The Historical Background for the 'Comfort Women' System.
The Background in the Japanese Empire and in Colonized Joseon (Korea)

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kee, Ye Ji
Research Paper, AP European History Class, Winter 2007

Table of Contents

I. The Low Status and Little Recognition of Women in Japanese Tradition
II. State-Regulated Prostitution in Japan and Its Overseas Expansion
III. Military Problems in Overseas Aggressive Wars
IV. Destitution of Joseon's Farming Villages
V. Systematization and Mobilization of Women with the Intensification of the War Footing
VI. Notes
VII. Bbliography

Teacher's Comment

I. The Low Status and Little Recognition of Women in Japanese Tradition
            Korea, China, and Japan had Confucian culture, so the countries were male-dominated societies with the idea that men are superior to women, and the principles of male and female. The status of women in the three countries was very low. Under a patriarchal system, as the male inherits property, and the right as the head of a family, social preference for male and sexual discrimination was furthered. Especially, Japanese women had the lowest position among the three Confucian countries because Japan had the most strict rank orders, and harshest discrimination against women.

      "Having the same Confucianism ethics, while China and Korea emphasized benevolence and filial piety, and revered pen and virtue, Japan emphasized faithfulness and justice, and revered sword and strength." (1)

            To give an anecdote that shows the position of pre-modern Japanese women, it is said that the direct reason Toyotomi Hideyoshi oppressed Roman Catholicism was that a Japanese Christian woman refused to sleep together with him. In 1587, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi was invading Kyushu, within Christian Daimyo Arima's territory, he tried to coerce a woman attend his bed. However, the chosen woman was a Christian. Therefore, according to the doctrine that values chastity, she firmly refused Hideyoshi's demand. Then, soon after, Hideyoshi banned missionary works, and exiled foreign missionaries from Japan (2). Hayashi Razan, a famous Neo-Confucian philosopher in those days, criticized the Christian religion by saying that

      "In Christian religion, there is no order of social standing, and it coaxes foolish women by preaching monogamy." (3)

            It may be stated that one of the reasons why Christianity was suppressed in Japan is that the preexisting feudal public order could have been disturbed. Moreover, in addition to rigorous status system, patriarchal family system was established; the status of Japanese women was placed in a more inferior position. In any of the traditional four classes of society, a father or a husband, the head of a family, was a despot of children and wife by law and by morals. Women were completely subordinate to men. The civil law, which took effect in 1896, stipulated the rights of the head of a family. According to the law, the head of a family manages the whole property of a family, and has the most right in deciding marriage, adoption, and legal acknowledgements. In principle, the eldest son inherited the family business and became the head of a family. (4) A wife was considered incompetent, and husbands were given official recognition to keep mistresses. Without the wife's agreement, the husband was able to recognize a child born from other women. This official recognition not only became the legal basis for contempt toward women, but also approved husbands' sexual dissoluteness. Also, according to a penal law, which took effect in 1908, adultery was stipulated. If the wife had an affair, the wife and the man were punished on the husband's complaint. However, if the husband had an affair, as long as the woman was not married, the husband was not punished. (5) Japan's traditional discrimination against women and the women's inferior position allow forming an idea that Japanese military would not have felt any particular guilt when they mobilized women, especially women from the colony.

II. State-Regulated Prostitution in Japan and Its Overseas Expansion
            Japanese prostitutes had their origin in the subjugated or the slaves. In Japan, human trade and human plunder had started from the Nara period, when public sale of slaves was approved. During Muromachi period, when finances was insufficient, prostitution was established as an occupation, and paying tax was required. This was a kind of state-regulated prostitution, and it tells that state-regulated prostitution did not make its first appearance during the Edo period. In the beginning of the modern times, Tokugawa Shogunate gathered prostitutes scattered in Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka. By gathering the women into a specific regions, and keeping them apart from the outside world, the Shogunate tried to administer the prostitution business. Since Toyotomi established licensed quarters in Yanaginobaba, Kyoto toward the end of the 16th century, prostitution had flourished for the next 150 years.
            Even after the Meiji Reformation, state-regulated prostitution continued its existence. However, the "Maria Luz Incident" in 1872 made Japan's human traffic of prostitutes an issue, so Japan proclaimed prostitute emancipation in October, 1872. Nevertheless, red-light districts, which existed for hundreds of years, could not be vanished just because of one statute. Prostitute emancipation proclamation was not to improve the internal system, but rather was to put down foreign criticisms, and to uphold Japan's dignity. Ito Hirobumi, a meritorious retainer of Meiji Reformation, even praised state-regulated prostitution in an interview with a Britain's newspaper in 1896.
            In the mid-1920s, many Japanese prostitutes, like those in premodern times, took the job to emerge from family's poverty, or to finance the treatment of parents, brothers, or sisters' diseases. What is worse, not a few became prostitutes by abduction. The following chart was drawn after a survey of 250 prostitutes from January to March, 1926 on the causes for them becoming prostitutes (6) :

