In February 2021 J. Mark Ramseyer, the Mitsubishi Professor of Legal Studies at Harvard Law School wrote an article in a Japanese newspaper stating that the “comfort-women-sex-slavery-story” is “pure fiction.” His statement ignores overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary.

“Comfort women” is the name given to those women and girls who were forced into becoming sexual slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army in occupied countries and territories before and during World War II. That term is a translation of the Japanese word ianfu, which is a euphemism for “prostitute”.

Extent of the problem

Of an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 women who were recruited from different countries to serve Japanese soldiers, 80 to 90 percent were from Korea. However, women who were forced to work in military “comfort stations” also came from China, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya, Manchukuo, Taiwan, New Guinea, Hong Kong, and French Indochina. A much smaller number also came from the Dutch East Indies (an estimated 200-400 Dutch women) and Australia.

Girls as young as 11 years-old were forced to serve between 5 and 40 soldiers a day, and almost 100 soldiers on weekends. Those who resisted were often beaten, burned or wounded. The abuse was such that many women took their own lives. When the defeated Japanese retreated, many of those women were left to starve or were executed to eliminate any trace of the atrocities they were subjected by the Japanese military.

Some of the women were abducted from their own homes or were lured by local middlemen with promises of work in factories or restaurants. Others were promised nursing jobs at Japanese army bases. However, once recruited, they were incarcerated in comfort stations in their own countries or abroad. Some of the women were kept in sordid conditions in places called “public toilets” by the Japanese.

The Japanese military assert that one goal of using comfort women was to reduce the number of rapes and venereal disease among the Japanese troops. However, Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a Japanese historian, said that using comfort women increased their number.

Victims’ testimonies

The first Korean comfort woman to tell her story was Bae Bong Ki in 1980. Another comfort woman, Kim Hak Soon, who died in 1997, related in 1991 how she was abducted by Japanese soldiers when she was 17 years old, and forced to carry ammunition by day and serve as a prostitute by night. Her testimony sparked several other testimonies by women who were obliged to work as sexual slaves in military comfort stations.

Illustrative of the ordeal comfort women went through is the testimony of Chung Seo Woon in a remarkable book titled Making More Waves (Beacon Press, Boston, 1997). Chung was an only child born in Korea to the family of a wealthy landowner. Because of his activities against colonial rule, her father was sent to prison and badly tortured. When she was 16, she was allowed to visit her father. The same Japanese official who allowed her to see her father later came to her house. He told her that if she went to work in Japan for two years her father would be released. Despite strong objections from her mother, she agreed to do so.

Chung was placed on a ship with many other girls and women. She was hopeful that at the end of the two years her father would be released from prison, as she had been told by the officer. After being taken to Japan, the women were sent to several other countries and a group of them left in each country. After reaching Jakarta, the group that included the young Chung was taken to a hospital where she was sterilized.

The group was then taken to Semarang, a coastal city in Indonesia, and placed on a row of barracks. From then on, they were obliged to perform sexual intercourse every day with dozens of soldiers and officers. In the process, she was forced to become an opium addict. Chung attempted to commit suicide, by swallowing malaria pills.

Two of her friends reported her to the authorities, she was revived, and, she remarks, “It was then that I made up my mind to survive and tell my story, what Japan did to us.” When the war ended and she returned home, she found her house deserted. From neighbors who came to help her she learned that her father had died while in prison. Her mother, humiliated by the Japanese soldiers' attempt to rape her, committed suicide.

Chung decided to rid herself of her opium addiction. She was able to do this after eight months, and she worked hard to regain her dignity. She was never able to attain a normal sex life, but found companionship and care from a physician who had had a nervous breakdown after serving in the Japanese Army.

Japan’s admission of guilt

After the end of World War II, the government of Japan had insisted that the “comfort stations” were in fact private brothels that had been administered by private citizens. Only in 1993 did the government admit that the Japanese military had been “directly or indirectly” involved in the establishment and operation of “comfort stations” and in the transportation of the women.

In November of 1994, an International Commission of Jurists stated that, “It is indisputable that these women were forced, deceived, coerced and abducted to provide sexual services to the Japanese military… [Japan] violated customary norms of international law concerning war crimes, crimes against humanity, slavery and the trafficking in women and children… Japan should take full responsibility now, and make suitable restitution to the victims and their families.”

Japan has financially compensated the surviving victims of abuse by Japanese soldiers. In addition, Japanese government and Prime Ministers have used the expression kokoro kara no owabi that can be translated as “from our heart, most sincere apologies” about this issue. However, this gesture only renders partial justice to all the “comfort women” from different countries who were abused by the Japanese military. Tens of thousands of “comfort women” are not alive to receive these apologies.