Narcotics, Smuggling and Sex: Perspectives of Empire in Japan’s East Asian Conquests, 1932-1945, Part One

By | June 12, 2022 | No Comments

The Chōsen Shinto Shrine in Seoul, which stood between 1925 and 1945, via Wikimedia.


The term “comfort women” will invariably conjure up a range of images and sentiments depending on one’s perspective and station in life. At present, however, the dominant theme relating to comfort women in the contemporary news cycle is the effect of lingering disagreements over accountability and guilt on current relations between Japan and South Korea. The Yoon Suk Yeol and Fumio Kishida administrations appear keen to reconcile relations between Seoul and Tokyo, a goal very much favored in Washington.

Political elites attempting to address historical wrongs in 2022, however, risk ignoring the realities experienced by the victims of these historic crimes. In this regard, the issue at hand isn’t found in ignoring others’ experiences, but in failing to understand those experiences and thus offering only simplistic expressions of sympathy. In this debut essay, Jessica Pitcher gives added perspective to the notion of “empire”, a word which often conjures images of pith helmets and union jacks in the English-speaking world, but one which had a far more “everyday” meaning for the colonized people of Korea. — Anthony Rinna, Senior Editor


The Japanese empire in Korea and China is often defined differently depending on the geographical location of the writer. In the United States and Britain, countries whose own imperialism was threatened by Japanese competition, Japan’s empire is defined by its aggressive expansionism and military activity. In Japan, where the Liberal Democratic party is in power, the empire is defined by pan-Asianism and liberation from Western influence. In Korea, where about a dozen officially recognised former comfort women still live, the empire is defined by sex trafficking. In China, whose people were the biggest consumers of state-produced and -trafficked opium, the empire is defined, among other things, by widespread drug trafficking.

The Western and Japanese definitions of empire and conquest are based on military activities, but these do not define the state of affairs from the perspective of occupied peoples, as they are not daily occurrences, and the extent of Japanese-ruled territory shifted over the course of the war. Issues that occurred daily, such as sex and narcotics trafficking, are what define the empire from the perspective of the conquered. Something further to consider when we think about defining the empire is who represents empire: the government, state enforcers (such as soldiers, police officers and ‘hustlers’), or the colonised people? Sex and narcotics trafficking was a daily experience of all three of these groups, and that the shared nature of these experiences is what makes them define the empire.

‘Comfort women’ were women and girls from Japanese colonial territories who were ‘recruited’ into providing sexual services for the Japanese military. Much of the terminology surrounding comfort women is problematic. For example the term ‘comfort women’ itself: Hyeong-Jun Park argues that this term is inadequate in reflecting the horrors experienced, and that ‘sex slave’ is a more accurate term.[1] Some scholars argue that the word ‘recruited’ removes agency from women, neglecting the fact that the term has cache with the effort to align comfort women scholarship with international war crimes discourse. This debate will likely continue: ‘recruited’ seems to unduly imply consent, an area of ongoing dispute which is not simply semantic.

Comfort women were made to work in ‘comfort stations’ (buildings or tents attached to army bases), and made to serve from 10 to 60 men per day, depending on the number of soldiers and status of combat.[2] Estimates range widely over how many women and girls were mobilised as comfort women, approximately 80% of whom were Korean, but none seek to argue that it was not a prevalent system.[3] Colonial women were favoured over Japanese women because their rapes represented an expression of Japan’s colonial domination.[4] Korean women were the majority because, while stationed in China, the Japanese military did not want to aggravate local occupied territories by forcing their young women into sexual slavery.[5]


Liberated comfort women in 1945, via


The comfort system of sex trafficking defined the Japanese empire because it was a daily experience for these Korean women in military brothels. However, the question of the agency of comfort women complicates this issue, such as whether women were kidnapped, came willingly and with informed consent, or came willingly after being lied to about the nature of ‘comfort’ work.[6] Many revisionists claim that comfort women were consenting, paid prostitutes.[7] If this were true, then ‘prostitution’ would define the empire, rather than ‘sex trafficking’. Nevertheless, Carmen Argibay argues that most available sources indicate that once in a comfort station, the experience of the women constituted sexual slavery.[8] Bob Wakabayashi, in a thorough and generally critical essay of feminist readings of the topic, clearly acknowledges that for whatever the questions of their limited agency, the comfort women were not free to leave.[9]