Table 1 : Causes for Japanese Women to Take up Prostitution, after 1926 Survey

Poverty Family's Medical Treatment Debt Husband's Medical Treatment Children's Education Living Expenses Running Away, Abduction Family Trouble Others Total
Number 105 45 20 2 8 47 14 8 1 250
% 42.0 18.0 8.0 0.8 3.2 18.8 5.6 3.2 0.4 100

            Japan's state-regulated prostitution system and prostitute quarters were spread to other countries as Japan's national power expanded overseas. In July 1919, an American wrote about the export of Japanese prostitutes and brothels as following : ((7)

      "At one point, it was presumed that it is more profitable for Japan to export Japanese prostitutes than to export coal ... Japanese prostitutes are found at China's open ports, Saigon, many places in Indochina, Bangkok, places in Siam, Singapore, Penang, and India ... Japanese prostitutes are also prevalent in Borneo, Madagascar, Zanzibar, and South Africa. For a time, exclusive right of prostitution in Australia's coastal region fell into Japan's hands."

            In Joseon, Japan first introduced state-regulated prostitution in Busan, the first open port, in 1881 (8). In 1910, after the occupation of Joseon, regulations for prostitution (of Japanese women) were implemented in every province, with regional differences. Then, in 1916, nationwide unified regulations were established (9). Japanese prostitutes were able to enter various countries because there were demands from the Japanese in those countries. As both the Japanese and the local residents accepted the prostitution, the evil custom spread into Korean society.
            As Japanese people ran the brothels, they not only utilized Japanese women, but also gradually used women from the colonies. The following chart shows the annual statistical data on the number of women who are engaged in prostitution business. The number of Japanese women shown in this chart indicates only those who worked in Joseon (10)

Table 2 : Women under State-Regulated Prostitution in Joseon during the Era of Japanese imperialism

Geisha / Kisaeng Prostitute Barmaid Cafe Waitress Total Sum Total
Japan Joseon Japan Joseon Japan Joseon Japan Joseon Japan Joseon
1910 977 427 851 569 2263 197 4091 1193 5284
1915 1226 612 1530 674 1924 482 4680 1768 6448
1920 1336 1224 2289 1400 705 868 4330 3492 7822
1925 1409 826 2034 1017 642 962 4085 2805 6890
1930 2156 2274 1833 1370 442 1241 4431 4885 9316
1933 1985 2635 1551 1009 382 1056 1988 501 5906 5201 11107
1935 2128 3933 1778 1330 414 1290 2395 939 6715 7492 14207
1940 2280 6023 1777 2157 216 1400 2226 2145 6499 11725 18224
1942 1796 4490 1774 2076 240 1376 1644 2227 5454 10169 15623

            In this chart, at first, the number of Joseon women was much smaller than that of Japanese women, but year by year, the number and rate of Joseon women increased, and exceeded those of Japanese women. This fact could be seen that Japan's evil customs contaminated Joseon. However, it is also likely due to the increment of demand of Joseon women as sexual trifles by increased Japanese immigrants. Racially discriminating, sexually discriminating, and exploitative colonial policies forced the Joseon women of lower classes to practice these types of business.
            There were differences in stipulations on the preservation of prostitutes between those of Japan and those of Joseon. In Japan, the minimum age to become prostitutes was 18, while it was 17 in Joseon. Also, in Japan, the prostitutes had the freedom of communication, meetings, document-readings, possession of goods, purchase, and etc., but in Joseon, the prostitutes only had the freedom of contract, communication, and meetings. The freedom of quitting the business recorded for the moment. Nevertheless, as the free cessation of business in Japan was difficult, it was very difficult in Joseon.
            Considering the fact that state-regulated prostitution remained even after Japan lost the Second World War, it can be seen that the state-regulated prostitution expanded to the Japanese military as the Japanese army's comfort women system. Moreover, in the Japanese society, where state-regulated prostitution was so prevalent, it was somewhat natural for the Japanese military to invent comfort stations in its battlefields, and its occupied territories. It was also not that strange that Japanese military was unaware of its violation of human rights regarding the comfort women.

