Uncomfortable truths

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 41, Summer 2000.

During the Second World War, large numbers of women, most of them Korean, were forced into prostitution by the Japanese military. A combination of official denial by the Japanese and shame on the part of many survivors and their communities kept the issue from being raised publicly for 50 years. Here Yonson Ahn explains how the silence was broken, describes the grassroots campaigns that were set up by women activists in the 1990s, and explores the continuing tensions between feminist and nationalist perspectives.

The Japanese soldiers euphemistically called them ‘Comfort Women’. The women’s ages ranged from 12 to the 20s. They were forced, kidnapped, lured, deceived, or sold to service the sexual needs of the Japanese military in their occupied regions and fields of war before and during World War II.

It seems that from the beginning of the 1930s ‘comfort stations’, mainly private, were set up in Manchuria, China. The first military comfort stations were set up in Shanghai in 1932, according to a written document. An extensive deployment of comfort stations for the exclusive use of the military started in 1937 after the Nanjing Massacre, where 115,000 Chinese civilians were killed. The precise number of women forced to engage in the ‘Comfort Women’ system is not easy to estimate because substantial military documents containing this information were destroyed or not released. Japanese soldiers referred to the comfort station as nigyuichi (’29 to 1′), a reference to the number of men each woman was expected to service each day; this may also be a reference to the ratio of the number of ‘Comfort Women’ needed relative to the number of Japanese soldiers. Based on this, the total number of ‘Comfort Women’ is estimated at between 80,000 and 200,000.

According to a 1944 report by the U.S. Office of War Information, the ‘comfort girls’ were found wherever it was necessary for the Japanese Army to fight. So far, evidence of comfort stations has been confirmed in China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, British-colonised Borneo, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, New Guinea, Okinawa, Korea. Vietnam, and the southern Pacific islands. ‘Comfort Women’ came from Japan and from Japanese colonies in Korea and Taiwan, as well as from Japanese occupied territories toward the end of the war, such as China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Burma. Dutch women were also used as ‘Comfort Women’ in Indonesia.

It is generally accepted that Korean women comprised 80 to 90 percent of the total number of ‘Comfort Women’. The reason that the vast majority of these women came from Japanese colonies like Korea is because of the International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children, which Japan ratified in 1925. The Convention excluded women in a country’s colonies from its provisions.

Responses of the Japanese Government

When the issue began to receive public attention in South Korea and Japan in 1990, the first response of a Japanese official was that the ‘Comfort Women’ did not exist in the Japanese military. This angered the Korean women’s movement and gave it further impetus for activism. It enraged a former ‘Comfort Woman’, Kim Haksun, who first challenged the politics of forgetting in August 1991 in Korea:

How can the Japanese government deny its role in the comfort station system, as here I am as a living witness. I have lived so far burying my horrible past in the deepest bottom of my heart, but I cannot stand any more that Koreans forget the past. [1]

The Japanese government declared in 1990 that there was no evidence of the forced drafting of Koreans as ‘Comfort Women’, and thus that there could be no question of any apology, memorial or disclosures by the Japanese government. The Japanese government also claimed that the system was the work of neither the Japanese government nor the military, but rather that of private entrepreneurs. However, a Japanese historian, Yoshimi Yoshiyaki, a professor at Chuo University in Japan, has subsequently obtained wartime correspondence which unequivocally shows the direct role of the Japanese military in the ‘Comfort Women’ system. The former Japanese Prime Minister, Miyajawa, admitted for the first time that the Japanese Imperial Army was in some way involved in the running of ‘Comfort Women’ facilities in 1992.

However, the Japanese government still claimed that compensation was out of the question, since the reparations treaty was sealed in 1965. There was a comprehensive agreement between the Japanese and the South Korean government that ‘normalised’ diplomatic relations, and this included economic agreements providing substantial aid to South Korea. But the issue of ‘Comfort Women’ was not addressed. [2].

The ‘Asian Peace and Friendship Fund for Women’ which had been launched in Japan in 1995 is based on donations from Japanese civilians. Korean women’s activists have been showing strong objections against the scheme and demanded that ‘reparation should be made by the Japanese government directly to the individual victims with an official apology’.


