Yuki Tanaka

Japan's Comfort Women:
Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the US Occupation

London and New York: Routledge, 2002
foreword by Susan Brownmiller, figures, tables, plates;
ISBN: 0-415-19401-6 (paper), xx + 212 pages.

reviewed by Narrelle Morris

There are many images that linger in the mind after reading this new volume from scholar Toshiyuki Tanaka on the euphemistically titled 'comfort' women, the estimated eighty thousand to one hundred thousand (p. 31) Japanese, Korean, Chinese and other Asian and European women who fell victim to organised sexual violence by the Japanese military during World War II.[1] Like other works in this area, Tanaka employs a discursive framework that seeks to emphasise that the crimes committed against the 'comfort' women constituted not only the deliberate objectification and victimisation of women but were a crime against humanity. Tanaka begins his volume with an extract from the autobiography of Maria Rosa Henson, a Filipina former 'comfort' woman, who helped bring the 'comfort' women issue to light in the early 1990s:

    Twelve soldiers raped me in quick succession, after which I was given half an hour rest. Then twelve more soldiers followed. ... I bled so much and was in such pain, I could not even stand up. ... I felt much pain, and my vagina was swollen. ... Every day, from two in the afternoon to ten in the evening, the soldiers lined up outside my room and the rooms of the six other women there. I did not even have time to wash after each assault. At the end of the day, I just closed my eyes and cried (p. 1).
One of the achievements of this volume is that it successfully personalises some of the 'comfort' women. It exhaustively details the inhumane process by which they were 'recruited' or forced into what amounted to sexual slavery and the degrading day-to-day treatment meted out to them by recruiters, managers and soldiers if the women refused to 'comfort' soldiers, became pregnant or were ill. Even more significantly, this volume attempts to establish the figures that helped to implement the 'comfort' women system, including senior Japanese military officers, Ministry of War bureaucrats, brothel owners and their recruiters and medical staff.

In the early chapters of this volume Tanaka carefully documents the historical process that resulted in the establishment of ianjo [comfort stations] as military general policy during World War II, including extensive collaboration between the arms of the Japanese military, government ministries and the prostitution industry in Japan and Japanese-controlled Korea. As Tanaka shows, while at first the women recruited for ianjo were professional Japanese prostitutes and impoverished Japanese and Korean women, soon local women in China and elsewhere were 'recruited', often forcibly. The methods employed by civilian recruiters included 'deception, intimidation, violence, and, in extreme cases, even kidnapping' (p. 23). In Shanghai, even as early as 1932, the existence of ianjo were given various rationales, including the need to maintain military discipline by reducing the likelihood of the rape of civilians. Lieutenant-General Okabe Naozaburô, a senior officer in Shanghai, for example, wrote in his diary that the 'establishment of appropriate facilities must be accepted as a good cause and should be promoted ... [i]n consideration of our soldiers' sexual problems' (p. 10). Others reported on the urgent need to control the spread of venereal disease amongst soldiers, which was rife. Instances of infection had reached a rate of 30 per cent in one brigade of the Kwantung Army in north-east China by 1933 (p. 11). Tanaka argues convincingly that the existence of ianjo and the methods used to 'recruit' women for them were sanctioned and promoted by the Japanese Ministry of War. A document published by the Ministry of War for distribution to all army units in 1940, for example, reads:

    In particular, the psychological effects that the soldiers receive at comfort stations are most immediate and profound, and therefore it is believed that the enhancement of troop morale, maintenance of discipline, and prevention of crimes and VD are dependent on successful supervision of these [comfort stations] (p. 24).
While the ianjo may have been successful at providing soldiers with psychologically-beneficial leisure, Tanaka concludes that, as a means of preventing rape and the spread of venereal disease, the 'comfort' women system was ineffective. This fact, Tanaka notes, was realised at the time. General Okumura Yasuji, for example, had been the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Shanghai Expeditionary Army and had ordered the establishment of the first ianjo in Shanghai in 1932, of which Lieutenant-General Okabe Naozaburô had approved. Reflecting on the Japanese invasion of Wuhan in 1938, however, Okumura admitted that instances of 'random sexual violence' had occurred despite the fact that soldiers had 'comfort' women available to them (p. 28). Furthermore, while the 'comfort' women were regularly examined for venereal disease, it was quite difficult for both military authorities and the women alike to persuade soldiers to use the prophylactics and disinfectants that they were provided with to avoid infection. Indeed, soldiers were effectively discouraged from reporting venereal infections to medical officers by the existence of a punitive sanction for the condition, namely demotion by two ranks. That ianjo continued to proliferate throughout World War II is a sad indictment of the andocentric ideology of the Japanese leadership of the time; a leadership which encouraged and facilitated the forced sexual abuse of thousands of predominantly non-Japanese women on the one hand and instructed Japanese women to be chaste and modest on the other.

An important part of the ‘comfort’ women discourse, Tanaka argues, is the effort that has been made over decades by successive Japanese governments to suppress the stories of the ‘comfort’ women, an effort which has been supported in the post-war period by the silence of the Allied nations. Few would dispute that this has been the case. Relevant documentation is difficult to obtain, Tanaka explains, due to the enduring classification of official Japanese military and ministerial documents from the period, as well as the fact that Japan has no freedom of information legislation to enable researchers to gain access. Other researchers have also pointed to right-wing efforts in Japan to ‘silence’ the ‘comfort’ women issue in Japanese historiography.[2] The noted Australian historian Gavan McCormack characterises the emergence of the ‘comfort’ women issue as a gender shift in the focus of war reflections, where ‘men politicians, soldiers, scholars have defined and debated the issues, from the early 1990s, and after fifty years of silence, women began to intervene’.[3] It is interesting to note McCormack’s description of these activities as ‘interventions’ to the discourse on war reflections. This apparently innocuous choice of term serves to underscore how many, both inside and outside of Japan have been disconcerted by the ‘comfort’ women issue. In the case of this volume, Tanaka attempts to distinguish himself from those who deny the existence of an institutionalised system of ‘comfort’ women outright or the culpability of the Japanese leadership of that period in creating and sustaining the system. Nevertheless, the reader is left with a few disconcerting impressions regarding Tanaka’s analysis of this complex issue.

The second half of the volume is devoted to explaining why the Allied Occupation failed to prosecute individuals for crimes against the 'comfort' women at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal), despite ample evidence of such crimes being available. Yet in a volume ostensibly based in law, there is a curious omission of nearly all legal discussion. Despite declaring the 'comfort' women system a 'crime against humanity on an unprecedented scale' (p. 84), Tanaka does not delve into the specifics of customary international law that, by implication, are raised in this declaration. There is no notice taken of how far the international regime of human rights has developed since World War II, rendering the use of terminology such as 'crimes against humanity' slightly anachronistic. He also does not explore some of the other legal options offered by other authors in this field as to the means by which the Allied nations could have prosecuted individuals for crimes against the 'comfort' women.[4] The Japanese lawyer Etsuro Totsuka has suggested, for example, that the treatment of the 'comfort' women amounted to a violation of the International Labor Organization Convention (No. 29) Concerning Forced Labor, specifically article 2 which prohibited the forced labour of women. The lack of legal discussion therefore makes this volume more a social exploration of why 'awareness of the comfort women issue as a serious war crime [was] clearing lacking in the minds of the leaders of the Allied forces' (p. 87).

