Cold Comfort for the Women: Japanese Military Culture and Local Collaboration

By | October 12, 2015 | No Comments

Entrance of a comfort station. "Services of Yamato nadeshikos who devote their body and soul (to you)" "Victorious warriors of the Holy War, Very welcome!"

At an entrance to a Japanese military brothel, the gate reads, “Services of ‘Yamato nadeshikos‘ [大和撫子; the idealized version of a perfect woman], who devote their body and soul / Victorious soldiers of the Holy War, welcome.” | Image: Korean Wikicommons

As illuminated by recent anniversaries and commemorations, history is both a malleable plaything and an obsessive object of dispute for states in Northeast Asia. In Tokyo, Abe Shinzo and his Liberal Democratic Party rework histories of colonial expansion into halcyon inspiration for an enslaved Asia, seeking to move firmly beyond the bonds imposed by Douglas MacArthur and the postwar occupation. In Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party has absorbed the Nanking Massacre victim narrative in toto, and takes thunderous credit for a 1945 victory in which it had not legally been allowed to participate.

With such inherent conflict within and between these two national master narratives, it is little wonder that individual historical atrocities or incidents each remains a battlefield in its own right. It is also unsurprising that individual voices which do not accord fully with the nation’s emphasis on victimhood or right to postwar justice are shunted aside.  

As a dispute that often arrives precisely at the support or denial of individual voices, the “comfort women” dispute (慰安婦問題; ianfu mondai) between Japan and its South Korean neighbor is therefore not unique in its ferocity and its ability to inspire emotion. But its entanglement with issues of gender and power, collaboration and biopolitics, and developmental dictatorship and repression of memory mean that it has taken on a certain toxicity as historical phenomenon. 

Little wonder that scholars would often rather focus on history issues — such as how they are poisoning the bilateral Japan-ROK relationship, or perceptions history is being “weaponized” — rather than the history itself, since the narrative is so tangled, unpleasant, and at times dependent on individual testimonies.  

Mary Finch, a young historian at the University of Leeds, arrives at the task with a certain fearlessness of purpose, and a wide-angle look at the historiography. History is therefore at the center of the inquiry, a bracing quest for the roots of the “comfort women” system. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Cold Comfort for the Women: Japanese Military Culture and Local Collaboration

by Mary Finch

Nothing is inevitable; the comfort women system of wartime Japan was no exception. While it may be tempting to search throughout Japan’s earlier history for the roots of the militarism that have come to define its experience of the early twentieth century, such a task would come at the expense of empirical historical analysis. The comfort women system was the result of particular developments in Japanese history, of factors that arose without deliberation, but in coincidental coordination.

Systematic sexual slavery was not replicated by any other state or society during the Second World War, but the principle and practice of systematic provision for the sexual needs of militaries is long-established.1)Chunghee Sarah Soh, “From Imperial Gifts to Sex Slaves: Theorizing Symbolic Representations of the ‘Comfort Women,'” Social Science Japan Journal 3:1 (2000): 59-76. Equally, the (separate but intersecting) racist and misogynistic-patriarchal cultures which laid the basis for the comfort women system in Japan was something it certainly shared with other nations; thus it cannot be said to have been an inevitable conclusion of Japan’s development.2)The term “misogynistic-patriarchal” is used here to refer to the dual ideology of women as submissive to husbands, fathers, and sons within the family; and of the dehumanization and objectification of women by men to justify violence against them.

Collaboration was a significant and controversial part of the Japanese empire. While its role in explaining the comfort system is limited, it was a widespread contributing phenomenon. Hwang Kum Ju and Hwang So-gyun, two former comfort women, both testified to a UN investigation that their local village leaders had approached them with offers of “work” in factories or as day laborers, which they accepted; they were subsequently handed over to Japanese, with the collaborators in full knowledge that they were to become comfort women.3)United Nations, United Nations Report on Mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (1996), 14-15. School teachers were also implicated in the UN report, and it emerged also that some comfort stations were run by private operators, local civilians who voluntarily managed the stations, with the army merely maintaining oversight.4)United Nations, United Nations Report, 9; Sue Lee, “Comforting the Comfort Women: Who Can Make Japan Pay?” Journal of International Law 24:2 (2003): 516.

