8:30 p.m, officers got exclusive use of the place. This might seem to reverse the normal order of privilege, but when you consider that officers could stay until morning, you realize that the women were hardly fresher at 10 a.m. than they were at 10 p.m. Yoshiaki cites the case of one woman in Burma who was forced to service (there can be no other word for it) 60 men in a single day, though six or seven was probably more typical. When a woman protested at the quantity of customers forced upon her, she was tied to the bed, and the line continued to move. They might be given Saturday afternoon off, but otherwise it was around the clock, seven days a week.

In small units, and close to the front, the women often spent their mornings working as cooks and chambermaids, only getting on their backs in the afternoon. They were often raped, stabbed, beaten, and kicked, and almost never was a Japanese soldier disciplined for maltreating them.

Because of the wilful destruction of records in August 1945, and the "willing amnesia" of today, the numbers of women forced to endure this treatment can't be known for sure. Yoshiaka uses a range of 50,000 to 200,000. Elsewhere he notes that one Japanese army command rounded up women on the basis of one for 80 soldiers in its command. Given the massive size of the Japanese military at the height of the Pacific War, I find it easy to believe that the figure was north of 100,000.

Postwar, the women suffered not only from the disease, sexual dysfunction, and trauma that had been inflicted upon them by the Japanese military, but also from the social stigma of their families and villages--if indeed they were able to go home. While most Japanese comfort women were repatriated in September 1944, there was no return trip for the Koreans, Chinese, and others who had been sent to the far reaches of the empire. Some of these women were turned up in the South Pacific in the 1990s, flotsam from a 50-year-old war.

At the risk of appearing to take the plight of white women more seriously than that of Asians, I'll conclude with Jeanne O'Hearn, who published her story as Cry of the Raped in Australia in 1992. The daughter of Dutch sugar planters, she was a 21-year-old novice at a Fransiscan nunnery when the Japanese invaded. She was interned until February 1944, when a Japanese officer ordered all women in the camp over the age of 17 to parade for inspection. Sixteen were selected, trucked to a hotel, and divided into groups according to their comeliness, with the best-looking destined for an officers' brothel. On opening night, O'Hearn was raped by several officers in sequence, and raped again by the military doctor who came to examine her for venereal disease. Her story concludes:

"Even after almost fifty years, I still experience this feeling of total fear going through my body and through all my limbs, burning me up. It comes to me at the oddest moments in which I wake up with nightmares and even feel it when just lying in bed at night. But worse of all, I felt this fear every time my husband made love to me. I have never been able to enjoy intercourse as a consequence of what the Japanese did to me."

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Poland's Daughter

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