Why did the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal hear mass evidence regarding the ill-treatment, rape and murder of Allied soldiers and civilians and fail to consider evidence of systemic crimes against 'comfort' women? One explanation, Tanaka suggests, is that as most of the 'comfort' women were 'Asian', rather than Western—the largest exception being Dutch women in the Dutch East Indies—the invisibility of the 'comfort' women provides further evidence supporting the 'absence of Asia' remarks often made about the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, where both the aggrieved and those giving justice tended to be Western (p. 87). Yet Tanaka does not reconcile this argument with earlier discussion regarding the 'various testimonies presented at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal regarding the Rape of Nanjing' (p. 29). He admits that details regarding the rape of Dutch civilian women in March 1942, for example, were raised at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal but argues this was only to provide evidence that crimes had been committed against Allied civilians (pp. 61-3). A more concrete example of the fixation with Western victims, Tanaka suggests, can be seen in the proceedings of the Batavia War Crimes Tribunal, which was conducted by Dutch authorities in February 1948. In one case this tribunal tried twelve Japanese in relation to the forced prostitution of Dutch women held in internment camps in Semarang, Java in 1943 (p. 76). Although Tanaka does not make it clear, the basis of the Dutch prosecution seemed to be the Geneva Convention of 1929. While not a signatory to the convention, Japan had given a qualified promise to follow the Geneva rules in 1942, one of which prohibited forced prostitution of prisoners-of-war. Disappointingly, Tanaka does not pursue a line of inquiry as to whether Indo-Dutch, Indonesian, Filipino, or perhaps even Korean, 'comfort' women could have had a similar status to the Dutch as prisoners-of-war during this period. He merely notes that the Dutch authorities questioned Indonesian, Indo-Dutch and Chinese 'comfort' women about their experiences in the Japanese-occupied Dutch East Indies but that only two cases involving non-Dutch women were ever raised at the Batavia War Crimes Tribunal (pp. 78-9). While it might be expected that a separate Dutch war crimes inquiry would focus on Dutch women in this manner, Tanaka seems to imbue the Batavia War Crimes Tribunal with responsibility for a regional jurisdiction, to which it failed to respond adequately. It appears to Tanaka, therefore, that the victimisation of predominantly Asian 'comfort' women inevitably took second-place to other war crimes investigated and prosecuted by the Allies.

However, Tanaka's primary argument is that the Allied nations' own 'sexual ideology'—their treatment of non-Western women prior to the war, their practice and attempt to cover-up military-controlled prostitution during the war and their complicity in the establishment of a similar 'comfort' system for Allied personnel during the Occupation in Japan—is a telling factor in the lack of Allied prosecution (p. 87). Regarding the Dutch East Indies, for example, Tanaka argues that as the Dutch sexually exploited large numbers of Indonesian women while a colonial power in the region, it followed that the sexual abuse of Indonesian and Indo-Dutch women by the Japanese would probably not have been viewed by the Dutch as a serious crime (p. 82). During the war itself, Tanaka clarifies that the Allied 'sexual ideology' made it 'quite natural that [the Allies] were completely unable to discern the criminal nature of the comfort women system' (p. 109). As the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of Japan, John Dower, notes in a short review printed on the back of the volume, this is a 'stunning and controversial' new direction of analysis.

Tanaka reserves the bulk of his investigation for the activities of the military forces of the United States, Britain and Australia. He presents new evidence obtained from the United States National Archives to show that the United States deliberated on many of the same issues as Japan's military regarding the control of venereal disease. To curb the spread of the disease, for example, one Inspector General of the United States War Department recommended the establishment of 'supervised houses ... as other countries have done' (p. 89). In the end, the War Department neither promoted nor encouraged this type of military brothel and, indeed, held the official policy of not permitting soldiers to visit prostitutes. However, in central Africa, the Middle East, India and the Caribbean some local commanders went against this policy and designated some houses of prostitution as 'safe' by testing the female inhabitants for venereal disease. In Liberia, for example, soldiers were told not to have relations with any woman in the 'women's villages' that did not bear an official tag verifying her non-infection (p. 92). In testament to this reality, Tanaka alleges that the War Department 'institutionally supported' organised prostitution by supplying prophylactic protection to soldiers—an officer of the United States Medical Corps, for example, estimated prophylactic requirements at four units per month per soldier, a budgetary expense of about US$34 million per year (pp. 88-9). Australia, on the other hand, openly arranged military-controlled brothels in the Middle East, including selecting madams and conducting medical examinations on proposed women (p. 94). Drawing on an official Australian Army report on a newly-established Tripoli brothel, Tanaka comments that the description is 'strikingly similar to the situation of ianjo' (p. 97). While the women were professional prostitutes, he contends that it was still a breach of international law, although which which aspect of customary international law he does not make clear, that in at least one case a sixteen-year-old girl was approved and used as a prostitute by the Australian Army. Tanaka's overall argument in this section is that the engagement of the Allied forces in prostitution was similar to the 'comfort' women system perpetrated by the Japanese and this weakened the Allied nations' ability to perceive any criminality in the 'comfort' women system.