III. Military Problems in Overseas Aggressive Wars
            The direct background for the establishment of Japanese military's comfort stations was overseas dispatch and invasion of armed forces. In January, 1889, as the conscription system was introduced, large number of soldiers was from poor farming stock. Therefore, the soldiers' average education level or consciousness level was extremely low. While militarism was consolidating more and more, these soldiers were completely inculcated with the military spirit, such as absolute obedience, loyalty, courtesy, valor, and frugality. Yet, the military spirit education was not carried out in a modernistic method, which was based on mutual respect of each personality. The education was an extension of the feudal patriarchal system into a military. As a result, under the pretext of full-of-love whipping, senior comrades' brutal behaviors, such as violence and beating, were prevalent. It was natural for the rank and file soldiers to lack consciousness about human rights because they were so used to inhuman behaviors and senses.
            The first comfort houses were built in Shanghai in 1932. According to Yoshimi's examination, following record appears in Shanghai expeditionary army's senior staff officer, Okabe's diary of March 14th, 1932.

      "Recently soldiers have been roaming about the street seeking women, and I have heard of many foul incidents. This situation is inevitable for the armies in ordinary times, so I actively acknowledge the establishment of institutions. Carefully concerning the solutions for the soldiers' sexual problems, the realization of the institutions will be commenced. Generally, lieutenant colonel, Nagami will be in charge of this task "

            Thus, comfort stations were first established in Shanghai to prevent the soldiers from raping native women. Then, the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937. Army soldiers were additionally dispatched in bulk to the war. Not knowing when the war would end, and without any vacation, the soldiers were stranded in the battlefields for a long period of time. Their mental states were abnormal and unstable. They suffered from destroyed morality due to inhuman lives in the quarters. In extreme cases, feelings of insecurity and tense due to not knowing when they will die, soldiers developed symptoms of mental diseases. Under the pretense of Army of the Emperor of Japan, the soldiers were instilled with senses of superiority, and racial discrimination. As the soldiers indulged in plunder, incendiaries, and rape of Chinese, Nanjing massacre took place, in which several hundred thousand Chinese people were killed.
            Because of the massacre, anti-Japanese movements became more active, and maintenance of the public order in the occupied territory became difficult. Also, indiscreet sexual relations brought sexual diseases into the Japanese military, and caused inconvenience in maintaining the fighting power. Loss of lives due to sexual diseases, and huge expenses for medical treatments of sexual diseases also were big problems. The chief executives of the Japanese military judged that prosecution of the war would be tough if the situation was left alone, so they hurriedly looked for countermeasures. As one solution, they decided to increase the number of comfort stations, which would be directly regulated by the military. On June 7th, 1937, there was a verbal instruction to each battalion commander from the Independent mountain artillery third regiment Eungsan regiment headquarters. The direction of June 10th instructs the following in the clause, 'A case concerning the mental comfort.' (11)

      "(3) Other than the special comfort houses, each division should appoint an agent, and set up institutions like restaurants or cafes (for example, soldier homes) that will make the soldiers happy. The divisions should put more effort in comforting the soldiers.
      (4) Present special comfort houses are few, and are merely places to gratify lust. Each division should increase the number of military prostitutes to satisfy the soldiersĄŻ mental comfort."

            As they were forced into a reckless aggressive war, Japanese soldiers' human natures were destroyed, and interior dissatisfaction grew. The soldiers were demoralized, so they were put out of action. Also, as anti-Japanese feeling intensified due to the Japanese soldiers' atrocities such as rape, the military authorities invented and operated military prostitution system to solve the problems.

IV. Destitution of Joseon's Farming Villages
            The land survey that was carried out in the 1910s was to secure revenue from land taxes, which would be the source of finances for the Japanese Government-General. At the same time, by supporting the landowners to possess the landed property, the government-general tried to form the landowning classes into social holders under its colonial rule. The plan to increase rice products in 1920s was one of the measures to assure accumulation of capital by 'low price of rice' and 'low wages.' Also, the plan was carried into effect in the colony, Joseon, as a part of the measures for maintenance of the colonial rule. After the plan to increase rice products, colonial semi-feudal shareholding plan was more harshly reinforced. Then, as land's tendency to be concentrated on the landowners intensified, the descending disintegration of the peasants became distinct, and independent farmers, independent tenant farmers, tenant farmers went to ruin. In 1930, 48% of the whole farming families, and 68% of the tenant farming families ate bark of the trees and grass, and roots as substitutes for food during the off-crop season of barley, from March to May. It was the season of spring poverty.
            In the 1930s, because of the Great Depression, Colony Joseon's rural economy, which was structurally included in Japan's capitalism, was heavily hit. In a state of intensified single-crop-of-rice structure due to the plan to increase rice products, agricultural panic caused the slump of farm prices, and fully burst conflicts inherent in colonial farm societies. Farmers were suffering from high-rate farm rent under semi-feudalism. Various taxes aggravated the situation. The income of farming families considerably diminished due to the crop price slump. Price differentials between agricultural products and industrial products couldn't make both ends meet, and farmers were heavily in debt. On the whole, farmers in those days went to ruin. The destitution of Joseon's farmers was not critical, but rather miserable.
            The destitution of rural community made young women have weakness for allurements of employment. In fact, quite a number of women taken as Japanese military prostitutes came from poor families. There were many cases where the women who tried to make money were taken. As shown in the following chart, among the methods of conscription, employment fraud formed the greatest part. The following chart is based on the testimonies of 157 survivors who came back to Korea. (12)

