Brothels in Japan during World War II

The relation between South Korea and Japan started to face some problems regarding comfort women. During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army forced many girls to become sexual slaves in brothels in Japan. The thing that triggered this endless debate again is South Korea’s decision to shut down the activities of a foundation funded by Japan. A big number of people from South Korea consider that Japan didn’t pay enough for the horrors done during its occupation of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945. On the other hand, Japan considers that South Korea overreacts and it is not capable to respect an internationally recognized agreement.

Comfort women forced into prostitution

“Comfort women” is the translation of the Japanese word  “ianfu” (慰安婦), which means “prostitute”. The exact number of the women who were forced to become prostitutes is not known and this topic is still debated. The majority of the women were coming from the occupied countries, including China, Korea, Taiwan and Philippines. History shows that there were a lot of kidnapped girls who were forced to work in different brothels, called “comfort stations”. These locations’ purpose was to provide sex for the Japanese army that invaded and occupied Asian countries from the early 1930s until the end of World War II.

According to different wartime documents, Japan’s army supervised the brothels, setting the prices, the schedule and the hygiene norms. The main purpose of these “comfort stations” was to prevent soldiers from raping women and triggering an anti-Japan movement. Another reason was that the officials wanted to prevent venereal diseases to be transmitted. The historians say that some of those prostitutes were professionals and they came from the poor Japanese areas. The women from South Korea were deceived by some people who recruited them, saying that they will work in factories.

Japan’s point of view

The Japanese government has denied North Korea’s accusations and they refused to use the term “sex slave” in the official documents. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared that it is not an official record that can prove  the wartime government’s systematic use of coercion. Shinzo Abe considers that all the South Korean women who worked in the “comfort stations” were professional prostitutes. The Japanese government considers that mass-media plays an important role in this intense debate. This argument seems to become more intense and nobody wants to make a step backwards.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

The victims’ demands

The victims of these atrocities have demanded compensations and apologies from the Japanese government. In 1995, Japan has founded the “Asian Women’s Fund” with the purpose to finance different compensatory projects for the victims. Through this fund, there were paid $44.2 millions for welfare projects and for medical purposes. These projects were implemented across Asia, including South Korea. Nevertheless, many people from South Korea rejected the fund because they wanted to receive official apologies. The historians have estimated that the total number of victims was somewhere between 20,000 and 200,000. There were 240 South Korean women who declared they were forced to work in brothels during World War II. Unfortunately, only 27 of them are currently alive.

A lot of activists consider that the Japanese funds are humiliating for the victims’ dignity. In Seoul, in front of the Japanese Embassy there is a statue of a girl, who represents the victims of the sexual slavery. The Japanese officials expressed their indignation because South Korea didn’t relocate the statue, considering it an act of disrespect.


Unfortunately, the problem about the sexual slavery is not the only one these two countries have. Another issue which creates controversy is connected to a Japanese steelmaker that should compensate four people from South Korea for forced labor. All those issues between Tokyo and Seoul have complicated Washington’s struggle to strengthen trilateral cooperation in order to face North Korea’s nuclear threat. The sociologists consider that both South Korea and Japan should find a solution in order to mediate these diplomatic disputes. John Delury, who is an associate professor at Yonsei University in Seoul declared that history had created a lot of wounds and it is hard to heal them.


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