The degree to which sex trafficking was supervised by the government is widely contested.[10] The Japanese government recognised the existence of the comfort system in the 1993 Kono Statement, but continue to deny direct government involvement in procurement or trafficking.[11] However, recently uncovered sources prove that the Ministry of War was involved in the establishment of comfort stations and ‘recruitment’ of comfort women.[12] In a document entitled ‘Matters related to the recruitment of female and other employees for military comfort stations’, the Ministry of War state that ‘In actual recruitment, each Army must work in closer cooperation with the local Kempeitai’.[13] This document shows that the Ministry of War were giving orders regarding the comfort system, and were keeping it under close inspection.

The Japanese government deny involvement partly because it undermines their definition of the empire as a liberating expression of pan-Asianism. The true extent of the government’s involvement cannot be known, however, as many sources relating to the comfort women issue were either destroyed by the military after the Japanese surrender, or are not available for public viewing.[14] Nicola Henry states that this ‘denial campaign’ by the government has created a powerful ‘counter memory’: former comfort women have spoken out about their experiences and their oral histories collected and published by scholars.[15] These oral histories act as evidence where other sources (such as official government documents) are not available. Henry argues that although personal memory is not independently sufficient to ‘establish the veracity of an account’, it is still considered ‘evidence’.[16]


Elderly former ‘comfort women’ in South Korea c. 2015, via BBC.


The comfort system was designed to serve Japanese soldiers, in an attempt to reduce the number of civilian rapes committed by the soldiers.[17] This, Driscoll argues in a repurposing of postcolonial scholarship on Africa, is an example of ‘necropolitics’, in which the state or sovereign has the right not simply to mobilize the bodies of its citizens, but to decide how and when they die.[18] This leads to a level of dehumanisation that justifies their exploitation for a so called ‘greater good’. Again, the issue of agency arises: were Japanese soldiers responsible for the comfort system, as its users, or were the military responsible, as its managers? Historian Kasahara Tokuji testified that the ‘oppressive’ organisational structure of the military transformed soldiers into ‘war machines’, desensitised to the plights of comfort women and therefore capable of their rape.[19] This would suggest that the agency of soldiers was limited. However, Tanaka argues that when considering agency and responsibility we need to address both ‘the actions and responsibility of individuals’ and ‘the power structure of the military and state political machines’: crimes against comfort women were committed by both, and both should be held responsible.[20] Tanaka points out that soldiers were not ‘ordered or forced’ to visit comfort stations, and they therefore ‘bear personal responsibility’ for their involvement.[21] J. Mark Ramseyer, in his controversial treatment which alleges that comfort women acted out of choice and profited from their endeavours, leaves male agency out entirely.[22]

The issue of agency can be tied to criminal responsibility and public memory. In the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, rape was not listed as a ‘war crime’ or a ‘crime against humanity’ and no soldiers were tried for the rape of comfort women.[23] Nicola Henry argues that law can act as a ‘site of memory preservation’, and so legal memory can become collective memory.[24] In this sense, the lack of prosecution for crimes against comfort women and consequent false legal memory of soldier’s innocence risks becoming ‘official’ public memory. However, she also argues that law is ‘a medium for contested memory’: legal memories can be changed by ‘institutional and cultural forces’.[25] One of these ‘cultural forces’ is memorialisation, namely a wide and collective desire to remember that has emerged in the decades after the end of the Cold War.[26] This desire to remember prompted more former comfort women to come forward with their testimonies. These testimonies (excluded from the Tokyo Trial) and a series of subsequent tribunals, prevent the legal innocence of soldiers from becoming collective, public, ‘official’ memory: although the law doesn’t hold soldiers responsible for and identify their agency in their daily role in sex trafficking, collective memory does.[27]


Jessica Pitcher is a final year BA History student at the University of Leeds currently on a study abroad year at Korea University, South Korea. Jessica is especially interested in social and cultural history, particularly how individual people on the peninsula experienced high profile historical events. 



