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Japan and South Korea: The "Comfort Women" Dispute

Written by Anjana Sathy

Research Associate at Law & Order

Source: Asian

Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.



Comfort women were women sex slaves, including those as young as 12 years, used by the Imperial Japanese Army, during the Second World War and other regional military conflicts like the Sino-Japanese wars and the Invasion of Manchuria (Hayashi, 2008). From 1935 to 1945 (“Sex slaves,” 2000), approximately one million to three million women were forced into sexual slavery in occupied territories for the pleasure of military personnel. In this article, I will first be discussing the history of ‘comfort women’ in brief, with emphasis on its impact on the relations between Japan and Korea.

The term “comfort women” is a literal translation of the Japanese term ianfu which popularly was “a euphemism for prostitutes” (Fujioka, 1996).

While estimates show that most of these women came from occupied Asian countries like Korea, China, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Taiwan, “a smaller number of women of European origin were also involved from the Netherlands and from Australia” (“Documents,” 2013).

The concept of establishing ‘comfort stations’ and employing comfort women was primarily to “provide soldiers with voluntary prostitutes in order to reduce the incidence of wartime rape” (Gottschall, 2004). Other reasons included prevention of leakage of military secrets in case of contact with random civilians and spread of sexually transmitted diseases within Japanese troops (Argibay, 2003).

However, the concept of “comfort women” wasn’t followed, as there was a forceful engagement of countless women in sexual acts in these brothels against their will. While logistical issues within Japan have raised concerns regarding recruitment, research shows that “an existing system of licensed prostitution within Korea made it easy for Japan to recruit females in large numbers” (Wender, 2003). According to literature, apart from instances of abduction, women who ended up in such brothels were supposedly lured under false promises of debt relief, education, and job opportunities (Yoshimi, 2000). Subsequently, these women were confined and incarcerated in comfort stations, with only meager amenities. According to Hicks, Korean women of bureaucratic descent were spared this fate, unless their families showed signs of dissent. This meant that the overwhelming majority of the girls forced into the corps were from the poorer sections of society (Hicks, 1996). Furthermore, these women were valued based on their physical characteristics, with no possibility of release even after fulfilling their so-called contracts (Argibay, 2003).

Comfort Women in Korea: Emergence and Aftermath

Between 1932 and 1945, Japan was involved in an imperial war with several Asian countries and the United States (Gap Min, 2003). Several historically violent, albeit important events marred this period, including The Nanjing Massacre of 1937 and the ‘Three Alls Policy’ in China around 1940. These events were marred by numerous war crimes and were supposedly in response to the strains of war and the subsequent limited ‘supply’ of women in brothels along the front lines (Soh, 2009). A kind of military sexual slavery system was officially formalized around 1937-38, when Japan had begun to engage in an all-out war with China and occupied Nanking. By the 1940s, such comfort stations further branched out into other countries and Japanese territories. In Korea, contractors having ties to criminal groups were also employed by the Army and Navy to recruit girls (Soh, 2009). Studies show that a majority of these women faced death due to various causes such as abuse, starvation, unavailability of medical help, and others (Edwards, 2013).

These women were dehumanized in every possible way. They were equated to 'goods' that could be used and abused, clearly reflected in the records of the Japanese Army and Navy as 'army supplies'.

Atrocities against them included being forced to donate blood for the treatment of wounded soldiers whilst they themselves died and being coerced to commit suicide at the time of the last stand of the Japanese forces, towards the end of the war (Hicks, 1996; Watanabe, 1999). Some even voluntarily committed suicide due to existing social taboos, wherein premarital sex was considered shameful since chastity was valued more than life itself, with suicide or being deemed an outcast the only result of any violation of such a belief (Watanabe, 1999).


The primary issues at the time of active usage of comfort women were those concerning health, human rights, and society. Though accounts show that the Japanese forces took great steps to avoid the spread of diseases by establishing military comfort stations in the first place, the ongoing war and subsequent losses on the Japanese side resulted in several issues like lack of funds for medical care of comfort women, violence and usage of drugs on these women which resulted in high rates of sterility, unwanted pregnancies and illnesses as medical supplies were reserved for military officers and servicemen. Psychological analysis of survivors showed clear evidence of distorted perceptions, difficulty in managing emotions, post-traumatic stress, and internalized anger, as a result of the physical and mental abuse faced by them (Min et al., 2004).

The issue of ‘comfort women’ has since been taken up on a large scale by the victim nations and international organizations alike.

After the Imperial Wars and the World War, several nations, organizations, and tribunals took action on this issue, either on their own or due to public pressure. Most Japanese officials who had been involved directly faced some form of punishment, which was meted out by the Batavia War Criminal Court.

The court took up the issue and sentenced one of the accused to death and found several others guilty. This decision was derived from the violation of the ‘voluntariness’ requirement of brothel workers, with several survivors having testified the truth of their abduction and forced prostitution (Mitchell, 1997). Associations like Amnesty International continue to campaign actively in nations that have not yet taken a stance on this issue (Amnesty International, 2014). In the United States, support continues to grow by way of the United States House of Representatives House Resolution 121 which asks the Japanese government to redress the situation, Hilary Clinton’s denunciation of the term ‘comfort women’ in favor of ‘enforced sex slaves’ to spread awareness and erection of memorial statues in support of this internationally recognized issue. Further, the United Nations continues to speak out in favor of a solution, apology, or compensation from Japanese authorities. In Korea, the respect and care towards such women can be seen in the way they are revered as public figures, with these survivors affectionately referred to as ‘halmoni’ meaning grandmother, and housed in a special nursing home called the House of Sharing.

