Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During World War II

During World War II, the Japanese army held men and women as sex slaves, a practice that was kept secret until 1990 allegations by former Korean “comfort women” were confirmed by Japanese government documents in 1992.

Summary of Event

The Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land, as adopted in 1899 and reiterated in subsequent treaties, obligated armies engaging in military occupation of other countries to respect the liberties of those under occupation. Nevertheless, Japan’s army in continental Asia during World War II violated the accepted terms of wartime propriety by utilizing men and women for sex. Because serving as a prostitute is a humiliation that Asians find difficult to admit, and because Japanese culture frowns on bringing up negative matters, the issue of sex slavery was ignored for forty-five years. Sex slavery
Comfort women
Japan;sex slavery
[kw]Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During World War II (Jan. 13, 1992)
[kw]Sex Slavery During World War II, Japan Admits to (Jan. 13, 1992)
[kw]Slavery During World War II, Japan Admits to Sex (Jan. 13, 1992)
[kw]World War II, Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During (Jan. 13, 1992)
Sex slavery
Comfort women
Japan;sex slavery
[g]East Asia;Jan. 13, 1992: Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During World War II[08270]
[g]Japan;Jan. 13, 1992: Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During World War II[08270]
[g]Koreas;Jan. 13, 1992: Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During World War II[08270]
[g]China;Jan. 13, 1992: Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During World War II[08270]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Jan. 13, 1992: Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During World War II[08270]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Jan. 13, 1992: Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During World War II[08270]
[c]Military history;Jan. 13, 1992: Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During World War II[08270]
[c]Women’s issues;Jan. 13, 1992: Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During World War II[08270]
[c]World War II;Jan. 13, 1992: Japan Admits to Sex Slavery During World War II[08270]
Kim, Hak-soon
Yoshiaki, Yoshimi
Miyazawa, Kiichi
Murayama, Tomiichi

During World War II, the Japanese army’s leaders believed that morale among the troops would be improved if “comfort women” who were known to be free of sexually transmitted diseases were available to soldiers. Accordingly, some 80,000 to 200,000 persons in Japan and in areas of Asia occupied by Japanese military forces served as sex objects. Most of the sex slaves were held at about two thousand “comfort stations” in China, Korea, and Taiwan. Some were brought to Japan for the benefit of soldiers on rotation or in training. All of the sex slaves were held at Japanese military bases or encampments. Most of them were women, although some males and cross-dressers were forcibly raped.

In Japan, authorities attended to the health of the comfort workers and often provided lavish accommodations and income. However, elsewhere in Asia the sex workers were treated with less dignity. Accordingly, a dispute arose between those who stressed the horrors of Japan’s system of sex slavery and those who pointed out the economic advantages of serving as comfort women.

Early in the war, Japan offered monetary inducements to secure willing prostitutes. Existing prostitutes applied, while some poor families sold their teenage children. Later, Japanese troops kidnapped women and forced them to engage in nonconsensual sex. Some of the women developed medical problems, notably genital injuries. Others were beaten and tortured into complying with their forced assignments. Virgins were supplied to officers. Pregnant women underwent forced abortions and sometimes died during these operations.

Less than 30 percent of those forced into sexual slavery survived the ordeal, which involved submitting to sex an average of ten times daily and, in some cases, as many as forty times a day. Although the Charter of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, adopted in 1946, cited rape as a war crime, because of taboos about sexual behavior nothing was said about the practice for forty-five years after the war. Additionally, the American military extended the Japanese practice of sex slavery by utilizing comfort women during the occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1951.

In 1948, in Jakarta, Indonesia, the Netherlands held the only military tribunal concerning the sexual abuse of comfort women. Several Japanese military officers were convicted of forcing thirty-five Dutch women into comfort stations. However, there were no trials in which native Indonesians or women of other ethnic backgrounds were plaintiffs.

In 1990, the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery was formed and filed suit in Japan, demanding an official apology and compensation for forced prostitution during World War II. In 1991, Hak-soon Kim, a Korean woman, made a public admission that she was a victim of Japanese sexual slavery during World War II. Lawsuits were filed by other women who made similar public admissions. The Japanese courts, however, dismissed the cases. During 1991-1992, a major newspaper in Japan, Asahi Shimbun, ran a series of articles on comfort women, thereby raising consciousness about the issue. At first, the Japanese government refused to offer any apology or compensation.

In 1992, historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki’s discovery of incriminating documents in the archives of Japan’s National Defense Agency forced the government to admit that the Japanese military was directly involved in the use of sex slaves throughout Asia during World War II. The article was published five days prior to a visit to South Korea by Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who made a formal apology during that visit. In 1992, North Korea also published a report about sex slaves during the Japanese occupation.

In 1995, the Japanese government, having admitted moral but not legal responsibility since prostitution was legal in Japan, assisted in setting up the nongovernmental Asia Women’s Fund to provide surviving comfort women with compensation and an unofficial, signed apology from the prime minister. In announcing the establishment of the fund, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a “profound apology.”

Because of the unofficial nature of the fund, many comfort women rejected these payments and continued to seek an official apology, along with compensation. However, in 2005, the Japanese Supreme Court turned down a bid by some victims for compensation. Another case, involving a Chinese woman, was dismissed by a lower court in Japan in 2006.

In American courts, several cases, including 2003’s Joo v. Japan, were pursued against the Japanese regarding their conduct during World War II, only to be rejected on the basis that the Japanese/American peace treaty of 1951 settled all such claims. Although some members of Congress sought to reinterpret the peace treaty through proposed new legislation, the threat of a presidential veto, on the grounds that new litigation against Japan might adversely affect cooperation with Tokyo on matters of terrorism, ensured that the proposed law did not pass. South Korea regarded the issue of comfort women settled because of the 1965 peace treaty with Japan, which compensated South Korea with $800 million for Japan’s colonial rule, which lasted from 1910 to 1945.


The practice of maintaining thousands of sex slaves was part of the larger use of forced labor throughout Asia by Japanese private corporations under contract with the government to produce goods needed for the war. Rape as a technique of military conquest has occurred over the centuries, but it was not specifically considered a war crime until 1946, under the terms of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials.

Rape is an actionable offense in accordance with the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, as adopted in 1994. The Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, as adopted in 1998, identifies rape as a war crime, though legal proof is often difficult to obtain in the midst of battle. Sex slavery
Comfort women
Japan;sex slavery

Further Reading

  • Hicks, George L. The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War. St. Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 1995. Based in part on stories of comfort women. Tends to be overly sensationalistic.
  • Schellstede, Sangmie Choi. Comfort Women Speak: Testimony by Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military. New York: Holmes & Meier, 2000. Presents firsthand accounts of former sex slaves. Includes bibliographic references.
  • Stetz, Margaret, and Bonnie Oh, eds. The Legacies of the Comfort Women of World War II. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001. Presents personal reports by survivors of the Japanese sex slavery. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Tanaka, Yuki. Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the U.S. Occupation. London: Routledge, 2002. Presents a balanced account of the issue. Includes tables, figures, photographs, and index.
  • Yoshiaki, Yoshimi. Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II. Translated by Suzanne O’Brien. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Scholarly account is based on the documentary record. Includes bibliography and index.

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