The issue of ‘Comfort Women’ was not heard of until fifty years after World War II. This issue has been dealt with by neither the Western Allies nor post-war Japanese and Korean governments. The Western Allies were well aware of the magnitude of the Japanese use of ‘Comfort Women’ throughout Asia. [3] In 1948, thirteen Japanese soldiers were punished by the Batavia Court for forcing about 35 Dutch women to become ‘Comfort Women’ in Indonesia during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies. At the same time, the local Indonesian women, who had also been raped by the Japanese soldiers, were ignored. No charge was ever brought to the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, formally called the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-1948), for the sexual enslavement of Asian women.

Why has the silence lasted so long? There has been a politics of not talking about and forgetting the past, especially by former pro-Japan military governments in South Korea before 1990. Issues of Japanese colonial history and the war-including the issue of ‘Comfort Women’-have often been deemed ‘matters of the past’ which implies that it would not be sensible to raise them again in the present.

Another reason can be found in the sexual representation of power. Chungmoo Choi argues that the reason the issue has been suppressed for so long has to do with the relationship between Korean women and the men who possess the legal and social power to ‘represent’ them. For example, among questions relating to the war which were raised in post-war Korea, the issues of male war dead and former forced labourers were prioritised: these issues were raised by members of the Fraternity of Pacific War Victims’ Families of Korea (Hanguk tepyongyang yujokhoe) while the issue of the ‘Comfort Women’ was dropped. The particular past of ‘Comfort Women’ was excluded from history in post-war Korea.

Research related to the Japanese colonial regime has focused on independent movements. A leading South Korean historian, Kang Man-gil, admitted that ‘Korean historiography made slow progress in researching the history of victims like ‘Comfort Women’, since conducting research and educating the issue of independent movement were more urgent’. Focusing on the history of resistance may be aimed at reclaiming masculine power and Korean national identity which was stripped away by the colonial power. This enables Korean men to recover from ’emasculation’, by showing the existence of struggle and resistance of Koreans against the colonial power.

In this masculinist and nationalist rhetoric, the issue of the violation of the bodies of the ‘Comfort Women’, especially by Japanese soldiers, is read as a matter of ‘national pride’. The issue is repressed, replaced by a national heroic narrative of independent struggle against the colonial power. I will return later to the effects of this nationalist narrative on the politics of former ‘Comfort Women’ themselves.

Forgetting has been one of the survival strategies for women. After the war, on returning to Korea, silence and forgetting seemed self-protective in the face of the return to ideologies and practices of ‘respectability’ and chaste womanhood which were imposed on the women. The prevailing concept of the respectable female body engendered shame at their own ‘defiled’ bodies. Even when indignation and anger were stronger than their sense of shame, when their own families and community also viewed them with shame, it was extremely difficult to defy strong pressures from those closest to them to keep silent.

Voice: the ‘Comfort Women’ Campaign

Grassroots organisations have been of crucial importance in drawing attention to and handling the issue of ‘Comfort Women’. For example, the Korean Research Institute for chongsindae (Hanguk chongsindae yonkuhoe) was set up in July 1990, and the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan (Hanguk chongsindae munje taechek hyopuihoe) in November 1990 in Korea. Before 1990, pioneering work was done by Yun Chong-ok, a former Korean professor who is a contemporary of the ‘Comfort Women’: she made investigative trips to Japan, Thailand, Papua New Guinea and China where there were comfort stations during WWII, and has made presentations at public forums since 1988. Accordingly, younger generations have learned more about the issue.

There is no sharp division between theory and activism on the issue of ‘Comfort Women’. Substantial numbers of the authors who wrote about the issue in the 1990s have been involved in the campaign. To some extent, research topics have reflected current debates, issues or questions in the process of the campaigns. On the other hand, research has influenced and fuelled the campaign, for example, finding historical facts on the ‘Comfort Women’ programme and looking for legal grounds to obtain compensation/ reparation for the victims in accordance with international laws.