To further make the connection between the Allied nations' 'sexual ideology' and the failure to consider the 'comfort' women system as a war crime, Tanaka raises the issue of sexual violence committed by soldiers of the Allied Occupation against Japanese women. He admits that there is no documentary evidence of 'mass rape by the Allied soldiers' but points to credible oral accounts by Japanese women of rape and assault during this period (p. 110). In one case, for example, Tanaka uses Japanese police intelligence reports from Kanagawa Prefecture to show that nearly every day from the beginning of the Occupation on 30 August 1945 to mid-September that year, cases of rape by Allied soldiers were reported (p. 117). Indeed, General R. L. Eichelberger, commander of the United States' 8th Army, noted in his diary that his very first meeting with General Douglas MacArthur in Japan was not about Japan's surrender but rather about 'rape by marines' (p. 123). Such atrocities were widely feared in Japan, not only by the populace which had been indoctrinated by wartime propaganda to believe that mass rape was a usual characteristic of the immoral 'barbarians', but also by political and bureaucratic leaders. Even before the Occupation began, a vastly similar 'comfort' women system was established in Japan for use by Allied soldiers, staffed by professional Japanese prostitutes and recruited 'volunteers' (p. 138). Tanaka attempts to show that the fact that the Allied nations' expected—if not required—that such a 'comfort' system would be provided for them made it politically expedient for the Allied nations not to prosecute the Japanese for the 'comfort' women system (p. 151).

In juxtaposing the 'sexual ideologies' of Japan and the Allied nations in this manner, Tanaka underscores that he is not attempting to 'mitigate or rationalize the crimes that Japanese men committed during the war by referring to similar or related crimes committed by the Allied soldiers immediately after the war' (p. 6). However, the reader of this volume cannot help but be left with the impression that Tanaka believes that the Allied nations' 'sexual ideology'—revealed through what he sees as a complicit endorsement of the 'comfort' women system because of the failure to prosecute—was as serious a 'crime against humanity' as the establishment of the 'comfort' women system in the first place. Some contradictions arise in this volume; one in particular suggests that the Allied nations, not Japan, bear the greater responsibility for sexual violence against women during this period. On the one hand, for example, Japanese soldiers had a 'personal choice' in relation to the exploitation of 'comfort' women and, Tanaka writes, 'in that sense, those Japanese men who chose to avail themselves of this facility undoubtedly bear personal responsibility for the crimes they directly committed' (p. 4). Yet in an interesting comparison of respective responsibilities, Tanaka notes that the:

    Allied forces who participated in the Occupation, from the ordinary soldiers up to the staff of the PHW [Public Health and Welfare] Section of the GHQ and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers himself, were all responsible for the tribulation that many Japanese women experienced (emphasis added, p. 165).
Certainly, the Allied nations bear a significant burden of unfulfilled responsibility regarding the issue of the 'comfort' women. At the end of the war, the United States in particular was in an unprecedented position to investigate and prosecute these serious offences against women; a position which it chose not to exploit. Yet even in the convoluted lexicon of contemporary international law, failure to prosecute is not quite on the scale of a crime against humanity reached by the organised sexual slavery of the 'comfort' women system. The Allied nations' endeavours to combat the spread of venereal disease, their support of the enticement of impoverished women into prostitution and the supervision of brothels for military use during the war and the Occupation, while morally reprehensible, cannot be accorded the same level of criminality as the 'comfort' women system. Tanaka's almost unequivocal equation of the two does a disservice to the complex question of why the Allied nations failed to prosecute the 'comfort' women system.