[1] Hyeong-Jun Park, “News Reporting on Comfort Women: Framing Frame Difference, and Frame Changing in Four South Korean and Japanese Newspapers, 1998-2013”, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 93:4 (2016), 1006-1025, p. 1007; Carmen M. Argibay, “Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of World War II”, Berkeley Journal of International Law, 21:2 (2003), 375-89, p.386

[2] Just before and after combat there would be a sharp increase in ‘customers’, see: Toshiyuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women, Sexual Slavery and Prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation (London: Routledge, 2002), p.52

[3] Toshiyuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women, p.31

[4] Toshiyuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women, p.176

[5] Toshiyuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women, p.45

[6] Carmen M. Argibay, “Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of World War II”, Berkeley Journal of International Law, 21:2 (2003), 375-89, p.378

[7] Fujioka, Nobukatsu, ‘Sex slave issue is a scandal invented to bash Japan’, Asahi Evening News, 26 January 1997; Nicola Henry, “Memory of an Injustice: The “Comfort Women” and the Legacy of the Tokyo Trial”, Asian Studies Review, 37:3 (2013) 362-380, p.370; Carmen M. Argibay, “Sexual Slavery”, p.387

[8] Carmen M. Argibay, “Sexual Slavery”, p.375

[9] Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, ‘Comfort Women: Beyond Litigious Feminism’, Monumenta Nipponica, 58, 2 (2003), 223-258.

[10] Radhika Coomaraswamy, Commission on Human Rights, Fifty-second session, E/CN.4/1996/53/Add.1 (United Nations, Economic and Social Council, 1996) p.1-37; Carmen M. Argibay, “Sexual Slavery”, p.387; Hyeong-Jun Park, “News Reporting on Comfort Women”, p.1007.

[11] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the result of the study on the issue of “comfort women” (1993) <> [accessed 24 April 2020]

[12] Cited in Tokyo, Archives of the Defence Research Institute, Jugun Ianfu Shiryo-shu (Otsuki Shoten, Tokyo, 1992), Document number 6, p.105-107.

[13] The instruction was given in the midst of recruiters ‘damaging the army’s reputation’ by failing to work with ‘appropriate agents’, see Tokyo, Archives of the Defence Research Institute, Jugun Ianfu Shiryo-shu (Otsuki Shoten, Tokyo, 1992), Document number 6, p.105-107

[14] Many official military documents are still classified and not viewable by the public or scholars. Many comfort women and cultural tribunals have called for their de-classification. See Toshiyuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women, p.19; Radhika Coomaraswamy, Commission on Human Rights, Fifty-second session, E/CN.4/1996/53/Add.1 (New York: United Nations, Economic and Social Council, 1996) p.1-37 (p. 21)

[15] Nicola Henry, “Memory of an Injustice”, p.373

[16] Nicola Henry, “Memory of an Injustice”, p.364

[17] Daqing Yang, “Atrocities in Nanjing: Searching for Explanations” in Scars of War: The Impact of Warfare on Modern China, ed. Diana Lary and Stephan Mackinnon (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2001) pp.76-96, p.76; Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: Norton, 1997), p.2

[18] Marc Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895-1945 (California: University of California Press, 2000), p.229

[19]  Papers of Kasahara Tokuji, translated and submitted to The Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, 2000, by VAWW-NET Japan. Currently being compiled into a booklet.

[20] Toshiyuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women, p.4

[21] Toshiyuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women, p.4

[22] Adam Cathcart, ‘Reading the Absences in Ramseyer’s “Comfort Women” Provocation’, Sino-Mondiale (blog), 19 February 2021,

[23] Nicola Henry, “Memory of an Injustice”, p.367; Ustinia Dolgopol, “Knowledge and responsibility: The ongoing consequences of failing to give sufficient attention to the crimes against the comfort women in the Tokyo Trial” in Beyond victor’s justice? The Tokyo War Crimes Trial revisited, ed. Yuki Tanaka, Tim McCormack and Gerry Simpson (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 2011) pp. 243– 61

[24] Nicola Henry, “Memory of an Injustice”, p.364

[25] Nicola Henry, “Memory of an Injustice”, p.365

[26] Nicola Henry, “Memory of an Injustice”, p.363

[27] Kim Puja, “Global Civil Society Remakes History: “The Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal 2000””, Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, 9:3 (2001) 611-620

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.