After hotlines were set up by grassroots organisations in South Korea and Japan in 1991 and 1992, numerous former ‘Comfort Women’ and witnesses to what happened in comfort stations reported their experiences.[4] The first lawsuit by former ‘Comfort Women’ was launched in the Tokyo District Court in 1991. Rallies have been held on a weekly basis by the surviving ‘Comfort Women’ and their supporters since January in 1992 against the Japanese government, in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, Korea. Increasing awareness of sexual violence was a consequence of the women’s movement in Korea and in Japan, and the issue of ‘Comfort Women’ was highlighted.

The ‘Comfort Women’ campaign was galvanised in South Korea and Japan and later spread to the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, North Korea, and other parts of the Asia/Pacific region. Activist groups include Hanguk chongsindae munje taechek hyopuihoe (the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan) (1990), Jugunianfu Mondai Uri Yosong Network (Military ‘Comfort Women’ Issue Network of We, Japanese Korean Women) (1991), The Task Force on Filipino Comfort Women (1992), Lila-Pilipina (1994), Washington Coalition for ‘Comfort Women’ Issues (1992), and Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation. These grassroots organisations in these various countries have worked together closely and promoted solidarity. Links and alliances across national boundaries on the issue (transnational feminist practices) have been built up. Public pressure to clear the issue has increased in these countries and the UN. The ‘Comfort Women’ issue has been raised at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (1992, 1993), the UN Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery (1992, 1993), the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (1992, 1993), and the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995).

A number of former Korean ‘Comfort Women’ found the courage to break their ‘collaborative silence’. Making their story public turned them from individual survivors into collectives of resistance: giving solidarity with other Asian women, and between South and North Korean women. North and South Korean ‘Comfort Women’ met together for the first time at the annual forum on the issue in 1992.

What is quite remarkable in this new period of resistance was that this time the former ‘Comfort Women’ fought against their own, the Korean society, and not just against their Japanese tormentors at the comfort stations. Refusing to be silenced is a form of resistance against the social stigmatisation and national dishonour attached to ‘Comfort Women’. The women resisted the silence which both colonial oppressors and male Korean nationalists had preferred.

The former ‘Comfort Women’ made an important challenge to their exclusion from the ranks of those who had been war victims, out of a sense that their ordeal was a source of shame, in their request to be buried in Manghwyang-ui-dongsan (The Hill of Missing Home) where people who died for the nation are buried. Consequently, some former ‘Comfort Women’ who died recently were buried there, for example, Kim Haksun, and Chun Kumwha. This gesture has had great significance in challenging the stigma of national dishonour. Being buried at the national monumental graveyard transforms the ‘defiled prostitute’ into a ‘national heroine’.

However, there appears a dilemma in speaking out. The process of breaking the long silence to give testimony concerning their appalling treatment is a deeply painful process, since it involves re-living that suffering, re-experiencing bitterness, anger, pain and humiliation. When the women are asked for interviews from the media or to give testimony in public, their pain and anger are revived. Therefore, silence is a survival strategy, a choice women make in order to forget and minimise their ordeal. It could be a form of agency available to women in conditions of oppression where room for manoeuvre, choices and options are severely constrained.

Nationalism and feminism

Parallels could be drawn between the ‘Comfort Women’ campaign and Korean nationalism. For example, the Korean ‘Comfort Women’ activists pointed out the genocidal aspect of the comfort station project, a point also emphasised by the nationalist Koreans. Nationalists argue that Japanese colonial policies in Korea were basically genocidal, using as examples the drafting of Korean men as soldiers for the Japanese army or as labour for ammunition factories, and the use of Korean women as ‘Comfort Women’.

Another aspect of the discussion of the ‘Comfort Women’ system in the Korean nationalist approach is the representation of the violated Korean woman’s body as a symbol of the violation of the nation. Women’s bodies are figured as national property and a symbol of national identity in this context. The fact that the women who were taken to the comfort stations were virgins, not prostitutes, is seen as a particularly reprehensible aspect of the ‘Comfort Women’ project. The patriarchal sexual ideology of chastity is embedded in nationalist criticism of the ‘extortion of Korean women’s chastity by Japanese Imperialism’.