These are clear-cut cases of collaboration, but the majority of cases are far more complex. In many instances, the situation requires deeper interrogation of the term “collaborator.” To whom or what exactly does it refer? When families were in such poverty that they had to sell their daughters to feed the rest of the family, were they therefore collaborators?5)Carmen Argibay, “Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of WWII,” Berkeley Journal of International Law 21 no. 2 (2003): 378. When village leaders were threatened with mass murder or with their homes being burned, and they handed over women and girls to the Japanese for fear of these threats being carried out, were they collaborators? What of the comfort women themselves, particularly those who were recruited under false pretenses – if they went along willingly with the Japanese in the first instance, and did not fight back, were they collaborators?

Challenging Terminology: Collaboration, and Wars of Domination | The application of the somewhat hegemonic term “collaborator” is not appropriate in every instance, even if we recognize that the local populations of nations that were colonized or occupied by the Japanese participated with them in the establishment and maintenance of the comfort women system.

It is not for historians to define what does and does not constitute a morally legitimate reason to collaborate – discussion of whether protection of a village is reason enough to sell a woman into sexual slavery is not of relevance here. It is clear, however, that these were considered valid reasons by certain individuals at the time. Indeed, many Chinese collaborators, when put on trial, attempted to legitimize their actions by arguing that in collaborating, they had furthered the preservation and survival of the entire nation.6)Lo Jiu-Jung, “Survival as Justification for Collaboration, 1937-1945” in David Barrett, Larry Shyu (eds.) Chinese Collaboration with Japan, 1932-1945 (California: Stanford University Press, 2001), 120.

The willingness of the Japanese Imperial Army to use extreme force and violence in the recruitment of women demonstrates that collaboration was by no means a prerequisite of the comfort system, or the wider Japanese imperial project – it was only a supporting structure. Placing the comfort system in the wider context of the Japanese wartime empire is therefore necessary.

Ostensibly, the comfort women system was created to prevent soldiers from raping civilians. The first comfort station was established in 1932 in Shanghai, but in the wake of the 1937-38 Rape of Nanking where mass rape and atrocities were committed by the Japanese, it was expanded to become a military-wide, systematic service that was provided to all soldiers.7)Yuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation (New York: Routledge, 2002), 10. There is evidence, however, that rape of civilians happened alongside the comfort women system, rather than being replaced by it; and Japanese military figure General Okamura admitted in 1938 that the system was a failure.8)Yuki, Japan’s Comfort Women, 28. However, the system was not shut down as a result. Rather, it was expanded.

The comfort system must have brought benefits to which the Japanese state would not openly admit; these were benefits explicitly linked to the expansion and maintenance of their empire in East Asia. Pan-Asianism transformed Japan into the liberator and light of Asia, in rhetoric at least. In reality, it was clear to contemporaries everywhere and has been clear to historians since that the invasion and colonization of East Asian nations was not a “war of love,” but a war of domination.9)Max Ward, “Crisis Ideology and the Articulation of Fascism in Interwar Japan: The 1938 Thought War Symposium,” Japan Forum 26:4 (2014): 472.

A directive published in 1938 ordering the recruitment of military comfort women. | Image: Wikicommons (Located via the Korean Wikipedia page "위안부")

A directive published in 1938 ordering the recruitment of military comfort women. | Image: Korean Wikicommons

Control and Culture: Sex, War, and Entitlement | Sexual violence during warfare is always an expression of control over, and an attempt to subjugate, a population that has been invaded. As Yuki Tanaka has pointed out, the use of institutional sexual violence in this context points quite clearly to a systematic attempt to suppress resistance to Japanese imperialism.10)Yuki, Japan’s Comfort Women, 10-11. “Forced sex constitutes an exercise of ownership over a person” — in this case, it was over entire populations.11)Carmen Argibay, “Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of WWII,” Berkeley Journal of International Law 21:2 (2003): 382.

