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Approximately 200.000 women were tortured, raped, and held in brothels for Japanese soldiers and troops during World War II. These women are also known in history and research documents as ‘comfort women’; although the word ‘women’ implies that they were adults, teenagers or even preteens were frequently seen among those comfort women (Coetzee & Coetzee 413). Controversies arise around this part of Japanese history because Japanese authorities do not always acknowledge the crimes committed by the military of the state against these women. Although no official apology has followed, various documents and researches prove that sexual offenses and forced prostitution existed in the colonies and were supported by the Japanese government.
The women and teenagers who became sex slaves during the war were not only Japanese, but also Filipino, Dutch, Chinese, Korean, and others (Coetzee & Coetzee 413). In the document provided by the authors, the victim of slavery Yi Okpun recalls how she was captured and held as a sex slave by the Japanese soldiers when she was twelve years old. The ‘Commando Unit Comfort Station’ was established in a Taiwan elementary school with 17 classrooms that were divided into separate rooms with approximately 40 women in each section. The soldiers visited the school on weekends and stayed there from 9 a.m. until midnight (Coetzee & Coetzee 413).
The officers also took part in the crimes, but they arrived early in the morning (5 a.m.); the women had to serve them too even if they had already served to twenty or thirty soldiers during the day (Coetzee & Coetzee 413). The slaves were not allowed to be unsatisfied with the process; otherwise, they were taken into a confinement room (Coetzee & Coetzee 413). The women who were too weak to work were taken to the mountains – they never returned; women who died during the work were also taken there, their bodies were left on the ground without any interment.
The food given to the sex slaves was not nourishing; they were also not allowed to share their food with others, or guards would beat them (Coetzee & Coetzee 413). The breakfast began at 9 a.m.; supper was at 6 p.m.
All soldiers used condoms; the girls were medically examined, and if any venereal diseases were detected, the surgeon gave them an extremely painful injection. On weekdays, the victims were forced to dance, sing, and play various instruments to entertain the soldiers (Coetzee & Coetzee 414). The players were beaten if the soldiers found their skills too weak. As the bombings began, soldiers did not come to the schools to rape the women; instead, they “abuse[d] us in the caves” where they hid from the bombings (Coetzee & Coetzee 414).
The victim stated that she had frequently thought about suicide as the only way to escape torturing; she had also wished to kill the soldiers and “wipe out [their] descendants” (Coetzee & Coetzee 414). Yi Okpun tried to commit suicide once but did not find the courage to throw herself into the sea, as she stated.
Comfort Women as a Part of the Japanese Policy of Colonialism
The document provided in the book supports the accusations of the Japanese military of the rape and sexual crimes committed against adult women and minors. Other reports state that the sex slaves had to take Japanese names as they or the soldiers arrived at the Comfort Stations (Lu 265). Yi Okpun remembered that she “was called both Haruko and Kohana” (Coetzee & Coetzee 414). Sex slavery was a direct consequence of the Japanese colonialism in the XX century (Lu 263).
Moreover, it was not encouraged to force Japanese women to become sex slaves (although they were victims too), but no such statements were made about Korean or Taiwanese women (Lu 269). Japanese colonialism had an extremely negative impact on the economy of Korea, so young women from rural areas who had to face poverty were targets for Korean recruiters. They offered Korean women a profitable job in Japan that eventually turned out to be sex slavery (Lu 271). However, Malays, Thais, Burmese, Vietnamese, Indians, Eurasians, Timorese, and possibly Laotians and Cambodians were also exploited as comfort women (Hirofumi 3).
There were two types of comfort stations in the occupied areas: Type-1 comfort stations were established in urban areas; there, the rape of women was checked by the police to win the support of the locals (Hirofumi 3). Type-2 comfort stations were located in the rural areas; there, the rape rates were unchecked, women were beaten and mistreated, sometimes murdered (Hirofumi 3). Women were usually abducted by the Japanese military and brought to the stations – the majority of these women were Chinese.
Although the involvement of the state is denied by the official authorities of Japan, there is historical evidence that it was directly involved in the recruitment of the comfort women. A staff officer of the 21st Army was sent on a mission to recruit women; he gained support from the Police Bureau that “ordered prefectural governors to select appropriate officials to handle the recruitment process” (Hirofumi 5). Prefectures selected officials who recruited women; the documents and IDs for women were made by the Police Bureau. Thus, administrative authorities also took part in recruitment and establishing of the comfort stations.
The comfort stations on Hainan Island (China) were under the Navy’s control; a request was sent to Taiwan Colonization Company to establish comfort stations. However, the company decided to fund the establishing via a subsidiary company. Nevertheless, not only the War and Navy Ministries but also the Foreign Ministry and the Government-General of Taiwan were directly linked to the recruitment of comfort women for soldiers and officers.
It is important to mention the relation between entertainment and sex slavery in the system established by the Japanese military. The sex-and-entertainment system was hierarchical: while Japanese officers could have a personal geisha or another professional female entertainer, soldiers and officers watched comfort women sing and dance in special clubs designed for such entertainments (Pilzer 10). Moreover, these entertainment evenings could be transformed into an exotic performance of women who arrived from the colonies. One of the comfort women was asked to sing a Korean folk song ‘Arirang’ that was popular in Japan in the 1930s (Pilzer 11).
The existence of the sex-and-entertainment system is supported by Yi Okpun’s memories. Pilzer believes that such songs could help Japanese soldiers imagine Korea as a feminine exotic that was subjugated by (male) Japan (12). The comfort women were forced to sing other songs. Sometimes they sang exotic songs to the Japanese soldiers; sometimes they were asked to sing Japanese songs that were popular in the 1920s. Old lullabies or songs for children were also popular. Such an approach to entertainment and sexual violence was used by the soldiers “to naturalize sexual violence and war” (Pilzer 15). Thus, singing and dancing, although not sexual crimes per se, were also forms of violence at Japanese comfort stations.
Coetzee, Frans, and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee. The World in Flames: A World War II Sourcebook, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.
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Hirofumi, Hayashi. “Government, the Military and Business in Japan’s Wartime Comfort Woman System.” The Asia-Pacific Journal 5.1 (2008): 1-10. Print.
Lu, Catherine. “Colonialism as Structural Injustice: Historical Responsibility and Contemporary Redress.” Journal of Political Philosophy 19.3 (2011): 261-281. Print.
Pilzer, Joshua D. “Music and Dance in the Japanese Military “Comfort Women” System: A Case Study in the Performing Arts, War, and Sexual Violence.” Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 18.1 (2014): 1-23. Print.