HWANG KEUM-JU, A KOREAN GIRL, was 18 when she was “drafted” by the Japanese to work in a factory. Trucked off to Manchuria, she was billeted in a freezing barrack and assigned a Japanese name. The day after her arrival, an officer ordered her into a small room and told her to do as he said or be killed. He then ordered her to remove her clothes.
“It was like a bolt from the sky,” she later said. “My long braid clearly showed I was a virgin….I told him no.” When she continued to resist, he ripped and cut her clothes off. She fainted, only to wake up in a pool of blood. That was just the beginning of the horrors she would experience as a sex slave for Japanese troops.
War creates strange euphemisms, but one of the most twisted has to be “comfort women.” These women—an estimated 50,000 to 200,000—were held as slaves to sexually service Japanese soldiers in the 1937–1945 Sino-Japanese War and World War II. For almost 50 years afterward, their story was virtually unknown. Even now the tragedy of the comfort women is shrouded in controversy, particularly over what these women are owed for their suffering. Promised legitimate work, they left behind lives of hardship and took a chance for a better future. Despite their terrible wartime experiences, several not only survived the war but overcame their deep emotional scars and found the courage to tell their stories.
THE VAST MAJORITY of comfort women were uneducated rural Koreans between 14 and 18 years old, whose poverty and circumstances left them vulnerable to exploitation. Throughout the women’s short lives, the Japanese had been their colonial overlords and the yangban, the Korean gentry—and for that matter, any man in that patriarchal society—their superiors. The future held little more than destitution. So when men showed up in their villages offering good work in Japanese factories or front-line hospitals, along with a chance to learn and lead a better life, the more courageous girls signed on.
Their recruiters became captors, shipping the girls off to far-away places in Japanese-held territory. They were confused by their rough treatment and neglect, but most seemed to believe they’d be given the work promised—until the appalling reality became clear: They were soon placed hard up against the front lines to provide “comfort” to young Japanese soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
Like all men in war, the Japanese soldiers lived with the specter of death. Though not excusing their abuse of the girls, Korean writer Kim Il Myon explains it this way: “To soldiers in the frontline, ever surrounded by the sound of guns, wrapped in smoke stinking of death and not knowing when death would come…a visit to a comfort station was no doubt the only form of relief…the only kind of individual act in which one was ‘liberated.’”
But that liberation cost these women their dignity, their sense of self, and much more. Many attempted suicide or escape, with some succeeding. The remaining tens of thousands could never predict what fresh horror lay ahead. They lived with the same smoke and gunfire and bombings that the men did, but they also suffered humiliation, infection, pregnancy, and disease. The standard treatment for syphilis was a shot of the dread No. 606, or Salvarsan, an arsenic-based drug that could cause infertility—if all the other abuse had failed to.
The men were ordered to wear condoms but some refused; with death a daily companion, why bother? The women were virtually powerless to enforce the rule, though they tried. When condoms were in short supply, they saved used ones, washed them, and redistributed them, an almost useless precaution.
IRONICALLY, FEAR OF VENEREAL DISEASE and the desire to maintain order compelled the Imperial military to establish the first comfort stations, after the 1932 invasion of Shanghai. Widespread rape by their occupying forces had angered the locals and made them hard to control. And brothels were risky: Spies would likely abound among prostitutes, and VD weakened the fighting force and might spread through Japan after the war.
By the end of World War II, the Japanese military had comfort stations in all their occupied territories, “manned” by women abducted or recruited under false pretenses. Some were prepubescent.
The women’s living arrangements varied, depending on who ran their station and the soldiers who came through. Most worked in cubicles that had curtains for doors and were just big enough for two people to lie down. One woman in a Taiwan station reported that on Saturdays, so many soldiers came that “the ends of the queues were sometimes invisible….Each woman had to serve 20 to 30 soldiers a day. We were already very weak, but going without good food and being forced to serve so many men left some of us half dead.”
Officially, the women were to receive part of what soldiers paid, but that too varied. Regardless, the cost of clothes and toiletries came out of their meager earnings. Indeed, the women were treated as prisoners. They were rarely allowed out of their stations, and then only under guard. Sometimes a crazed or drunk soldier beat or tortured them, even hacking off a breast or burning their genitals.
In the best circumstances, officers took comfort women as mistresses and treated them far more humanely. In rare cases, a kind of affection developed, either between a couple or among a group of soldiers and the women in a particular station.
As scholar and activist Yun Chung-Ok explains, “Even amid such a terrible life, Korean comfort women and young airmen, at a time when a mission meant death, seem to have experienced something like a raw encounter between fellow human beings.”
Nonetheless, all the women were permanently wounded—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. At war’s end, many were abandoned. They simply woke one day to find that the Japanese had deserted their stations. In some cases when the soldiers did not leave, the women and troops were expected to commit suicide, an expression of loyalty to the emperor.
But thousands persevered, somehow making their way to safety, usually on their own, sometimes via Allied or Japanese transport. Even those journeys were fraught. Several transport ships were torpedoed, and the women who made it back to Korea had to endure another war there five years later.
MOST OF THE SURVIVORS lived as virtual ghosts, haunted and humiliated by their ordeal, too ashamed to speak of it in a society where female chastity was prized. It was not until the early 1990s that the tragedy came to light. Several women’s groups and scholars pursued the issue of wartime sex slaves, and in 1991 former comfort women sued the Japanese government.
Kim Haksun, who was one of the first to reveal her story, echoed the sentiments of many of the women who have since spoken out: “Why haven’t I been able to lead a normal life, free from shame, like other people? I feel I could tear apart, limb by limb, those who took away my innocence and made me as I am. Yet how can I appease my bitterness? Now I don’t want to disturb my memories further. Once I am dead and gone, I wonder whether the Korean or Japanese governments will pay any attention to the miserable life of a woman like me.”
The lawsuits have yet to be resolved: the Japanese government has vacillated over the past decade, sometimes apologizing for the comfort stations and other times claiming they were brothels run by private agents and that the women were either prostitutes or volunteers.
The controversy continues to smolder, even in the United States. This past spring, two separate Japanese delegations visited the town of Palisades Park, New Jersey, where Korean Americans, who compose more than half the population there, had erected a small plaque in 2010 to the comfort women. Uncomfortable with the plaque’s wording, the Japanese wanted it removed. Their request was denied, and the memorial still quietly proclaims: “In honor of the more than 200,000 women and girls who were abducted by the Armed Forces of the government of Imperial Japan 1930s–1945. Known as ‘comfort women,’ they endured human rights violations that no peoples should leave unrecognized. Let us never forget the horrors of crimes against humanity.”
K. M. Kostyal, formerly a senior editor for National Geographic books and the magazine, writes frequently about history.