This explanation would certainly go some way to explaining the extreme violence from Japanese soldiers when dealing with comfort women. Former comfort women testimony to the United Nations report recounted witnessing beheadings, and women being buried alive.12)United Nations, United Nations Report, 14. The control the Japanese had over the movements of comfort women is paralleled in the colonial male populations who were recruited into forced labour schemes, further demonstrating the scope of the underlying imperial project that the comfort women system was intended to strengthen.13)Pyong Gap Min, “Korean ‘Comfort Women:’ The Intersection of Colonial Power, Gender, and Class,” Gender and Society 17:6 (2003), 944. The comfort system clearly was not about sex, or about preventing rape: it was about gendered, racialized, and militarized domination of an empire over its subject nations.

There was an aspect, also, of entitlement to use women for sex that existed and exists in military culture, both Japanese and non-Japanese.14)Yuki, Japan’s Comfort Women, 87. But it transcends military culture; it stemmed fundamentally from a long-standing culture of both male domination over women, and of Japanese domination over other East Asian races. Racism and misogynistic-patriarchal culture fundamentally underpinned the emergence of the comfort women system, and thus must be dealt with in detail.

Good Wives and Wise Mothers: Post-War Comfort | Traditionally in both Japanese and non-Japanese cultures, male domination was exercised within the family, where women were expected to be submissive daughters, and then wives, and finally mothers.15)Robert J. Smith, “Making Village Women into ‘Good Wives and Wise Mothers’ in Prewar Japan,” Journal of Family History 8 no. 1 (1983): 72. In the nineteenth and certainly the twentieth century, male domination was being framed instead around sexual, violent domination. Japanese artwork depicting sex showed increasing violence from the nineteenth century onwards.16)Linda Gertner Zatlin, ‘‘Comfort Women’ and the Cultural Tradition of Prostitution in Japanese Erotic Art,” in Margaret Stetz and Bonnie B. C. Oh, Legacies of the Comfort Women of World War II (London and New York: East Gate, 2001), 31. It was a stark reflection of reality: the sharp increase in the mid-nineteenth century of trafficking of Japanese women for forced prostitution, and the fact that Japanese prostitutes in brothel districts were – in albeit rare cases – literally displayed in cages, are testament to the pre-existing culture of dehumanization and subjugation of women in Japan.17)Mark Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895-1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 59-61; and Sheldon Garon, “The World’s Oldest Debate? Prostitution and the State in Imperial Japan, 1900-1945,” The American Historical Review 98 no. 3 (1993): 717. The autonomy and humanity of women had been systematically eroded by misogynistic-patriarchal culture so that extreme, systematic violence against women became normalized, and the comfort women system emerged as an institutional expression of this.

Even after the Second World War had ended, the comfort system did not disappear – a new system was actually set up in Japan to cater to the American occupation troops. With the Japanese state now under the complete institutional control of the United States, women were once again mobilized to fulfill their perceived function of submissive sexual objects. There were some significant differences between the wartime comfort system and the occupation comfort system: apart from the loss of empire and full-scale societal mobilization, the most notable change within the occupation comfort system was that it was not organized on the basis of force, relying instead on overwhelming recruitment of professional prostitutes.18)Yuki, Japan’s Comfort Women, 134.  Instances of coercion and dishonesty in recruitment of young women remained, however, and the conditions the occupation comfort women endured, while arguably better than the wartime comfort system, were by no means enjoyable. Occupation comfort women could be expected to service up to 60 GIs a day.19)John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 129.