The ‘Comfort Women’ campaign risks echoing Korean nationalism in terms of its positioning of women. In her essay ‘Gender and Nation’, Nira Yuval-Davis argues that ‘women often come to symbolize the national collectivity, its roots, its spirit, its national project. Moreover, women often symbolize national and collective ‘honour” (p.627). This theme is also revealed in a letter to the Foreign Minister of South Korea, dated 29th June, 1993, by the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan (Hanguk chongsindae munje taechek hyopuihoe), which says that ‘the humiliating diplomatic relationship to Japan could not be ended and national pride could not be retrieved, without the resolution of the issue of “Comfort Women”.’

In addition, taking responsibility for supporting the former ‘Comfort Women’ is seen to preserve ‘national dignity’ by keeping them from receiving money from the Asian Women’s Fund from Japan. Accepting the scheme of the Fund is interpreted as leaving the circle of national unity: former ‘Comfort Women’ who have accepted the Fund were excluded from receiving financial support from the Korean side. This has caused tension between some survivors and activists.

There has been a double structure in the ‘Comfort Women’ campaign: internally it has emphasised ‘nationalism’ and internationally, ‘feminism’. In Korea there has been some continuity between ‘Comfort Women’ activism and nationalist rhetoric, where the violation of the bodies of the ‘Comfort Women’ is read as ‘a matter of our national pride’. This shows women’s symbolic entrapment within the nation. Furthermore, the symbolic use of women as markers of the boundaries of national belonging was superimposed on the familiar split between those women who were regarded as ‘honourable’, and those who were ‘shameful’ to their nation. The depiction of the homeland as a female body-a metaphor of the nation-as-woman-depends on a particular image of woman as chaste, dutiful, daughterly or maternal.

A substantial number of the ‘Comfort Women’, in fact, chose not to return home to Korea after the war. Even though many did return, their use as ‘Comfort Women’ was not publicised, for fear of sullying Korean national honour. The conceptualisation of ‘chastity’ and ‘virtuous’ female sexuality in relation to national purity permitted the silencing of the women for 50 years.

When the ‘Comfort Women’ campaign took up its stance against the Japanese government, the connection between the ‘Comfort Women’ system and exploitative Japanese colonial policies towards Koreans was further explored, while less attention was given to making connections with the existing patriarchal structure in Korean society. With the emergence of the high-profile public actions of the ‘Comfort Women’ campaign, activism could have been more focused on the possibility of constructing a new femininity, different from the traditional concept of the ‘good’ Korean woman. The campaign could have offered space to challenge the culturally acceptable image of women as chaste, dutiful, daughterly or maternal. Instead, it has been a political campaign dealing with the Japanese government and the UN. The campaign has made substantial progress in bringing the issue of the ‘Comfort Women’ to both national and international attention. But there is more to be done in addressing the needs of the former ‘Comfort Women’ as survivors of long-term sexual violence.


Chungmoo Choi ‘Korean Women in a Culture of Inequality’ in Donald N. Clark (ed.) Korea Briefing, 1992. (Westview Press, 1992)

Nira Yuval-Davis ‘Gender and Nation’ Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol.16, No.4, 1993.


[1] I interviewed Kim Haksun in 1992 and she died in 1997.

[2] In 1965, the South Korean government signed the Diplomatic Normalisation Treaty with Japan, the first official diplomatic contract between political leaders of the two nations in the post-war era. Included in the bilateral treaty was Japan’s compensation for colonialism in monetary terms. However, the ‘Comfort Women’ issue was not even included in the negotiation agenda. Neither the Japanese nor the Korean government raised the issue during the drafting of the 1965 treaty. The Park Chung-hee regime in Korea then launched an ambitious industrialisation plan, and the normalisation of diplomatic relations with Japan was an important tool for financing the industrialisation projects.

[3] Numerous US military documents from 1944 also deal with ‘Japanese Army Brothels’ and ‘Korean comfort girls’.

[4] By February 1993, 103 women in South Korea had identified themselves as former ‘Comfort Women’. It is reported that 123 former ‘Comfort Women’ are also alive in North Korea.