Japan-Korea Perspective

For decades, the issues surrounding comfort women have plagued relations between Japan and South Korea. The most recent concerns are, “serious security and economic implications for both countries. Worsening the divide is a misunderstanding in both countries. South Korea misuses the moral high ground of the victims, while Japan fails to understand that an agreement between governments is not the end of the story and that efforts needed to continue even after the Agreement” (Kumagai, 2020). While Korea claims an inadequate ‘apology’ made through the 2015 Agreement to be the cause, Japan blames it on Korea’s apparent lack of interest in an actual reconciliation (Kumagai, 2020). Problems have continued to escalate owing to reports of Korea’s comfort women support group suppressing the actual individual voices of the victims and doubts about Japan’s sincerity and lack of any actual apology.

The Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965 was however seen as a turning point in Japan-Korea relations. The terms of the treaty stated that all problems between the two Parties were settled completely (Ishikida, 2005). While Japan has stood by its claim of doing its part in settling the issue, Korea has claimed that the treaty only focuses on economic and diplomatic relations and in no way connected to other issues.

Later, the 2015 agreement came into existence between former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and the former South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the nations’ diplomatic ties, the Japanese government pledged one billion yen for the establishment of a Foundation to care for the survivors as part of their apology. However, this has also given rise to a two-pronged objection – lack of an actual apology by the Japanese authorities and the apparent exclusion of individual voices, with them being treated as a weapon in a strategic deal (Diaz, 2018). This managed only to result in a bitter diplomatic dispute which consequently affected trade and security between the two countries (Diaz, 2018). Further, two rulings hastened this dispute. One was in 2019, where South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that two Japanese corporations must compensate Koreans for forced labor during the war. This was only met with retaliation in the form of export regulations towards Korea (Shin, 2021). Another was more recent, in January 2021, where a South Korean court ordered the Japanese government to provide compensation for over 10 victims of sexual slavery. Japan’s response has been riddled with objections, with authorities claiming that all such compensation had been affected through the 1965 treaty (Shin, 2021). A claim of violation of sovereign immunity under international law was also raised (“Comfort women ruling”, 2021).


With a change in administration in South Korea, the issue concerning comfort women has gone “from secret negotiating processes between governments to an inclusive one that involves society” (Diaz, 2018). Along with the Government, considering this human rights issue at the global level, the United National Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination also recommended the need for a victim-centric approach. With Korea and Japan both pointing fingers at each other at the lack of any solution or reconciliation, the need of the hour is simply, actions in good faith.

With both nations acting in their own interest, the only way to arrive at an understanding would be a “victim-centered approach” and “mutual empathy”. There is an urgent need to offer a platform for those voices that have been suppressed for so long, and aim for justice without politics sullying every attempt. However, even from a purely political standpoint, empathy and justice do have a place at the forefront (Lee, 2014).



1. Amnesty International. (2014). Stop Violence against Women: “Comfort Women”. Amnesty International Archives.

2. Argibay, C. (2003). Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of World War II. Berkeley Journal of International Law, 21(2), 376-378.

3. Diaz, J. (2018, December 19). Negotiating the “Comfort Women” issue in the 21st Century by Joanna Diaz, Institute for Security & Development Policy. Institute for Security & Development Policy.

4. Documents detail how the Imperial military forced Dutch females to be 'comfort women'. (2013, October 7). Japan Times.

5. Edwards, W. (2013). Comfort Women: A History of Japanese Forced Prostitution during the Second World War. Createspace Independent Pub.

6. Fujioka, N. (1996). Attainder of Modern History. Tokuma Shoten.

Gap Min, P. (2003). Korean “Comfort Women” The Intersection of Colonial Power, Gender, and Class. Gender and Society, 17(6), 938-947.

7. Gottschall, J. (2004). Explaining wartime rape. Journal of Sex Research, 41(2), 129–36.

8. Hayashi, H. (2008). Disputes in Japan over the Japanese Military "Comfort Women" System and Its Perception in History. The Annals of the American Academy, 617, 124.

9. Hicks, G. (1996). The Comfort Women: The Japanese Wartime Empire, 1931-1945. Princeton University Press.

10. Japan urges South Korea to take action over the “comfort women” ruling. (2021, January 15). Kyodo News.

11. Kumagai, N. (2020, September 10). South Korea and Japan: Resolving the Comfort Women Issue. The Diplomat.

12. Lee, SR. (2014). Comforting the Comfort Women: Who Can Make Japan Pay. Journal of International Law, 24(2), 509–547.

13. Min, SK., Lee, CH., Kim, JY., Shim, EJ. (2004). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder of Former Comfort Women for Japanese Army during World War II. Journal of Korean Neuropsychiatric Association, 740–748.

14. Mitchell, R. (1997). The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War. The American Historical Review, 102(2), 503.

15. Sex slaves put Japan on trial. (2000, December 8). BBC News.

16. Shin, M. (2021, January 26). Conflict Between South Korea and Japan Surges Again with Court’s ‘Comfort Women’ Decision. The Diplomat.

17. Soh, S. (2009). The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan. University of Chicago Press.

18. Watanabe, K. (1999). Trafficking in Women’s Bodies, Then and Now: The Issue of Military “Comfort Women”. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 27(1), 19-31.

19. Wender, M. (2003). Military Comfort Women: Doing Justice to the Past. Critical Asian Studies, 35(1), 139-145.

20. Yoshimi, Y. (2000). Comfort Women. Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II. Columbia University Press.

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