The occupation comfort system allows us further insight into the social perception of women in twentieth-century Japan: the system was established as an attempt to prevent mass rape of Japanese women once the US occupation troops landed.20)Meghan Warner Mettler, ‘Modern Butterfly: American Perceptions of Japanese Women and their Role in International Relations, 1945-1960’, Journal of Women’s History 26 no. 4 (2014): 65. The Japanese state wanted to protect the chastity of some Japanese women, at the expense of other, more dispensable ones – prostitutes. All women were expected to be available as sexual objects for male use: for most women, however, this was just a partial function, as society primarily placed them in the more respectable (but still confining, oppressive, and misogynistic-patriarchal) position of being mothers, wives and homemakers. Prostitutes’ profession had degraded their worth and transformed their primary function from mother, wife, and homemaker to sexual object, and thus were offered as a forfeit prize to the occupation troops.

As per the description, "Rangoon, Burma. August 8, 1945. A young ethnic Chinese woman who was in one of the Imperial Japanese Army's "comfort battalions" is interviewed by an Allied officer." | Image: Wikicommons

As per the description, “Rangoon, Burma. August 8, 1945. A young ethnic Chinese woman who was in one of the Imperial Japanese Army’s “comfort battalions” is interviewed by an Allied officer.” | Image: Wikicommons

Social Ties: Reintegration Denied | This social hierarchy of women, based on sexual conduct, manifested itself in both the wartime comfort system and wider society. Prostitutes working in the occupation comfort system were ostracized to the point that some women who left the profession for other work were forced back into it, because of the hostility they faced when they attempted to reintegrate themselves into society.21)Dower, John, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 124. A former comfort women testified to the aforementioned UN investigation that “during the first year I, like all the other Korean girls with me, was ordered to service high-ranking officials, and as time passed, and as we were more and more “used,” we served lower-ranking officers.”22)United Nations, United Nations Report, 15.

Again, this aspect of misogynistic-patriarchal culture was in no way confined to Japan. Chunghee Sarah Soh has argued that the premarital cult of virginity in Korea made it an ideal source of recruitment for comfort women, as they were so much more likely to be virgins and free of venereal disease. This tradition of defining the worth of women around their sexual conduct, voluntary or not, was one reason why this major Japanese war crime was not talked about until 1993.23)Soh, From Imperial Gifts to Sex Slaves, 70.

Japanese racism played an important role in both the comfort women system and the broader misogynistic-patriarchal culture that underpinned it. Eugenics, particularly, reinforced the differing roles of East Asian women in the Japanese wartime empire. While Japanese women were expected to be “good wives and wise mothers,” to breed and raise the strong Japanese population (and by extension, expand and strengthen the Japanese empire), non-Japanese races were being mobilised for sexual slavery – eighty percent of comfort women were Korean, because they, along with every other nation in East Asia, were seen to be racially inferior and thus disposable.24)Hicks, George, The Comfort Women: Sex Slaves of the Japanese Imperial Forces (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1995), 39.

This racial hierarchy directly manifested itself in the comfort system, with non-Japanese women suffered significantly worse treatment than Japanese, experiencing more violence, being raped more frequently, and placed in closer proximity to war zones.25)Hicks, The Comfort Women, 39. There were different prices attached to comfort women based on their ethnicity.26)Smith, Making Village Women, 75-76 Japanese racism in the comfort system was another fundamental aspect of making the comfort women system acceptable, through the dehumanization of non-Japanese races in order to justify violence against them, and based in wider racist Japanese culture.

The role of both racism and misogynistic-patriarchy had significant implications equally for the way this particular Japanese war crime and its victims were received in the post-war world. Historians have argued, and rightly so, that there was a clear racial hierarchy established at the Tokyo Trials, with white victims of Japanese war crimes prioritized over any other.27)Nicola Henry, “Memory of an Injustice: The ‘Comfort Women’ and the Legacy of the Tokyo Trials,” Asian Studies Review 37 no. 3 (2013): 368. Racism was, again, not unique to Japan. Despite US knowledge of the wider comfort women system involving hundreds of thousands of East Asian women, these crimes were not brought to the Tokyo Trials, except for one case of Dutch women in Indonesia who were forced into sexual slavery.28)Chunghee, From Imperial Gifts to Sex Slaves, 60.

