The Comfort Women Some jokingly say that prostitution is the oldest profession , but one can hardly laugh about the plight of thousands of women who have resorted to this disturbing practice. Although many women sell their bodies by choice, history shows that for centuries, governments and conquering armies have used their power to force women into prostitution to fit its needs. Well into the twentieth century, the practice continued in countries around the world including China, The Philippines, but chiefly in Japan. During and before the start of World War Two, the Japanese government tightly controlled an efficient but brutal system of prostitution around the country. Those in control dubbed the reluctant prostitutes comfort women , a title that ate away slowly at the souls of those who possessed it. Japan called upon these women not only to prostitute them-selves, but perform difficult and dangerous missions to the front lines when a regiment s supply of men wavered. The presence of these women and the establishment of comfort stations in Japan s vast empire not only effected the lives of the women involved, but the outcome of the war itself. Within the modern city of Tokyo, old buildings painted with red and gold lettering that brag of beautiful women and good food remind one of its name during the 18th century, The Floating World . Known for its abundance of brothels, travelers refereed to it as the nightless city - an international hub for legalized prostitution. In 1872, the Japanese government followed the example set by the ancient Romans, devising a lucrative system in which different states controlled the number of brothels within the city and the number of girls. The women were licensed and received mandatory medical exams before allowed to work. The brothels put different the prostitutes into different classes according to education, ethnic background and beauty. The more educated prostitutes were called Geishas and often played musical instruments to entertain customers. At first, local governments of neighboring towns gave families the option of volunteering their daughters in return for the assurance of a loan or by offering to erase debts. In many cases, the girls went willingly in hopes to provide for their families and make a better life for themselves. Soon, however, the number of willing girls dropped and the government or local police began to raid villages, threatening to burn houses and fields of the girls did not comply. With the start of the war, the brothel business still boomed and at first the military didn t consider the option of establishing their own brothels, until 233 rapes occurred on one night in Shanghai in 1932. The blame of the rapes rested upon the shoulders of the Japanese military. In response to a city- wide outcry, military officials soon found a solution that hardly seemed better than the problem. Within a month the military constructed the first military controlled comfort station in Shanghai. Japan justified the building of more comfort stations around its empire by claiming that such stations reduced venereal diseases and rape. This claim did little to console the many women who found themselves being forced to service twenty to forty men daily under the watchful eye of armed guards at such stations. In addition to the claims, the Japanese believed that sex before battle prevented injury, and depravation of it made one accident prone and forgetful. Such superstitions spurred even more officials in favor of the practice; and ordered more stations to be built according to the number of troops in the area. In some cases, the number of stations surpassed that of local grocery stores. By the end of the war, over 1000 stations existed. A former officer of the Japanese military recalls how shipments of women to stations arrived before weaponry and food supplies, causing a number of men to go without amunition for their guns for quite some time. The growing number of stations required a huge amount of women to fill them, a problem that soon found an answer in small villages in Japan and Korea. To lure women willfully into service, the military started such organizations as The Women s Voluntary Service Corps and the Women s Patriotic Service Corps. The posters claimed that women would earn good wages and help the empire by sewing, and doing various other behind the lines tasks. Village by village, trucks rounded up those willing to go and brought them to a central headquarters. In a large room, the more pretty girls were hand picked by an officer and led into yet another truck and driven to a comfort station deep in the jungle, or some other desolate place on the front lines. The increasing need for women drove the military to turn to POW camps, forcing European women to serve as comfort women including a group of Dutch women who first brought public attention to the incidents after the war. As the war staggered on, rumors from the front lines about the comfort stations found their way to towns and villages, and soon families hid their daughters when Japanese soldiers combed their village for fresh meat . Backed by the National General Mobilisation Law, the soldiers used brute force to push girls into their trucks, often killing family members who protested. A former comfort woman recalls the violent way her father was killed, leaving her almost catatonic, the soldier turned and with one swift movement, sliced my father s neck with his sword I screamed when I saw his body and then his head fall to the ground. I lost all strength then, and allowed myself to be pushed into the truck (49-Hicks). In most cases, the girls learned of their fate on the truck or shortly after their arrival, that and the shock of losing their families resulted in many going insane shortly after arriving. Those who remained sane wished silently that they too, did not have a sence of reality.
