What’s in the U.S. Paper that Reasonably Says Comfort Women Are Not Sex Slaves

What’s in the U.S. Paper that Reasonably Says Comfort Women Are Not Sex Slaves

Co-author of “Anti-Japanese Speciesism” provides in-depth explanation of the Ramseyer paper.


Article on Feb.17th 2022 by U-Eng Lee (He is a research member of the Ochiseongdae Institute of Economic Research. He specializes in Korean economic history. Born in Gwangju, Jeollanam-do Province in 1966. D. in Economics from Sungkyunkwan University Graduate School of Economics. He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University in the U.S. and a visiting professor at Kyushu University. He has published several articles, including “Wages and Ethnic Disparities of Korean Miners (Coal and Metal) Mobilized to Japan during Wartime,” and has conducted research on the so-called conscript problem during the war. His recent books include “Shouting Truth in the Center of Seoul” (Fusosha) and “Anti-Japanese Racism” (translated edition, Bungeishunju), which became a huge bestseller in Korea and Japan.)

Sexual labor for prostitutes in any society is hard work and is very damaging to their social reputation. That is why these women earn high incomes. The same was true for prostitutes working in Japanese brothels before the Asian-Pacific War and for Japanese military comfort women during the war.

 This situation is also evident in the contracts they signed with brothel and comfort station operators. This is evident in Professor Ramseyer’s article. He grasps the contract between the business owner and the prostitute or comfort woman as an indentured servitude and explains the structure of the contract.

 According to the paper, the contract consists of (1) an advance given to prostitutes and military comfort women before they start working, (2) a contract period (indenture) that defines the number of years the women will work, and (3) the percentage of sales divided between the contractor and the prostitutes/comfort women.

 However, this is not the first time that Professor Ramseyer has described such a characteristic, and it is well known among researchers. The point of this paper is that the treatment of wartime military comfort women was better than that of prewar prostitutes. This is because where they worked was on the battlefield.

 Unlike in Japan and Korea, military comfort women who accompanied their comrades overseas, whether in the front or in the rear, were always at risk of death. Also, if the employer violated the contract, there were not many options available to deal with the situation. If they were in Tokyo or Gyeongseong (now Seoul), they could turn to acquaintances, the police, or the courts. If that is not possible, they can flee into the masses, but this is not possible when the battlefield is overseas.

 Compensation for high risk was high income. This is reminiscent of the labor mobilization (including conscription) that took place from September 1939: in the 1920s and 1930s, the wages of Koreans working in Japan were a little more than half those of the Japanese.

 After the wartime mobilization, however, wage discrimination on non-economic grounds, such as ethnic discrimination, almost disappeared, although there were differences based on work ability. This is because the Japanese government and companies eliminated discrimination due to labor shortages. Ironically, the outbreak of war improved the treatment of Korean workers.

How many times higher was the advance of a prostitute than the daily wage of a female worker?

 According to Professor Ramseyer, in the mid-1920s, the advance for prostitutes in Japanese brothels was as high as 1,000 to 1,200 yen. This was at a time when the daily wage for female workers was less than ¥1.50. Moreover, unlike female laborers, prostitutes were live-in workers.

 Providing food and shelter at a time of low economic development and high Engel’s coefficient further widens the wage gap between prostitutes and other occupations. Taking these factors into account, the advance for prostitutes exceeded the daily wage of female workers by a factor of 1,000.

 The amount of advances did not change significantly during the war years. Instead, the length of the contract (the length of the year) became shorter. In the case of prostitutes working in brothels, the usual term was six years in Japan and three years in Korea, but two years for comfort women. In some cases, such as the Japanese military comfort station in Burma, contracts ranged from six months to one year.

 Like prostitutes, military comfort women could leave the comfort station at the end of their contract period, regardless of whether or not they had repaid their advance in full. Thus, the shortened contract period made it easier for comfort women to return home.

 The general public thinks of comfort women as finally being able to return home at the end of the war, but this is due to the influence of the “forced marriage” and “sex slave” theories. The opening of comfort stations began in earnest at least in 1937 and continued for eight years until 1945, so there must have been many military comfort women who returned before the end of the war. Rather fewer would have ended the war at the comfort station.