The comfort system was not inevitable, nor can it be said to have been a result solely of military culture, imperial expansion, and collaboration, though these factors were undeniably a part of it. As this essay has argued, the role of misogynistic and racist ideologies that predominated in Japanese society, along with those of the nations they colonized, and the nations that eventually subjugated Japan at the end of World War II, are completely necessary to discuss in order to understand the emergence of the system. These ideologies systematically dehumanized both women and non-Japanese races, to the point where extreme violence against them was normalized. In the context of an increasingly brutalized and hierarchical army, with goals that became absolute, uncompromising, and rhetorically completely necessary, systematic and institutionalized sexual violence is an unsurprising outcome, though it was not the only possibility.

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1. Chunghee Sarah Soh, “From Imperial Gifts to Sex Slaves: Theorizing Symbolic Representations of the ‘Comfort Women,'” Social Science Japan Journal 3:1 (2000): 59-76.
2. The term “misogynistic-patriarchal” is used here to refer to the dual ideology of women as submissive to husbands, fathers, and sons within the family; and of the dehumanization and objectification of women by men to justify violence against them.
3. United Nations, United Nations Report on Mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (1996), 14-15.
4. United Nations, United Nations Report, 9; Sue Lee, “Comforting the Comfort Women: Who Can Make Japan Pay?” Journal of International Law 24:2 (2003): 516.
5. Carmen Argibay, “Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of WWII,” Berkeley Journal of International Law 21 no. 2 (2003): 378.
6. Lo Jiu-Jung, “Survival as Justification for Collaboration, 1937-1945” in David Barrett, Larry Shyu (eds.) Chinese Collaboration with Japan, 1932-1945 (California: Stanford University Press, 2001), 120.
7. Yuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation (New York: Routledge, 2002), 10.
8. Yuki, Japan’s Comfort Women, 28.
9. Max Ward, “Crisis Ideology and the Articulation of Fascism in Interwar Japan: The 1938 Thought War Symposium,” Japan Forum 26:4 (2014): 472.
10. Yuki, Japan’s Comfort Women, 10-11.
11. Carmen Argibay, “Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of WWII,” Berkeley Journal of International Law 21:2 (2003): 382.
12. United Nations, United Nations Report, 14.
13. Pyong Gap Min, “Korean ‘Comfort Women:’ The Intersection of Colonial Power, Gender, and Class,” Gender and Society 17:6 (2003), 944.
14. Yuki, Japan’s Comfort Women, 87.
15. Robert J. Smith, “Making Village Women into ‘Good Wives and Wise Mothers’ in Prewar Japan,” Journal of Family History 8 no. 1 (1983): 72.
16. Linda Gertner Zatlin, ‘‘Comfort Women’ and the Cultural Tradition of Prostitution in Japanese Erotic Art,” in Margaret Stetz and Bonnie B. C. Oh, Legacies of the Comfort Women of World War II (London and New York: East Gate, 2001), 31.
17. Mark Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895-1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 59-61; and Sheldon Garon, “The World’s Oldest Debate? Prostitution and the State in Imperial Japan, 1900-1945,” The American Historical Review 98 no. 3 (1993): 717.
18. Yuki, Japan’s Comfort Women, 134.
19. John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 129.
20. Meghan Warner Mettler, ‘Modern Butterfly: American Perceptions of Japanese Women and their Role in International Relations, 1945-1960’, Journal of Women’s History 26 no. 4 (2014): 65.
21. Dower, John, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 124.
22. United Nations, United Nations Report, 15.
23. Soh, From Imperial Gifts to Sex Slaves, 70.
24. Hicks, George, The Comfort Women: Sex Slaves of the Japanese Imperial Forces (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1995), 39.
25. Hicks, The Comfort Women, 39.
26. Smith, Making Village Women, 75-76
27. Nicola Henry, “Memory of an Injustice: The ‘Comfort Women’ and the Legacy of the Tokyo Trials,” Asian Studies Review 37 no. 3 (2013): 368.
28. Chunghee, From Imperial Gifts to Sex Slaves, 60.

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