Japan forced 500,000 women into prostitution: Will Southeast Asia push for justice?

Photo: © Australian War Memorial

After 75 years, the survivors of Japanese war crimes of rape and forced prostitution in Southeast Asia have yet to see justice. ASEAN countries can play a decisive role in this ongoing issue.

By Griselda Molemans

Apart from their collective socio-economic goals, the ASEAN countries share a dark past. From 1940 on, invading Japanese army troops rolled out a system of forced prostitution in the region, exploiting thousands of young girls and women. This secret system was devised by the highest army command to prevent sexually transmitted diseases among the soldiers and to keep them happy in order to avoid mutiny. Seventy-five years after World War II, the last survivors of this war crime in Southeast Asia and elsewhere are still fighting for recognition—and for an official apology from the Japanese government.

During the Japanese military advance in China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, its leaders targeted all European and American colonies. First, Indochina—the French colony consisting of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia—was invaded on July 16, 1940. It then served as a springboard for attacks on the nearby colonies. Next, neighboring Thailand forged an alliance with Japan, making its territory available to enemy troops.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the American Philippines, British Malaysia (now Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei), British Burma (Myanmar) and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) together with Portuguese Timor succumbed to the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy. The commanding officers quickly introduced a new order removing all white citizens from society and taking over all political, financial and military institutions.

A mandatory element of the occupation was the opening of brothels for officers and soldiers. The Japanese imposed strict regulations requiring that each visitor behaved well, didn’t bring any liquor and paid an entrance fee to spend a limited amount of time with a ‘comfort girl’. Officers had the privilege to spend the night with a young woman.

The term ‘comfort woman’ is very deceptive. The Japanese term for coerced girls is jugun ianfu: a woman (fu) who offers comfort and convenience to a military (jugun) warrior (ian): a soldier. The reality was far harsher.

The Japanese military’s policy of ‘comfort women’ began in China

The system began before World War II, when the Japanese attacked Shanghai in 1932. The rape of hundreds of young women by Japanese soldiers enraged the Chinese population and forced Lieutenant-General Okamura Yasuji to find a solution for the ‘sexual problems of the men’.

As Okamura’s naval colleagues in Shanghai had recently opened their own brothels, he decided to open a so-called ‘comfort station’—a euphemism for an army or naval brothel—for his troops in the Chinese city.

By special request, the governor of the Nagasaki prefecture sent a corps of ‘comfort women’, consisting of young Japanese and Korean women. Recruited from the colonized Korean community in Nagasaki province, poor young women were shipped to Shanghai to allegedly serve as laundry women or cooks for the army. The government granted permission to supply the women. Within the army administration, the young women were referred to as ‘war stocks’. Their arrival in Shanghai had a direct effect: the number of rapes fell sharply.

In the following years, this secret system of forced prostitution claimed more and more young women: kidnapped or lured with false promises, they were put to work in army and navy brothels in the occupied territories of China, Hainan and Taiwan.

Griselda Molemans is a Dutch investigative reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @qnareporter

There were clear rules and customs for soldiers visiting a comfort station. The regulations stipulated that visitors must buy a ticket from the cashier (kaikei), line up in a queue (narabi) and use a condom (satku). The young women themselves had no involvement in collecting the money. “All we had to do was lie on our back and do what the customer wanted,” a Korean victim with the alias Foo testified after the war. She was stationed in Wuhan, China and later moved to the island of Hainan.

The Japanese military spread forced prostitution across Southeast Asia

From 1940 on, the setup and running of comfort stations became increasingly professional. When the Japanese invaded Indochina, forty thousand Japanese soldiers were stationed in the southern region of Cochin-China (Vietnam). In Cambodia, eight thousand soldiers were sent to army bases in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Kampong Thom. Due to the country’s limited strategic importance, only a small garrison was stationed in Laos.

The military quickly opened comfort stations for deployed soldiers. In the Vietnamese port city of Nha Trang, just north of Cam Ranh Bay, a Japanese officer described the daily reality: “Instead of getting excited about it, I felt that I had ended up in a grotesque world. Standing in line in broad daylight, having intercourse under the eyes of the men who are waiting their turn and then the indelible image of those who leave with their pants still half-open. This ritual took place in a conveyor belt style in a tense atmosphere. Instead of feeling better, being a rookie in the sexual domain, I recoiled.”

All over British Malaysia, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, army and navy brothels were opened for ‘business’ in military hubs such as capital cities, garrison towns and harbors. Along the Burma-Thailand Railway, Thai, Burmese, Korean, Chinese and Tamil girls were raped and coerced into prostitution. The large-scale sexual abuse lasted until August 15, 1945, when emperor Hirohito announced the capitulation of his troops.

Justice for the victims of these war crimes of rape and forced prostitution was hardly meted out as American geopolitics required Japan become a buffer zone against the spread of Chinese communism. Only a handful of Japanese officers and soldiers were sentenced for rape or involvement in exploiting ‘comfort women’. Post-war tribunals ignored the majority of the evidence, including affidavits and eyewitness accounts.

The largely forgotten war crimes were brought back into the spotlight on August 14, 1991, when a Korean woman, Kim Hak Sun, publicly came forward as a victim of forced prostitution. After Jeanne Ruff O’Herne, a Caucasian Dutch survivor, testified a year later, more and more victims in various countries delivered their testimonies.

Records and testimonies show that 500,000 people across 35 countries were victims of forced prostitution at the hands of the Japanese military. Southeast Asia stands out on this list as none of the region’s governments have ordered an investigation of their wartime pasts or publicly supported their victims—as has been the case in Korea, Taiwan and China.

Will Southeast Asian governments and victims push for justice?

The course of justice for victims in Southeast Asia is a clear case of money over human rights: as Japan is a dominant foreign investor in ASEAN, it wields enormous economic as well as political power. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, leading the world’s third-biggest economy, has consistently denied the existence of an institutionalized system of forced prostitution which was run by the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy.

And so, 75 years after the war, this human rights issue still isn’t settled. Apart from occasional demonstrations by the last survivors in the Philippines, the silence in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia is deafening.

While new evidence has emerged from national archives of the former colonizing powers (the US, UK, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Australia) proving that the system of forced prostitution was rolled out in all occupied territories, the main question is what matters most to the ASEAN governments. An official apology from the Japanese government, which would involve finally addressing their own dark wartime past? Or playing it safe by taking a deep bow to the Japanese, just like during wartime?

About the Author

Griselda Molemans
Griselda Molemans is an investigative reporter and documentary maker from the Netherlands. Her new book, A Lifetime of War, was recently published in Dutch with the English translation pending.