Japanese Comfort Women in South East Asia

Hayashi Hirofumi

During my staying in UK, I had two opportunities of giving my speech on this issue: on 15 May 1996 at the seminar of the Japan Research Centre, SOAS, University of London and on 28 June 1996 at the School of East Asia Studies, the University of Sheffield. This paper was the draft of my speech. These seminars were invaluable and interesting for me. I would like to express my appreciation to the staffs of both Universities.
My paper, 'Japanese Comfort Women in Southeast Asia', "Japan Forum"Vol.10, No.2, 1998 was based on this draft.


According to reliable official documents, the system of Japanese military comfort women was created as early as the beginning of 1932 and existed until the Japanese surrender. The existence of comfort women had been known to veterans and scholars, but had not been common knowledge. In addition the Japanese government had denied its in volvement in and responsibility for this system until 1992 when a Japanese historian discovered many official documents indicating the deep involvement of the Japanese army and government in the creation,control and management of the comfort women system. Since then a number of official and private documents have been discovered and some scholarly works have been conducted. Among the most important is the book, "Japanese Military Comfort Women" edited by Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki, who is the leading scholar on this issue, and myself (published in 1995). As for studies written in English, the most comprehensive and academic work to date is a report by The Center for Research and Documentation on Japan's War Responsibility, titled "Historical and Legal Study On The Issue Of `Military Comfort Women'" . This report was, for the most part, written by the same authors as the above mentioned book, and was presented to participants of the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations in 1994. My talk is mostly based on these two books.

One of the problems of recent studies on comfort women is the overestimating of the role of Korean women. It is generally said that most comfort women were Korean. However,I am skeptical of whether there is any empirical basis for this notion. The main areas of Japanese occupation, where Japanese military comfort houses had been set up, were China and South East Asia. Few studies have been done on Japanese war crimes in South East Asia, while a number of studies have been done on China and colonial Korea . I am currently conducting research on Japanese war crimes in South East Asia, especially Malaya. The issue of Japanese military comfort women constitutes one of the most serious war crimes, and so it is an important part of my research. In my talk this evening I shall be mainly discussing the case of comfort women in South East Asia.


Even prior to launching the Asia-Pacific War, the Japanese military had been considering the establishment of comfort houses in occupied territories of South East Asia and the Pacific Islands. A major in the medical division was dispatched to Java to investigate "hygienic conditions" there. On July 26,1941 at a meeting held at the Ministry of the Army he reported as follows:
"We must pay the strictest attention to ensure that on no account are rapes allowed to occur, as this will cause the natives to mistrust the discipline of the Japanese Army. Because they are living under very harsh conditions, many of the natives do engage in prostitution. However, since there is a great deal of venereal disease in Bangdong and elsewhere, it is necessary to have the village headmen recruit comfort women ensuring that the women are rigorously checked for venereal disease and set up comfort houses".

With the start of the Asia-Pacific War on December 8,1941, various branches of the Japanese military invading South East Asia began an operation of gathering comfort women and setting up comfort houses. On September 3,1942, at a meeting held at the Ministry of the Army a section chief reported, "the number of comfort facilities which have been set up are 100 in North China, 140 in Central China, 40 in South China, 100 in South East Asia(Nanpo), 10 in the Southern Seas(Nankai) and 10 in Sakhalin, which makes a total of 400".


In Malaya on January 2, 1942, three men of the 25th army's quartermaster corps, including an officer, were dispatched to Bangkok to recruit Thai women to serve as comfort women. The quartermaster corps were in charge of supplying combat troops with such war material as arms, ammunition, clothing and food. They took these women to Hat Yai and Singora and set up comfort houses there. Meanwhile, on December 19, 1941, a branch of quartermaster corps advancing with combat troops had set up a comfort house in Alorstar, a city in North Malaya. The women there were not only Korean, but also Malay, Indian and Chinese. From the 6th to 8th of March, 1942, an advertisement recruiting comfort women from 17 to 28 in age appeared in the newspaper "Syonan-Nippo", which was published under the control of the Japanese Army in Singapore.

In Kuala Lumpur the quartermaster corps rounded up 14 Japanese women who had remained there, 12 of whom had experience in prostitution and were known as `Karayukisan'. These 12 were entrusted with the recruitmant of women and managing of comfort houses, while the remaining 2, who had no such experience, were entrusted with managing of the army canteen. By August, 1942, 16 comfort houses had been set up in 7 areas of Kuala Lumpur and the number of comfort women is estimated to have been over 150. Among these comfort women in Kuala Lumpur, Koreans numbered about 20, while the majority were Chinese and the remaining few were Thai, Javanese, Indian and Eurasian.