 In some cases, a ratio of 4:6 was adopted. As a result, many of the military comfort women returned home after repaying their advances in a few months. This is also stated by Ikuhiko Hata, a former professor at the University of Tokyo (author of “Comfort Women and Battlefield Sex”). It should be added here that the number of military personnel with whom the Japanese military comfort women dealt with was far greater than the number of civilian customers taken by the prostitutes, which greatly increased their income.

 In 1925, the average number of customers a prostitute dealt with in a Tokyo brothel was only 2.5 per day. Meanwhile, there was always a shortage of comfort women on the battlefield. The Japanese military required the comfort stations to maintain thorough hygiene and other measures to prevent venereal diseases, forbade civilians from entering, and prohibited soldiers from using stores other than comfort stations.

 Incidentally, there are claims that comfort women who returned home after the war failed to recover their share from the military, but this is rather an exceptional case, considering that far more comfort women returned home before the war ended.

 Professor Ramseyer concluded that “military comfort women were higher risk and higher income than prostitutes. I agree with this. In response, the Korean media has devoted itself to personal attacks on the messenger (speaker), Professor Ramseyer.

 They conveyed the views of some Korean and Japanese history researchers in the U.S. and expressed criticism of the paper. The first of these was that Professor Ramseyer “claimed that the responsibility of the Korean recruiters was greater than that of the Japanese state. The pertinent parts of the paper are as follows.

The reality of “Disneyland” during the Vietnam War

 It was not that the government – either the Korean or the Japanese government – forced women into prostitution. It was not even that recruiters focused on the army’s comfort stations. The problem involved domestic Korean recruiters who have been tricking young women into working at brothels for decades.

The Korean and Japanese governments did not force women into prostitution. The Japanese military did not work in concert with the scammers. Nor did recruiters focus on military comfort stations. The issue is related to the Korean recruiters who have been tricking young women into working in brothels for decades.”

 The direct responsibility lies, of course, with the Korean recruiters. The Japanese military was wary of recruiting comfort women through employment scams and human trafficking because it would destroy the prestige of the military, and the Governor-General’s Office cracked down on such recruiters. However, the Japanese government and military were involved in the establishment and operation of comfort stations. Was this Japan’s fault? Yes. All human beings make mistakes. At times like this, historical comparisons are instructive.

 The United States, with its tradition of Puritanism, is famous for its two-sided attitude toward “sex in the battlefield”: in 1941, it established the principle that “any contact between soldiers and prostitutes is forbidden under any circumstances. However, when venereal diseases became a problem among soldiers who went to brothels in violation of this principle, the Surgeon General sent 150,000 boxes of condoms and 310,000 boxes of disinfectant by air and sea to the front in the fall of 1942.

 In the Vietnam War, the largest war since World War II, the United States took an even more pragmatic attitude. There were two “recreation centers” at the U.S. military base of Lychee, where 60 Vietnamese women slept in their own rooms. Proceeds were split 6:4 between the business owners and the women, a military doctor examined the women weekly, and tags were placed in the rooms of the women who were safe.

The brigade commander oversaw this place called “Disneyland,” and the Pentagon gave its tacit approval. It is a scene I’ve seen somewhere before. It was a Japanese military comfort station. During World War II, Germany also had a comfort station similar to the Japanese military comfort station. In 1942, there were as many as 500 such places.

 The second criticism of the paper is that “there was no contract between the Korean military comfort women and the comfort station operators. To the claim that “there was no contract because they were forced to go,” the paper points out that there is no evidence of “forced labor,” and to the claim that “girls in their early teens would not know about the contract,” the paper only points out the fact that “comfort women were usually in their 20s, and the average was in their mid-20s. Let us focus on issues that are more consistent with historical facts.

Did the comfort women’s parents know what the job entailed?

 Sometimes, Korean agents would take women and sell them off, claiming they would introduce them to good jobs (employment fraud). In this case, the women were taken to a comfort station without knowing that they would be working as comfort women. In this case, there would have been no need to sign a contract and a large advance would not have been paid. However, there are dangers associated with this. First, kidnapping, including employment fraud, had been the subject of police control in Korea since before the war.

 Second, it could be a problem even after the women arrived there. The troops managing the comfort stations made sure that the would-be comfort women knew what kind of work they would be doing. Thus, there should have been fewer cases of kidnapping and taking comfort women than of de facto trafficking by their parents.

