Imperial Japan was not the first nation to
procure women to provide sexual services for its soldiers. As George Hicks
notes, "More or less institutionalized means have always been found for
catering to this primitive sexual need." Hicks, however, convincingly
argues that the Japanese case represents a most ghastly instance of abuse,
involving "the legalized military rape of subject women on a scale ...
previously unknown in history."
Hicks notes several reasons why this
long-dormant issue surfaced only recently. In Asian societies, where chastity is
esteemed, the comfort women "had everything to gain by keeping silent and
everything to lose by making accusations." With prospects for marriage
ruined by speaking out, most preferred to keep their ordeal secret rather than
push for compensation and justice.
Furthermore, "[t]he task of uncovering the
history of the comfort women has thus far been delayed by such factors as the
destruction of evidence by the Japanese Armed Forces, the Japanese government's
insincere attitude toward war responsibility and social prejudice against
comfort women." The Japanese were all too happy to avoid the issue.
Government officials have attempted to deny or shift responsibility in a number
of ways--for example, by claiming that the comfort women were volunteers,
working for private operators, over whom the military maintained only limited
Hicks also notes that, with one exception, the
victorious Allies did not press the issue. While other atrocities such as the
abuse of prisoners of war and the massacre of civilians were dealt with by the
Tokyo war crimes trials, all such trials ceased with the outbreak of the Cold
War. Only the Dutch took action, on behalf of Dutch women. This lone exception,
oddly and improperly conducted in the midst of Indonesia's war for independence,
was routinely dismissed by the Japanese as an anomaly, if not an in justice.
Perhaps most important, South Korea, whose
women were the primary victims, was both distracted by war and threats thereof
and ruled by men who did not countenance demonstrations or protests. In addition
Korea's leaders remained unwilling to challenge Tokyo, at least in part owing to
Comfort women thus began demanding redress in
earnest only in the late 1980s and 1990s. By this time, some individuals no
longer had any family upon whom they might "cast shame." Furthermore,
by then, Asian attitudes toward women's rights had begun to change. Groups and
individuals began to link the issue with the problem of sexual oppression of
women as a whole. "Simultaneously shocking from the standpoints of
morality, feminism and patriotism," the issue could be used to arouse
feelings against current practices, including the ongoing sex trade in Asia.
Beginning in the late 1980s, advocates for
South Korean comfort women have demanded:
- that the Japanese government admit the
forced draft of Korean women as comfort women;
- that a public apology be made for this;
- that all barbarities be fully disclosed;
- that a memorial be raised for the victims;
- that the survivors or their bereaved
families be compensated;
- that these facts be continuously related in
historical education so that such misdeeds are not repeated.
The Japanese government initially replied by
claiming that there was no evidence of a forced draft, and hence no need for
apologies, memorials, disclosures, or compensation.
Anger at that response prompted many women to
come forward and, in some cases, to file suit. Comfort women from other nations
joined the South Koreans in protest. All the while, scholars gradually uncovered
irrefutable evidence that the Japanese military was behind the running of the
Following more Japanese stalling, the South
Korean government added its weight to the struggle in 1992. Several other
nations followed suit. In August 1993, the Japanese finally admitted to the use
of deception, coercion and official involvement in the recruitment of comfort
women. The apology they gave "was along the lines that the government ...
offer[s] its deepest apology and sense of self-reproach to all the women for
their irreparable mental and physical suffering and injuries, promising that
means of compensation would be studied, and the lessons of history squarely
The most powerful sections of the book are the
personal accounts of the comfort women. Intermittently throughout the work,
women tell of being violently "deflowered" and then forced to service
dozens of men per day in a melange of dehumanizing ways.
One is left aghast at the physical pain the
women endured. "I was continuously raw," writes one woman. "Sex
was excruciating." Many emerged from their service with physical scars,
nearly all of which were inflicted by Japanese officers. While a few managed to
injure their tormentors in kind, "one forms the impression that many
clients may have preferred this kind of sado-masochistic drama to tame
Sadism is a recurring theme of the women's
stories, along with the blatant abuse of force, as in the following example:
As I lay there naked on the bed ... he slowly
ran the sword over my body ... He played with me like a cat plays with a
helpless mouse ... He threw himself on top of me ... he was too strong.... To
me, this brutal and inhuman rape was worse than dying.... The night was not
over yet, there were more Japanese waiting ... this was only the beginning.
Beyond the damaged hips, the crippled legs,
abdominal scars, broken bones, ruptured eardrums, and missing teeth came even
more devastating psychological trauma. One women speaks of her inability to
"relinquish her fear of sex and hatred of men, which extends even to ...
her grandson." "I just hate all men and I hate sex." Others have
a different focus for their rage: "I was to be stripped of every shred of
pride and dignity ... how I hate the Japanese!" "Cannot hate them
enough" says another comfort woman, who was seized from her family on the
very eve of her wedding.
The anguish they have endured has been worsened
by the fact that the victims could not find release in an open acknowledgement
of the wrong done to them. A former Filipina comfort woman, now a grandmother of
twelve, stressed the need for justice: "Our lives were wasted by the
Japanese. We were treated like animals. Japan should at least say that it is
Curiously, many Japanese right-wing
organizations have responded to even vague apologies with intense venom. They
claim that Japan was not responsible for the war, that their actions were not
lawless by the standards of the day, and that human rights were denied to all
under wartime conditions. The present stir, many have claimed, is economically
motivated to put pressure on Japan.
