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The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the…

by George L. Hicks

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Over 100,000 women across Asia were victims of enforced prostitution by the Japanese Imperial Forces during World War II. Until as recently as 1993 the Japanese government continued to deny this shameful aspect of its wartime history. George Hicks's book is the only history in English regarding this terrible enslavement of women.… (more)

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Yep. I'm joining Set in reviewing brothel literature.This one is rather grimmer than anything Set has reviewed, though. The comfort women were military prostitutes organized for the Japanese Army from 1932 onwards, and it's alleged that most were little more than sex slaves.

Japan was not alone in providing prostitutes for its soldiers, of course. Hicks mentions the Spanish Duke of Alva's army invading the Netherlands in the 16th century, followed by "400 mounted whores and 800 on foot", quite an image (and an opportunity just waiting for SPQR's shovel.) At least one American division in Australia organized its own brothel. However, what sets the Japanese apart is the allegation that a hefty percentage of its camp followers were duped or forced into taking up the oldest profession.

This is still a matter of some controversy. Although the Army was up to its elbows in the business, it tended to work through private, um, entrepreneurs, and no systematic records were kept. The Army burned large numbers of records at the time of the surrender, wiping out a good fraction of the few records that were made. Allied investigators, up to their elbows in allegations of major war crimes, hardly noticed the comfort women, who were assumed to be ordinary prostitutes. Many of the comfort women passed themselves off as nurses on the assumption that nurses would be treated more respectfully by the victors than prostitutes; others went native in the countries to which they had been posted. Those that could found their way back home and tried to resume some semblance of a normal life.

As a result, it was not until 1962 that a Japanese writer, Senda Kako, began investigating the comfort system. However, the publication of his Military Comfort Women (従軍慰安婦, Jūgun-ianfu) in 1973 made relatively little immediate impression. The end of military rule in South Korea in 1987 and the establishment of a democratic government gave activists greater freedom to publicize the plight of the comfort women, which became a cause célèbre among Asian feminists. This led to a class action lawsuit on behalf of the comfort women in December 1991, which was supported by documents found by historian Yoshida Yoshiaki in Japanese government archives. One of the plaintiffs in the suit, Kim Hak Soon, was the first comfort woman to speak of her experiences in public. In 1993 the Japanese government acknowledged that Korean women had been involuntary participants in the comfort system, and offered a formal apology.

It hasn't rested there. Right-wing Japanese politicians would love to unapologize, many still insisting that all the comfort women were professional prostitutes. (Thanks to George Lucas, I have this mental image of lipless aliens shouting "There is no pwoof!") That seems unlikely. However, the details remain uncertain. The numbers could be anywhere between 45,000 and 200,000, depending on how many prostitutes you assume were needed per soldier and how often you assume the prostitutes were rotated home. The backgrounds are uncertain, too; the only statistics are from a number of telephone hot lines set up in 1993 to invite persons in Korea and Japan to call in and confidentially offer information. We all now how incredibly unreliable a surveying technique that is. However, the geographical distribution of comfort women derived from the hot lines is fairly consistent with the geographical distribution of Japanese military forces during the war, which builds maybe a little confidence. Turns out a little over half the interviews in Japan spoke of Korean comfort women, more even than Japanese comfort women, while the interviews in Korea were pretty much all Korean women. So the claim that most of the comfort women were Korean has some support.

Some of the documents Yoshida dredged out of government archives include complaints by police of unsavory recruitment techniques in Japan, and there is a regulation on file requiring that all Japanese comfort women recruits be over the age of 21 and already working as prostitutes. There is credible evidence that no such regulations were enforced in Korea, and considerable evidence that the recruiters sought relatively young virgin girls, who were lied to regarding the nature of the work they would be performing. Young virgin Korean girls were preferred because they would be free of venereal disease and, not being fluent in Chinese, were unlikely to be recruited as spies if stationed in China. (The Japanese were obsessed with espionage.)

The descriptions of what the girls went through is just dreadful. It's some of the most unpleasant research I've done for my biggest time sink and I plan to rinse my palate with some good old fashioned bloody combat reading next. (Biak. Should do the trick.)

I found this book frustrating in many ways. It's slightly out of date, having come out in 1996. It's also quite poorly organized. The text is broken up with numerous accounts of various comfort women and their customers, which manages to increase the incoherence noticeably. The author mixes in a little feminist theory and jargon, though this is minimal in the first chapters. I skimmed the final chapters, which are basically a history of the comfort women as a feminist movement. I suppose it's more than understandable that a lot of the former comfort women and their supporters pretty much hate men.

One of the biggest frustrations is cross-checking the book with other sources. Wikipedia is worse even than usual; its articles on comfort women and those involved in the modern comfort woman cause have clearly been tussled over by Japanese nationalists, and I'm skeptical of their skepticism, if you follow me. It does not help that it's genuinely difficult to get a solid historical grip on the issue; as mentioned earlier, little documentation would be expected to have survived, and the witnesses did not come forwards until many decades after the fact. Still, what documentation does survive supports key elements of the comfort-woman-as-sex-slave narrative. And, you know? It would be just like the Japanese Army to do something like this. I know, that's now how you prove things. No one's going to be able to prove much at this date.

Frustrating enough, and grim enough reading, that I can't really recommend it unless you are serious about researching the topic. The definite, well-written text on the comfort women has yet to be published. ( )
  K.G.Budge | Aug 9, 2016 |
An important history book, organized with clarity, without judgment, but with attempts to understand Japanese motivations. ( )
  sungene | Oct 29, 2007 |
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Over 100,000 women across Asia were victims of enforced prostitution by the Japanese Imperial Forces during World War II. Until as recently as 1993 the Japanese government continued to deny this shameful aspect of its wartime history. George Hicks's book is the only history in English regarding this terrible enslavement of women.

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