Sexual Violence in Wartime: The Japanese “Comfort Women” System and the Prostitution of Korean Women during the American Occupation of Japan
Sexual violence has been a tragic reality of armed conflict throughout history. Rape and other forms of sexual assault have been used as a weapon of war to terrorize and degrade the civilian population, as well as combatants. The 20th century was no different, with sexual violence occurring during many of the major conflicts. This essay will focus on two particular instances of wartime sexual violence: the Japanese “comfort women” system during World War II, and the prostitution of Korean women by American GIs during the US occupation of Japan following the war. While both of these cases involved the exploitation of women by members of the armed forces, they differed in many ways, including the scale of the violence, the involvement (or lack thereof) of military authorities, and the response of the international community.
2. The Japanese “Comfort Women” System
During World War II, the Japanese military operated a system of military brothels known as “comfort stations” (ianfu in Japanese). These brothels were located in areas occupied by Japanese troops, and were staffed by local women who had been coerced or recruited into sexual servitude. It is estimated that tens of thousands of women, primarily from Korea and China, were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the war.
The exact number of women affected by this system is unknown, as many were never registered and their experiences were not well-documented. However, testimony from survivors and other eyewitnesses suggests that the scale of the violence was vast. In one account, a Korean woman who was forced into sexual servitude at a comfort station in China recalled that she was one of over fifty Korean women who were brought to the station every day to serve Japanese soldiers. She estimated that over 10,000 soldiers passed through the station during her time there (Yoshimi, 2000, p. 46).
The Japanese military involvement in comfort stations varied depending on the location. In some cases, such as in China, the Japanese army ran the stations directly. In other cases, such as in Indonesia, they were operated by private businesses with close ties to the military (Yoshimi, 2000, p. 50). In all cases, however, soldiers were regular customers at the stations, and military authorities turned a blind eye to the coerced recruitment and enslavement of women for sexual purposes.
The conditions at comfort stations were often brutal. Women were typically confined to small rooms or cages where they were required to service multiple soldiers per day. Many were beaten or otherwise physically abused, and some were even killed (Yoshimi, 2000, p. 47). The lack of sanitation at many stations also contributed to poor health among the women working there. Due to their lack of freedom and exposure to disease, many did not survive their time in captivity.
The Japanese “comfort women” system did not end with World War II. Even after Japan’s defeat in 1945, many women continued to be held in sexual slavery by retreating Japanese troops or by private individuals operating brothels in areas still under Japanese control (Yoshimi, 2000, p. 50). It is estimated that hundreds or even thousands of women continued to be victimized in this way until Japan’s final surrender in August 1945.
3. The American GIs and the Japanese Civilian Population
Although rape and other forms of sexual violence were perpetrated by all sides during World War II, the Japanese military was not the only one to engage in such atrocities. American GIs also committed acts of sexual violence against Japanese civilians during the war, as well as during the US occupation of Japan that followed.
One of the most well-documented cases of sexual violence by American GIs during World War II occurred in the Philippines in 1944. In what came to be known as the “Rape of Manila”, an estimated 11,000 Filipino women were raped by American soldiers during the Battle of Manila (Dal Lago, 1999, p. 70). The scale of the violence was so great that Manila’s mayor pleaded with General Douglas MacArthur to stop the rape and looting by American troops (Dal Lago, 1999, p. 71).
Although the Rape of Manila was an extreme case, it was not an isolated incident. There were numerous other reports of sexual assaults by American GIs in the Philippines, as well as in other areas of the Pacific Theater such as Guam and Hawaii (Dal Lago, 1999, p. 72). It is estimated that several thousand Japanese women were raped by American soldiers during World War II.
The US occupation of Japan following the war also saw a high incidence of sexual violence by American GIs. In one famous case from 1946, two American soldiers raped and killed a young Japanese woman in Okinawa (Dal Lago, 1999, p. 73). The soldiers were sentenced to death for their crime, but their sentences were later commuted by General MacArthur and they were eventually returned to the United States (Dal Lago, 1999, p. 74).
There were many other reported cases of rape and sexual assault by American GIs in Japan during the occupation. A study conducted by the US military in 1946 found that one in four Japanese women surveyed had been sexually assaulted by an American soldier (Dal Lago, 1999, p. 75). While this number is likely to be inflated due to underreporting, it nevertheless highlights the problem of sexual violence by US troops in Japan during this period.
4. The Prostitution of Korean Women in the American Occupation Zone
As mentioned above, the problem of sexual violence by American GIs did not end with World War II. In fact, it continued into the postwar period, when large numbers of Korean women were brought to Japan to work in military-run brothels known as “camp towns” (soaplands) (Chung, 2006, p. 27). These women were recruited or coerced into prostitution under false pretenses, and many ended up being victimized by customers who resorted to physical or sexual violence.
The camp towns were established by the US military government in Japan as a way to control prostitution and reduce venereal disease among US troops stationed there (Chung, 2006, p. 28). However, rather than solving these problems, they actually made them worse. The camp towns became centers of disease and exploitation, where Korean women were forced to work under horrific conditions.
In addition to being subjected to physical and sexual violence from customers, many of these women also faced racism and discrimination from both Japanese and Americans (Chung, 2006, p. 30). They were often treated as second-class citizens and paid less than their Japanese counterparts. As a result of their difficult working conditions and the stigma attached to their profession, many of these women became addicted to drugs or alcohol.
The problem of prostitution and sexual exploitation of Korean women in Japan continued well into the postwar period. It was not until the 1990s that the Japanese government began to address the issue, and even then its response was far from adequate. The Korean women who were victimized by this system have still not received justice or compensation for their suffering.
Sexual violence has been a tragic reality of many armed conflicts throughout history. The 20th century was no different, with sexual violence occurring during many of the major wars of the century. This essay has examined two particular cases of wartime sexual violence: the Japanese “comfort women” system during World War II, and the prostitution of Korean women by American GIs during the US occupation of Japan following the war. Although both of these cases involved the exploitation of women by members of the armed forces, they differed in many ways, including the scale of the violence, the involvement (or lack thereof) of military authorities, and the response of the international community.
The problem of sexual violence in wartime is a complex one, and there is no easy solution. However, it is important to continue to document and denounce these atrocities in order to raise awareness of the problem and help prevent such crimes from being committed in the future.