Table 3 : Recruitment of Korean Comfort Women, Based on a Survey of 157 Returnees

Recruiter Employment
Force Threat Human Traffic Abduction Compulsory
Delivery, Labor Service Corps Total
Joseon Civilian 38 3 1 1 2 0 2 47
Japanese Civilian 17 6 0 1 0 3 0 27
Soldier 4 18 0 0 0 0 2 24
Civilian Attached to the Military 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 2
Military Police 2 3 0 0 0 0 0 5
Police 6 26 1 0 0 0 3 39
Government Official 4 2 0 0 0 0 4 12
Others 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1

V. Systematization and Mobilization of Women with the Intensification of the War Footing
            Due to the Sino-Japanese War in July, 1937, Japan changed into full-blown war basis. Therefore, it demanded a full-scale cooperation system for the prosecution of the war from the colony, Joseon. As war industry dramatically grew, demand of labor was increasing every year. There were two Japan's measures of Joseon's labor: Satisfactory mobilization of labor needed in Joseon, and delivery of Joseon laborers to Japan, Sakhalin, and the South Seas. Japan's plan was to harmonically accomplish both sides of the measures. In order to achieve their plan, as a part of the national total strength movement, Japan developed a national total labor movement. Also, in this situation, to fully satisfy the supply of laborers in Joseon's important enterprises, Japan strongly demanded a plan to supply women as substitute laborers. In order to execute national total labor, and to promote the utilization of women laborers, Japan recruited laborers, and expanded and consolidated the Government-General, and local labor administrative organizations.
            As a part of the mobilization of Joseon's labor, a policy to reinforce working power of farm wives was enforced. To plunder the labor forces of farm wives, local federations below provinces, promoted systematization of women even in the rural societies. After 1939, amidst the acceleration of conscription of Joseon people, Japan, in 1942, emphasized the necessity of working force of the wives as the following : (13)

      "As the war industry, and the necessities-of-life industry surges, male labor is greatly in need in those fields. On this occasion, efficiency of female labor is essential ... Especially, on the aspect of the expansion of production, the labor force of the rural communities is stringent. The utilization of the labor force of wives is imperative. Therefore, the enlightenment movement for the wives is requisite."

            Under the war footing, as the war industry at home and abroad mobilized great amount of male work force, the domestic production of supplies other than war supplies greatly valued work force of farm wives as labor resources. In order to enlighten the wives, the Joseon Union announced the essentials of enlightenment of wives movement in 1942. The movement's aim was to systematize the labor force of wives. Then, on February 17th, 1942, the union announced the essential points of enlightenment of wives movement, and expanded the movement throughout the country. The goals and details of the movement are shown in the following: (14)

      "(1). Promotion of Female Virtues: To be impressed by the nobility of the national polity / To bow respectfully in front of the deity. To foster the idea, 'Everything for the ruler, and for the country.' To work kindly, and do one's duty as a wife. To foster femininity. To be courteous. To endeavor to advance oneself in knowledge.
(2). Upbringing of Children: To raise children to be upright, strong, and benevolent. To set a good model to the children. To give children lessons in manners. To sufficiently contact the school.
(3). Reform of the Mode of Living: To endeavor to understand the state of affairs. To nurture economical knowledge. To plan the improvements of food, clothes, and housing. To carefully use the commodities. To endeavor to save money. To make an effort to employment of the entire family. To be the center of the pleasures of the happy home. To do away with an evil custom. To attend to sanitation. To make an effort in aiding the military."

            The organizations established to actualize the goals and the details show that organizations to control the wives were methodically systematized. The general mobilization on the war basis minutely organized Koreans throughout the country, and made it possible to mobilize Koreans as either work force or military force. Moreover, systematization and understanding of the unemployed women were also closely done.
            The destitution of Joseon's rural community due to Japan's harsher plunder, and systematization and mobilization of women with the intensification of the war footing became the historical background for the formation and enforcement of comfort women policy on the part of Joseon.




Note : websites quoted below were visited in October-December 2007.