In the small towns Japanese troops recruited comfort women themselves. In Kuala Pilah, a town in South Malaya, in March, 1942, when the Japanese army was carrying out clean-up operations, in other words the massacre of Chinese in this district, the garrison commander ordered the leader of the town to recruit comfort women. Fearing that he would be beheaded if he refused, the leader recruited 18 women from other towns and handed them over to the Japanese garrison. From the fact that they wept and pleaded again and again with him to be allowed to return home, we may presume that local leaders had tricked them under the threat of the Japanese army.

Some cases of forcible abduction have been reported. According to the testimony of a Malayan woman, she was abducted from her home while her brother was being killed, raped by Japanese soldiers and forced to become a comfort woman. Such cases as the above-mentioned refer to Malaya, but there were similiar cases in other Japanese territories in South East Asia.


The recruitment methods employed in South East Asia can be categorised as follows. The first method of recruitment was to recruit outside of South East Asia, in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and mainland China. With the exception of mainland China, the main methods of recruitment involved fraud and human trafficing. There were some cases of abduction in Korea. It is certain that the Japanese army as well as officials of the Government-General of Korea, Chosen-Sotokufu, were involved in recruiting comfort women in Korea. Similarly, officials of the Government-General of Taiwan were involved in recruiting comfort women in Taiwan. However, it has not been verified that the Japanese army or Government-Generals resorted to violence in order to recruit comfort women in Korea or Taiwan. An important point to consider is that Korea had been a colony of Japan for a long time and the system of trafficing women had spread into Korean society. From the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937, a number of brothel managers and brokers in human traffic in Korea had shifted their business to involve Japanese military comfort houses. Therefore, the Japanese Army was able to recruit comfort women through these brokers without resorting to its own violence in Korea . This was the case with Taiwan as well.

The second method was to entrust the recruiting of comfort women to ex-Karayukisan. This was the typical method in Malaya. In this case the network employed in the recruitment of prostitutes may have been exploited.

The third method was to order local leaders to provide comfort women. This method was reported not only in Malaya, but in Indonesia, the Philipines and other countries.

The fourth method was to recruit through advertising, such as newspapers. In this case those women who applied might have known the nature of the job. However, according to the reminiscences of an ex-officer who was stationed in Singapore, one local woman who had applied to be a comfort woman attempted to end her service because it had been far harsher than her expectations. The soldiers in charge of the comfort house tied her to the bed and forced her to continue with her service.

The fifth method was to recruit by fraud. This method overlaps with the second, third and fourth methods. In this case women were defrauded at the recruitment stage, and their transformation into comfort women was effected through the use of force. We know of many cases of women being raped and then forced to become comfort women, even though direct violence had not been used at the recruitment stage.

The sixth method was recruitment by forcible abduction. There are numerous cases of Japanese soldiers forcing their way into people's houses, carrying off young women with violence, gang-raping them and forcing them to become comfort women. Such cases have been reported in mainland China, the Philipines, Malaya and other countries. In both the Philipines and Malaya, recruitment was in progress while the Japanese army was massacring many natives whom the Japanese army regarded as anti-Japanese elements. These territories were not colonies of Japan, but battlefields or occupied areas under the Japanese army. The army frequently resorted to violence in order to recruit comfort women.


Comfort women in South East Asia consisted of many different ethnic groups. They included mainland Chinese,Taiwanese,Overseas Chinese, Malays,Thais,Philippinos, Indonesians,Burmese,Vietnamese,Indians,Eurasians,Dutch,Japanese,Koreans and natives of the Pacific islands. There might also have been Laotians and Cambodians.

It is difficult to estimate the number of comfort women and their ethnic ratio. The number of comfort women largely depends on definition. What was the difference between those women who were authorised as comfort women by the military authorities and those who were confined and repeatedly raped for a certain period of time? There were many cases of the latter in China and in the Philippines. Comfort women were one group of victims of sexual violence under the Japanese army. We can only say that the total number of comfort women must have been between tens of thousand and two hundred thousand.

According to a report by the Kempeitai of the 25th Army, the number of comfort women who had Japanese nationality, including Japanese,Korean and Taiwanese,and who were living in Malaya and Sumatra, was 194 on July 20, 1942. In the same report the number of both male and female Koreans was recorded as 196. From this report we can say that the number of Korean comfort women in Malaya was under 194. By this time comfort houses had been set up in almost every city where Japanese troops were stationed . According to my research, comfort houses were set up in over 30 cities, including Singapore. As I stated above, there were over 150 comfort women in Kuala Lumpur alone. In Singapore there were much more. My estimate is that there were about 1000 or more comfort women in Malaya at that time. In Malaya Korean comfort women were a minority. Most of them were local Chinese. A regulation, issued by the Japanese military administration of Malaya in 1943, stated that local women should be made use of as comfort women as far as possible .

In the Philippines and Indonesia, most comfort women were local women according to many documents known to us. The exception was Burma. A lot of Korean and Chinese women who had been recruited in Korea and mainland China were brought to Burma. However, according to a Japanese Military document, which I found at the Imperial War Museum, and which is the only document relating to comfort women in Burma, there were 9 comfort houses in Mandalay, 1 of which was Japanese, 1 Guangdong ,Chinese, 3 Korean and 4 Burmese. It is certain that there were many Koreans in Burma, but it is difficult to determine their proportion. As for comfort women in South East Asia, we can say that most of the Japanese military comfort women were local women, and the methods of recruitment were quite different from those of Koreans.

As for China, many official ducuments relating to comfort women have been discovered. Some of them show the number or ratio of ethnic groups. According to these documents, there were many Koreans in the large cities, but in the medium cities Chinese were much larger in number than Koreans and Japanese. There are few of official documents relating to comfort women in the smaller towns and villages. However, according to recent research, it has been verified that most comfort women in those areas were Chinese, and the number of Koreans was negligible except in Manchuria. While comfort houses in the large cities were managed or controlled by the quartermaster corps, those in the smaller towns and villages were directly managed by the garrison troops. The recruitment methods employed in these two types of comfort houses was quite different. The latter type was similar or probably more violent than those in South East Asia. As regards China as a whole, it is difficult to determine the proportion of Koreans and Chinese, but I think it is likely that there were more Chinese than Koreans. Therefore, the number of Korean comfort women was large but their ratio must have been under 50%. Contrary to common knowledge, there were as many or possibly more Chinese comfort women than Koreans.

I do not wish to imply in any way that Korean women were not victims within the comfort women system. Nor do I wish to suggest that the suffering of Korean women was not serious. What I want to say is that other Asian women were victims as well, and that methods of recruitment were different in the colonies than in the military occupied territories.

Once comfort women were recruited, differences in their treatment, for example between Koreans and other Asians can not be proven. If there were any differences in treatment, they depended on time, place, type of manager, user and so on. It is said that Japanese comfort women were treated relatively better than others, but it is not proven as there is scant data on Japanese comfort women. Moreover, it is said that most Japanese comfort women were ex-prostitutes, but we have found some cases where Japanese women, who were not prostitutes, were recruited by fraud. The image of Japanese comfort women should be reassessed.


The military comfort women system is not uniquely Japanese. Both the German military and the SS(Schutzstaffeln)had their own brothels. The number of brothels for the exclusive use of soldiers was more than 500 in 1942. As for Britain, the commander of the British army in Tripoli, Libya, authorized private brothels and classified them into those for officers, for warrant and non commissioned officers, for white soldiers and for non-white soldiers. As for the U.S.A, during the occupation of Japan, the U.S army utilised comfort houses which the Japanese government supplied for the exclusive use of U.S.soldiers. During the Vietnam War, there were brothels for the exclusive use of U.S.soldiers inside certain camps.

During the second half of the 19th century there were "regimental brothels" for the British Indian army in India. In 75 cantonments, including Burma and Ceylon, regulated prostitution was made available. Indeed, Britain was one of the advanced countries to introduce a regulated prostitution system. One of the reasons Britain introduced a regulated prostitution system was the demand from the military authorities, who were anxious about the spread of venereal disease among their soldiers.

The modern regulated prostitution system has had a deep relation with the military since its birth. During World War 2, the Allied Army had the"leave system". Each soldier could take leave and go back to his family,or use private brothels. This was the case even after World War 2. One of the main industries in Okinawa during the Vietnam War was the sex industry. This was also in the case in Tailand, where many U.S.soldiers were stationed. As for the U.N.army, the rapid increase of prostitutes for soldiers of the U.N. peace keeping forces was a noticeable feature in Cambodia.

This is not suggest that the system of Japanese military comfort women was the same as that in other countries, or that a military comfort women system is the same as a regulated prostitution system. Needless to say, the system of Japanese military comfort women was one of the most serious war crimes and crime against humanity. However, it seems to me that all militaries have something in common in this respect.


Let us think about the relation between the Japanese comfort women system and the regulated prostitution system in South East Asia. In South East Asia, European colonisers of these territories introduced the regulated prostitution system in the 19th century. The expansion of the British Empire, especially, coincided with the expansion of the regulated prostitution system and the formation of global network of traffic in women. This regulated prostitution system, at least, consisted of compulsory registrati on and inspection for venereal disease. However, because of the campaign against white slave trafficing, European countries began to change their policy after the end of the 19th century. Moreover, in the 1920's the League of Nations made an effort to protect women and children from becoming human traffic. Singapore, which was the keystone of the British Empire in South East Asia, abolished compulsory inspection in 1888 and after the end of World War 1 tried to decrease the number of prostitutes. Except French Indochina, where France persisted with the regulated prostitution system untill after World War 2, the authorities in each colony either abolished the regulated prostitution system or attempted to decrease prostitution, although they could not get rid of prostitution itself.

The Foreign Ministry of Japan and the Japanese consuls in various areas had been trying to clear away overseas Japanese prostitutes since the 1880's. In Singapore especially there were a lot of overseas Japanese prostitutes, so called Karayukisan. After World War 1, the Japanese consul in Singapore was determined to clear away every Japanese prostitute. He cooperated with the Singapore authorities and by 1921 all authorised Japanese prostitutes had been cleared away. In addition, any Japanese women who attempted to go abroad as prostitutes were stopped. According to a report from the consul in Singapore to the Foreign Ministry in 1927, it was stated that Japanese prostitution would be declining. The reason for the Foreign Ministry and consuls attempted to clear away Japanese prostitutes, was that overseas Japanese prostitutes would disgrace the honour of the Japanese Empire.

In any event, the Foreign Ministry was opposed to the export of Japanese prostitutes. However, as soon as their purpose was realised, the Japanese military began to introduce the comfort women system. When the military authorities brought comfort women from Japanese territory, including Korea and Taiwan, to foreign countries, each comfort woman was required to have her own passport or certificate issued by the Foreign Minister, with the exception of a few cases. After the beginning of the Asia-Pacific War, the procedure for transportation of comfort women was revised. According to a memorandum from the Foreign Minister, dated Jan.14,1942, the military authorities were from now on to issue certificates to such persons(comfort women and managers of comfort houses)instead. The draft of this momorandum included the following words: it is unpleasant to issue a passport to such persons(omoshirokarazarunitsuki). The word, `unpleasant' was crossed out in the final version of the memorandum, but it indicated the sentiment held by the foreign bureaucrats against the military, which was now going to reverse their previous efforts.

By the way, about one month before the Asia-Pacific War began, the War Office of the U.K. sent a letter to the Colonial Office. In the letter the War Office stated that they were very much worried about the high incidence of V.D. in Malaya and that they had been wondering whether everything possible was being done on the civil side. Thereafter the Colonial Office began to study countermeasures including reintroduction of compulsory inspection for venereal desease, but its study was interrupted by the outbreak of the war.

The comfort women system was therefore intruduced into South East Asia, against efforts that had been made to clear away or decrease prostitution and human traffic. Moreover, it was contrary to the foreign policy of Japan itself. Therefore,we can not accept the view that the comfort women system was the same as the prostitution system which already existed. Such a view ignores the development of women's human rights and the international efforts to support them.


I would now like to mention several reasons why the Japanese military felt they needed comfort women. The first was to prevent rape by Japanese soldiers. The comfort women system was one of the countermeasures against the prevalence of rape. However,this system was an organised system of sexual violence, and it was not the case that the introduction of the comfort women system led to a decrease in rape cases. The second was to provide 'comfort' to the officers and soldiers. The military authorities thought it necessary to give them sexual comfort in order to keep them on the battlefield for long periods without any system of leave. The third was to prevent venereal desease. The fourth was for the protection of military secrets and prevention of espionage.

After the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War the idea that rape was a special wartime benefit began to spread in the Japanese army. Because the Japanese army made little military supply available to its troops, each troop had to procure its own provisions. While they were looting food, goods and fuel, they raped or looted women. One of the characteristics of the Japanese army was a serious oppression of human rights. Atrocities, including rape, were tolerated by the military authorities as a means of maintaining military order. In addition we must point out the presence of racial discrimination against other Asian people. Of course the human rights of women, including Japanese, were completely ignored.

A famous Japanese politician, who was a navy lieutenant in charge of accounting during the war, stated proudly in his reminiscences published in 1978, that he managed to set up a comfort house for 3,000 soldiers in his troop. Four years later he became Prime Minister, and when the Japanese government was critisized over the issue of comfort women, he repeatedly denied Japanese government's responsibility for comfort women.

A number of soldiers, not only Japanese soldiers, raped local women. Although rapes of Asian women by Japanese soldiers were extremely serious, we can see similar cases anywhere, including Japan under the Allied occupation, Manchuria under the Russian army, Okinawa, Bosnia and so on. I think, although this is only a hypothesis, that the military itself motivates or drives men to sexual aggression. In the case of Japan, the characteristics of the Japanese military amplified aggression to its extreme.

Therefore,the issue of comfort women exists not only in Japan but also in every country which has a military, especially those who dipatch their army to foreign countries.