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Lieutenant-General Okamura Yasuji established the first of the infamous comfort stations in Shanghai, China in 1932. According to George Hicks, author of The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War (W.W. Norton, 1995), the comfort stations were established for two reasons—to reduce the spread of venereal diseases and to stop the mass rape of civilians. The latter was viewed as an embarrassment for a nation seeking civilized equality to the Western powers.
“The crippling of whole battalions by venereal disease was not unknown, and the Japanese took such a threat seriously, since they had learned the hard way,” writes Hicks. “In 1918, Japan had taken part in the Siberian Intervention initiated by the Western powers against the revolution in Russia. Between then and 1922, the equivalent of one division out of seven was incapacitated by venereal disease. After 223 reported rape cases by Japanese troops [in Shanghai], he [Lieutenant-General Yasuji] sought a solution by ‘following local naval practice,’” and requested the governor of Nagasaki Prefecture to send a contingent of comfort women to Shanghai. Rape reports then fell off markedly, providing a rationale for the subsequent expansion of military prostitution.”
During the 15 Years War, virgins like Kang Duk-kyung were drafted into sexual servitude across Japan’s colonies and occupied territories. Approximately 80 percent of comfort women came from Japan’s primary colony, racially similar Korea. The Korean comfort women, viewed as inferior by the Japanese—simply by virtue of not being Japanese—were preferable to the culturally distinct Chinese and the darker Southeast Asian women. The use of civilian Japanese women for sexual slavery was out of the question due to the demoralizing effect their exploitation would have had on the troops and the nation. These views proved to be a deadly combination for many Korean women. The survivors sit on the steps of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul every Wednesday.
The comfort stations represented “a governmental policy at the highest level,” says Kotler. “There was a policy to create these comfort centers wherever there were these troops. There was a whole manual on how to set them up, what to charge, how long each was allowed according to rank with these women. They had gynecologists assigned to units, not for the health of the women but for the [spread of] VD. They did actuary tables—if you were a certain age, how many guys, how long you were going to last.”
The comfort women were drafted through a combination of coercion, false promises of employment, and abduction. Shipped across warring waters on boats destined for military bases throughout the territories, many women died when the ships carrying them were bombed. Once the surviving comfort women reached their final destination, naïve to what their work would be, the women were shown to small rooms—sometimes little more than a larger room divided by pieces of plywood or hanging mats. There they would wait until visited by an officer or soldier who would summarily rape them as an introduction to their new life. Some women attempted suicide. Some succeeded. Some fought only to be beaten and raped for resisting. Others simply resigned themselves to a life of sexual servitude.
War-stressed soldiers came in droves and were often drunk, which was in violation of the comfort station rules stating that drinking and drunks were forbidden. The soldiers would throw tickets at the women, which the women were required to give to their overseers as proof of payment. Some soldiers were violent, stabbing women because they were not Japanese, because they refused to have sex with the soldier a certain way, or because they insisted that the soldier wear condoms that were provided to them by the Japanese government. The condoms, with names such as Attack Number One, Attack Champion, or Iron Cap, reflected Japan’s male-dominated culture. A woman who became pregnant had no choice but to continue servicing soldiers as her belly swelled or have an abortion. Venereal diseases were rampant. Doctors, who also took advantage of the women, regularly administered “Compound #606,” better known as Salvarsan—the world’s first cure for syphilis.
The bodies of the many women who died (and some who were not fully dead) were unceremoniously discarded, buried in unmarked graves or dumped in the woods. Those who survived where often abandoned once the war was over, their uteri in tatters. They either found their own way home, often burying their dark secret in order to avoid the stigma of having had their virginity taken before marriage and to avoid bringing shame on their families. Some of the women remained in the country they found themselves in—too ashamed or sick or poor to return home. Many could not have children, make ends meet, or engage in normal relationships with men. “Some of the stories are embellished over time and some of the stories are so horrific they could only be true,” says Kotler. “The majority of them were throwaway people, women at the lowest rungs of society. There were no options for them.”