Such responses alert one to another reason why
this issue must be pursued, beyond the fact that this is a war crime gone
unpunished. Japan has too often attempted to cover up, or has failed to inform
and educate young Japanese, on the less heroic aspects of the war. Overall there
is a pervasive taboo on discussion of the war, giving one an appearance of
"national amnesia." The comfort woman issue "raises afresh the
question of Japanese reluctance to acknowledge wartime atrocities." What is
needed is "not only apology and compensation, but proper understanding of
history by all Japanese."
In one paragraph that may best sum up the
reasons to pursue this issue, the Comfort Women Problem Resolution Council of
South Korea concluded: "Even among the war crimes committed by Japan, the
comfort women issue involved the most inhuman, atrocious national crimes,
unparalleled in the world. We have consistently demanded that the concealed
truth of the matter be brought to light and that apology and compensation be
made to the victims. This is a move designed to restore the human rights denied
the comfort women. It also aims to correct the distortions in the history of
Korean and Japanese relations and to sound an alarm bell to the world so that
such war crimes are not repeated."
Hicks offers overwhelming evidence to support
his criticisms of Japanese policies. He is more ambiguous, however, in
distinguishing this example from other historical cases of military
prostitution. Hicks is certainly correct to note that after the war, American
soldiers claimed from some comfort women "the same sort of service their
Japanese counterparts had." He also justifiably notes a "link between
the sexual activities of the Japanese Armed Forces and that of the American
Occupation Force as two sides of the same coin--the exploitation of women."
Hicks might do well, at times, clearly to note
the differences as well. Consider the following: scholars of the Holocaust, by
way of comparison, distinguish that event from many other examples of genocide
by noting the scope and scale of the deprivations, and the extent of involvement
of modern bureaucracies in the business of torture and murder. It would seem
that the Japanese case similarly extends well beyond other historical examples
of military prostitution, and implicates both the Home Government and the
Imperial Armed Forces in a variety of ways. Not only was the scale of
deprivations extraordinary, but so too was the suffering.
The Imperial Japanese approached military
prostitution with some unusual attitudes. Some felt that sexual deprivation made
one accident prone, and that sex before battle provided charms against injury.
Some even wore "lucky" amulets made with the pubic hair of comfort
The system was worsened far less by
superstitions, however, than by an intensely hierarchical military that strayed
considerably "beyond the rational requirements of discipline." Within
the armed forces recruits endured daily abuse in a dehumanizing process designed
to secure complete obedience. The comfort women, supposedly supplied to
"relieve tension," endured excessive mistreatment, especially from the
officers. They who treated their own men as an inferior species showed even
greater contempt for women whom they often regarded as not only sexually but
racially inferior. As one officer put it, "They're less than cattle."
There is also no doubt of extensive
bureaucratic involvement. Women were procured in one of three ways. Initially
recruiters searched for volunteers, finding some among professional prostitutes.
More commonly, they deceived young women with promises of cooking, laundry,
nursing, or waitressing jobs. Finally, women were seized in virtual slave raids.
While some (not all) of the
"recruiting" was handled by private operators, the Japanese Armed
Forces "controlled the comfort stations in such respects as laying down
regulations for them and conducting examinations of venereal disease."
There were no uniform standards, but posted regulations covered the hours of
opening, the length of each visit, bathing procedures, the required use of
condoms (which were washed for re-use in shortage-stricken areas), and the fee
scale. The military bureaucracy treated the women as they would handle standard
supplies. With the exception of a recurrent concern for decorum (amidst the
satisfaction of rather brute "male needs"), they ran the comfort
stations in a disturbingly banal, indifferent fashion.
There are minor problems with the work. Given
that even educated readers often struggle with Pacific geography, the book could
use at least one map. While a bit over-general on the background of the war, the
last half of the work conversely drags in detail, as Hicks chronicles the
increasing attacks of advocates and Japan's gradual admittance of guilt.
Finally, on an admittedly trivial note, as a scholar of Afghanistan, I simply
must dispute his claim that the Russo-Japanese war was "the first war in
which an Asian power successfully took on a Western one."
I also question his rather virulent
denunciation of the Allies for their failure to prosecute these war crimes
earlier. Not only did the Allies have limited evidence, but, given prevailing
attitudes, one must assume that they likely viewed the comfort women as not
altogether unusual for a society known for its bathhouses, geishas, and the
like. While the emergence of feminism has made these issues explicit today, one
must at least wonder how clearly the Allies of the late 1940s could have seen
the dividing line between prevailing cultural patterns and atrocity.
While the ongoing recovery of relevant
information precludes anyone from calling Hicks' work definitive, he has
provided much of value. He has also done well (the book's title aside) to supply
a limited degree of balance amidst a subject that begs pejoratives and
sensationalism. Hicks notes cases of Japanese soldiers who empathized with the
comfort women, including one who objected to the whole process as "no
different from relieving oneself in the lavatory." A 73-year-old veteran
states: "I think it is appropriate that some kind of compensation should be
made to the comfort women." One suspects that upon concluding this work,
Hicks' readers will readily agree.
Citation: Jeff Roberts . "Review of George Hicks, The Comfort
Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War,"
H-Women, H-Net Reviews, October, 1996. URL: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=1579851993579.
Copyright © 1996, H-Net, all rights reserved.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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