 In the latter case, the money paid by the recruiter to the parents on behalf of the comfort station manager is compensation for the parents for selling their daughters, but it is an advance for the recruiter and the comfort station manager. According to “Anti-Japanese Speciesism” by former Seoul National University professor Lee Yeong-hun, such a transaction between recruiters and parents was on the borderline between the illegality of human trafficking and the legality of legitimate exercise of rights and job placement under the family registration system. Human trafficking was already rampant before the war and sometimes became a social problem, but the majority of those investigated for the crime were acquitted.

 Given the circumstances of the time, parents dealing with recruiters should be seen as knowing where their daughters would go and what they would do. Even if it was not an explicit agreement to receive an advance, if the parents knew about it, this is nothing less than the contract that Professor Ramseyer describes.

 Critics in the U.S. are unaware of these facts. It is understandable in this context that former comfort woman Moon Ok-ju, whom Professor Ramseyer refers to in his article as “someone who made a lot of money as a comfort woman,” said that she hated her parents who sold her more than the contractors.

 A typical case of a proper contract with a vendor would be a woman who has been in the prostitution business in Korea or the outside world since before the war. This is the most probable case, although it is one that Korean and Japanese researchers have neglected.

 There were as many as 10,000 prostitutes on the Korean Peninsula around 1940, just those known to the Governor-General’s Office. In addition, there were 8,000 Korean prostitutes in China, Manchuria, and other areas where Koreans were expanding, which roughly coincided with the battlefields of the Asia-Pacific War. These are only the figures ascertained by government agencies. What would be necessary in transferring prostitutes to become military comfort women would be to inform them of the “high risk and high income” when compared to their current employment.

What kind of women were taken to a comfort station by a mediator?

 From the recruiter’s perspective, as a prostitute, there is no risk associated with kidnapping or trafficking. From the prostitutes’ perspective, being a comfort woman did not further damage their social reputation, and in fact, they could often take pride in comforting soldiers. The upper echelons of the Japanese military and the soldiers were not in a position to pursue, or indeed did pursue, the issue of the comfort women themselves. In light of the above, it is likely that the first targets of the pushers were the prostitutes in and outside of Korea.

 Song Geon-ho, who founded and served as president of the Hankyoreh Newspaper, one of the most left-wing and anti-Japanese newspapers in Korea, wrote the following in his book “Modern Korean History under Japanese Imperial Rule,” published in 1984, before the comfort women issue was politicized. He was born in 1927 and experienced the colonial period.

After the invasion of Nanjing at the end of 1937, around the time of the Xuzhou Operation, the Japanese authorities instructed the Korean official pedants to take many impoverished Korean women living in prostitution to mainland China, where they were placed in Japanese military facilities with names such as “comfort stations,” “simple comfort stations,” and “army recreation centers” to provide comfort for Japanese soldiers.

 There are also examples like this. The brother-in-law of the mistress of Mr. Park Chi-won (pseudonym) ran a Japanese military comfort station in Rangoon, the capital of Burma. Mr. Park worked at the bookkeeping desk, where he was in charge of guiding guests and accounting, and he left a diary of his life as a comfort station caretaker (Isp Publications).

 This mistress of Park Chi-won ran an inn in Daegu, South Korea. At the time, the inn business often doubled as a prostitution business. Therefore, when Mr. Park and his brother-in-law wanted to recruit comfort women, they would first negotiate with prostitutes who were acquainted with the mistress, rather than going to rural villages to seduce women and find ruthless parents to buy their daughters.

 As I mentioned in my other article, former comfort women initially described how they became comfort women, saying that they were “followed” or “trafficked. There is no testimony that they were originally engaged in the prostitution business. If those who were engaged in prostitution revealed this, it would result in “social death” in Korea. It is for a similar reason that no one in Japan reveals under their own name that they were a military comfort woman.

 After all, military comfort women should be seen as having entered into a financial contract with a firm, either by themselves or by their parents on their behalf. Professor Ramseyer’s paper is a perfect starting point for such a discussion.

 It is an excellent opportunity for the Korean academic community to break away from its old ways of developing anti-Japanese nationalism and personal attacks on those who argue for the comfort women issue, and to start an academic debate. I hope that Korean scholars on the comfort women issue will answer these questions. (Translation by Hidemi Kaneko)

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