The equation of the Allied nations and Japan's sexual ideologies predisposes this volume to the impression that it is partially an apologia for the 'comfort' women system. To his credit, Tanaka makes it clear that while this volume began as a chapter on 'rape and war' in an earlier work,[5] he was approached to do further research on the subject of the 'comfort' women by Ômori Junrô, a director of the TV documentary section of NHK (Japan Broadcasting Commission) who was proposing a documentary film. The subject: why the 'US military authorities were not interested in prosecuting the Japanese who had been responsible for the sexual exploitation of vast numbers of so-called "comfort women," despite their clear knowledge of this matter' (p. xvii). However, one unfortunate remark about this commission, made in Tanaka's acknowledgements, colours the entirety of this volume. Tanaka describes how he undertook his first research trip to the United States in 1995 on this topic but 'could not find a single document that referred to comfort women'. He therefore came back to Australia, where he was based at the time, 'without any "Christmas present" for Mr Ômori' (p. xvii). The characterisation of documents explaining the legal disinterest of the Occupational authorities as a 'Christmas present' is not only insensitive given the subject matter of the volume but it raises questions about the agenda, if any, of Ômori Junrô and NHK in commissioning such research in the first place.

This is an interesting volume on this most delicate of subject matters. Yet, it should be read with some caution. Many of the photographs, for example, are not particularly well chosen or meaningful in terms of the volume's analysis. In a section on the recruitment of young Japanese girls into prostitution during the Occupation, for example, Tanaka includes a photograph of women working in a factory with the caption:

    During the war many high-school students were mobilised as members of the Women's Volunteer Corps and worked in munitions factories. After the war, some of those students ended up as comfort women serving the Allied soldiers (p. 129).
However, a closer examination of this photograph reveals that the women are apparently working in a clothing factory, not with munitions. This photograph is one of a number of examples in the volume where the illustration appears almost incidental to the discussion. Two Japanese women 'walking in the street where Japanese soldiers are strolling' are identified as 'comfort' women 'somewhere in north China' (p. 9). It is not explained, however, why Tanaka or his Mainichi Shimbun source identify these women as 'comfort' women. Another photograph of a group of Taiwanese nurses leaving Taipei explains 'Some of them were exploited as comfort women' (p. 43). Yet in the text, a comment is made that of fifty identified Taiwanese 'comfort' women, only 'three were former nurses' (p. 44). These attempts at illustration add little to the discussion. Yet even if these minor failings are discounted, this volume remains a distinctly unmeasured analysis of the why the Allied nations failed to prosecute the 'comfort' women system. It does, however, pose some interesting questions to further researchers in this field.


[1] This figure is at the lower end of estimates usually given of the number of 'comfort' women. Keith Howard, for example, cites that the number of 'comfort' women was probably near two hundred thousand: Keith Howard, 'Introduction', in Keith Howard (ed), True Stories of the Comfort Women, London: Cassell, 1995, p. v.

[2] See discussion of these groups in Gavan McCormack, 'The Japanese Movement to "Correct" History', in Vera Mackie et al. (eds), Japanese Studies: Communities, Cultures, Critiques, Vol. 1: Re-mapping Japan, Clayton, Vic: Monash Asia Institute, 2000, pp. 103-18.

[3] McCormack, 'The Japanese Movement to "Correct" History', p. 103.

[4] Japan ratified this convention in 1932: Etsuko Totsuka, 'Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and Issues in Law', in Keith Howard (ed), True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women, London: Cassell, 1995, p. 196.

[5] Yuki Tanaka, Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II, Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL: intersections.anu.edu.au/issue9/morris_review.html.

HTML last modified: 18 March 2008 1301 by Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright