When the Imperial Japanese Army forces murdered thousands of people in Nanjing, China, in late 1937, about 20,000 to 80,000 women were also sexually assaulted in what was known as the Rape of Nanjing. The mass rapes not only left the city in ruins but also horrified the rest of the world. This alarmed and raised Emperor Hirohito’s concern, who was worried about how Japan’s image would be portrayed to the rest of the world. To prevent atrocities like that and at the same time prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, he ordered to confine sexual activities within military-controlled facilities called “comfort stations.” This idea, of course, was not without a negative effect.

Far From Comfort

Comfort women. (not described, 記載なし, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

So, “recruiting” women for the said brothels started. By that, we mean either leading them to think that they would travel to work as part of nursing units or jobs, being purchased from their parents as servants or straight-up kidnapping them. These women were from different countries all over southeast Asia— Korea, China, Philippines,  Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya, and other Japanese-occupied territories. There were also a few from European origins like Netherlands and Australia. A significant number of these women were minors who, once in the brothel, were forced to have sex with their Japanese captors multiple times, sometimes with multiple men at the same time. These repeated abuses would increase before battles, torturing the women not only physically but also emotionally and psychologically damaging them.

One of the survivors from the Philippines shared her story. Narcisa Claveria, who, in 1943, was taken from her family by the Japanese occupiers. As published on NPR’s website,

Soldiers dragged her and two older sisters off to a garrison. The oldest she never saw again. Narcisa was among eight girls and women who by day cooked, cleaned and did laundry. By night, she says, the troops raped them. “I was in a different room every night,” Narcisa says. She says if they protested, “they flayed us with horse’s whip.” The building, she says, heaved “with crying.”

Narcisa was 12 and says she endured approximately 18 months as a captive in the garrison. In her one family, four sisters, their mother and an aunt were subjected to systematized sexual violence in the war.

The exact number of the victims was unclear, as the Japanese officials destroyed documents and proof when World War II ended. Still, estimates were between 20,000 and 410,000 women fell victim to the atrocious acts. About only 10 percent of them survived as they were either ordered to commit suicide along with the troops, killed in the caves or trenches, or locked and sunk in submarines in the deep sea.

Organized Sexual Assault

These “comfort stations” were scattered all over the countries. As AWF wrote on their website,

Shanghai about 10, Hangzhou 4, Zenjiang 8, Changczhou 1, Yanzhou 1, Danyang 1, Nanjing about 20, Wuhu 6, Jiujiang 22, Nanchang 11, Hankou 20, Gedian 2, Huarongzen 2, Yingshan 1, Yichang 2, 125 in total. To this sum we can add one of Suzhou and two of Anqing according to another material. From this, at least, enumeration of comfort stations in cities, we can already estimate that there were almost as many comfort stations as that in the 1942 estimate of the War Ministry.

Regulation for the use of comfort stations. (Digital Museum: The Comfort Women Issue and The Asian Women’s Fund |www.awf.or.jp)

That was apart from the 30 stations in the Philippines, 50 in Burma, and 40 in Indonesia. And these were not just some barracks where the soldiers would do their acts but were actually organized by the officials, complete with house rules. As per the Chapter IX of their Regulations for the Use of Comfort Stations, “To help enforce military discipline by providing ways for relaxation and comfort,” each unit were assigned visiting days with designated price and time for non-commissioned officers and enlisted men, all complete with examination days for women were checked for possible sexually transmitted diseases. However, this proved ineffective, as both the soldiers and the women suffered from these illnesses.

Remnants of The Past

Comfort Women, rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, August 2011. (Claire SoleryCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

After World War II and after Japan unconditionally surrendered after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the people focused on rebuilding the country. The victims were left to suffer in silence, downplayed as a remnant of the past that people would like to move on from. When the issue was brought up in Japan a few decades after, the officials denied such existence of “comfort stations.” Years later, testimonies from more women came that in 1993, the Japanese government fully acknowledged and admitted the brutal acts. They decided to give reparations to those surviving Korean victims, as per the Announcement by Foreign Ministers of Japan and the Republic of Korea at the Joint Press Occasion, although they thought that seeking further apology was unacceptable. So those who were still alive were left waiting for an apology from the Japanese government.