Upon arriving at the stations, an officer usually told them their task and told them the rules of the station. Following this, the officer broke them in for their following months of service by raping them. This trauma alone resulted in many suicides and severe mental illness. Usually, a married couple ran the house and kept 75% of their pay, leaving them with the equivalent of about $00.05 at the end of each week. They were instructed to wash quickly after each customer or disinfect with a cotton ball, though during the busiest hours few girls had time. When writing home, the girls were not allowed to specify their job, but merely say they were helping the empire in its cause , or allowed to inform family members of their location. Each girl had a designated room supplied with a thin mattress and separated from the lobby by a thin curtain. A picture in the front lobby informed the customers of their ethnic background and price, European girls and Japanese girls had higher prices, considered to be of higher quality then Koreans. Each week a doctor visited to make sure the girls had not contracted any diseases and many girls felt a doctor, at least, could understand their plight, many girls were let down. One former comfort woman recalls how the doctor raped her after the first examination, and she soon began to dread his visits. Like cattle, the women were bought, sold and kept alive merely to serve a need that their government assured them was necessary. Along with just struggling to survive at the crude stations, several women faced completing dangerous and secretive military missions to the front lines. Compared to a soldier s salary, a comfort woman s pay paled in comparison; yet often their country had them on the front lines with the very men who they serviced in the night. When the amount of men dwindled towards the end of the war, officers ordered women to accompany them to the front lines to do such tasks as loading and throwing grenades to delivering important messages to distant bases. One woman recalls how she and another woman traveled by foot to the front lines and stayed at a pillbox , a small camp designed to monitor guerrilla warfare. Officers gave them each a pistol and told them to save the last bullet to kill themselves in event of capture. Out of small windows, the girls stood beside two other men and fired their pistols into the jungle. With the two extra soldiers firing into the night, the small unit kept off an advancing enemy. Often, officers would take women back to their private homes and keep them as mistresses. In one famous case, a mistress convinced the officer to adopt her fellow comfort women and pay for their passage to their home countries. Unfortunatly, a Chinese submarine torpedoed the ocean liner and not one woman survived. With the comfort women at the top of military priority, the shipment and the building of comfort stations soaked up many of the armies funds. One can only wonder what may have been if such funds had been available at the end of the war. The impact of these women and many others on the course of the war cannot be measured, and Japan will forever be indebted to their brave efforts.The women who survived the comfort stations and the front lines left at the end of the war with physical and mental scars that would never leave them. Unfortunatly, in most cases, military officers shot the comfort women at the end of the war to ensure security. Many women, due to the disinfectant used between customers, either sterilized them or caused them to have future problems during pregnancy such as low birth weight or miscarriages. Those who became pregnant during their time at the stations either gave birth and gave the baby to a couple in the town or took special herbs to guarantee a miscarriage. The mental scars are less apparent, but just as hard to deal with. Many confess that they have nightmares about their experiences, unable to feel comfortable telling their husbands and do not enjoy intercourse. Many have trouble finding work, not having the education when they were young and live off their families or meager well fare. For many years, Japan denied the claims of these women and only recently has been forced to compensate for the damages. Although money can buy food and pay rent for an apartment, the government cannot heal the wounds in these women s hearts and minds. Japan s forced prostitution during World War Two, remains an ugly mark in its history. The military used these women for their bodies, and in turn often destroyed their minds as well. Those who went to the front lines rarely came back and died like Kamikaze pilots, hurling a last grenade to fight for a country that had betrayed them. The courage of these women and their stories can and should alert people around the world about the evils and brutality of prostitution. Tragically, forced prostitution can still be found in the Philippines and China, even Japan among others. Poor families sell their children to pay their bills like a commodity, selling the children s innocence and dignity for a loaf of bread. The issue of prostitution will never die,