Life on the Front Lines: Testimonies by Two Japanese 'Comfort Women'

Erik Ropers (Towson University), Assistant Professor (History)

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The issue of enforced military prostitution—the so-called “comfort women” issue—remains one of the most emotionally and politically charged issues stemming from the Asia-Pacific War. Ostensibly, postwar treaties such as the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1953 and the Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965 settled matters of responsibility and compensation arising from Japan’s wartime conduct. Nevertheless, weekly protests have been held outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul since 1992. Although there have been tangible attempts by the Japanese government to address the issue, including research by the Japanese government (culminating with the Kono Statement) [1] and Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi’s apology on the fiftieth anniversary of the Asia-Pacific War’s end in 1995 (the Murayama Danwa), [2] the reinstatement of Abe Shinzō as Prime Minister in December 2012 and the resurgence of the Liberal Democratic Party and its allies at the ballot box since have seen a series of controversial public pronouncements with conservative politicians seeking to revise Japan’s wartime history and its attitude toward survivors. What continues to be undeniable are several hundred testimonies by former so-called “comfort women” and Japanese soldiers which attest to the abhorrent conditions these women were forced to live under.

When situating current debates about enforced military prostitution today in a historical context, it is helpful to first consider how Japanese modernization and reform efforts impacted prostitution during the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Members of the Meiji elite active in parliamentary and legal matters took a significant interest in matters of prostitution and women’s morals due to their real (or imagined) impact on social morals, international relations, and other matters. For instance, opposed to prostitution and the sex trade was Tsuda Mamichi, Meirokusha (Meiji 6 Society) member and legal scholar who trained at Leiden University in the Netherlands and served in the Genrōin (Council of Elders) and the newly established Diet. As early as 1869, Tsuda authored opinions likening the selling of women to that of cattle, noting how it was an outdated custom from a bygone feudal era. In later articles he would more forcefully argue for the outright abolition of prostitution as something fundamentally incompatible with Meiji reform efforts. [3]

Other likeminded groups were opposed to the continuation of licensed prostitution in Japan. These groups are perhaps best discussed with reference to the Prostitution Abolition Movement, which sought to publicly brand women involved in prostitution as “shameful” and advocated for laws meant to render prostitution illegal throughout Japan. Ultimately however, the Prostitution Abolition Movement failed due to significant pushback from the government and businesses, who threw their weight behind the establishment and proliferation of licensed, regulated prostitution and pleasure quarters throughout Japan and its colonies. [4] Over the objections of Tsuda and abolitionist groups, the process of legal change, or perhaps more accurately adapting the existing structures to fit Japan’s program of modernization, began early in the Meiji period and rapidly gathered pace. [5] As other historians investigating prostitution in Japan during this time have shown, the Meiji government (and indeed, governments during the Taishō and Shōwa Periods as well) drew on European ideas and legal codes in formulating these reforms that established a system of licensed, regulated prostitution. For the women themselves, the actual effect that these laws and changes had was often negligible in their daily lives: instead of being treated as property, they became effectively indentured—bound to licensed brothels and keepers and unable to live or work outside the licensed quarters without government or police permission. [6]

Japanese imperialism throughout the Asia-Pacific region is another factor in understanding the origins of the so-called “comfort women”. The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) spurred the growth of licensed pleasure quarters outside of Japan proper, most notably in Korea, where both Korean and Japanese women worked in brothels. [7] After the annexation of Korea in 1910, the establishment of private brothels and the growth of red-light districts tracked the construction of Japanese military bases throughout Japan and its expanding colonial empire. Cities in Japan and colonial administrations abroad quickly sought to take advantage of what they saw as a lucrative business opportunity by taxing and regulating this burgeoning industry. As Fujime Yuki succinctly put it, “cities where military troops were billeted welcomed the additional local tax revenue from red-light districts. New red-light districts were built, old ones expanded, and declining ones resurrected.” [8] Similar efforts by businesses and colonial officials were also seen in Korea. [9] Furthermore, as both Yoshimi Yoshiaki and Yuki Tanaka have shown, Japan’s intervention in the Russian Revolution between 1918 and 1922 also contributed to the Japanese military’s reasoning for establishing a regulated system of so-called “comfort stations”. [10] The impact that sexually transmitted diseases had upon soldiers during this expedition, not to mention the negative consequences for Japan’s reputation after reports of soldiers raping local women appeared in the media, contributed to the military’s logic behind later systematized military prostitution, effectively drawing on earlier hygienic lessons and experiences of licensed prostitution in Japan. [11]

Most histories of enforced military prostitution focus on the experiences and situations of young Korean and Chinese women—women who made up the majority of cases. The redress movement has, with the backing of various non-governmental organizations and activist groups, focused most publicly on the cases of Korean women who were forced into military prostitution. Yet one overlooked group of young so-called “comfort women” traditionally consigned to the footnotes of histories are young Japanese women who volunteered or were themselves coerced into service. Why exactly Japanese so-called “comfort women” do not feature in current research is attributable in part to the comparative scarcity of testimonies. Moreover, since the issue “broke” onto the international stage in 1991 when Kim Hak-sun, a Korean survivor, came forward to publicly testify about her experiences, no Japanese survivors have come forward. Therefore, historians wishing to know more about Japanese cases of military prostitution often rely on secondary sources—scattered widely but visibly—in the memoirs, diaries, and testimonies of Japanese soldiers and nurses, many published before 1991. Problematically, soldiers often rationalize or glorify the Japanese military’s system of exploitation in these works, or speak of their experiences in nostalgic or patriotic terms. Thus, it is useful to turn to the narratives of Japanese women themselves who were coerced or volunteered for service as so-called “comfort women”. In doing so, we can study details beyond that of sexual violence and exploitation by the Japanese military and civilian intermediaries who often handled the day-to-day operations of so-called “comfort stations”.

Japanese survivors were among the first to publish accounts of their wartime experiences starting as early as 1953. Some of the reasons for the publication of these Japanese testimonies are, first, the improving economic and social conditions in post-Occupation Period Japan, which are starkly contrasted against the destruction and political instability in China and Korea, both recovering from the disastrous Asia-Pacific War as well as civil wars. Second, there was a vast domestic market in Japan for diaries and memoirs chronicling the experiences of Japanese, both soldier and civilian, at the front lines and at home. These helped both writer and reader negotiate their place in the postwar Japanese society, allowing people to explore darker aspects of the wartime period that were absent from official sources and the Japanese press. One of the first memoirs published by a so-called Japanese “comfort woman” is that of Misaka Miwako entitled Senjō ianfu [Battlefield Comfort Woman]. Her work appeared a little over twelve months after the end of the Allied Occupation of Japan in 1953. Tomita Kunihiko, who edited the work, interviewed and compiled notes in consultation with Misaka—something common amongst many Japanese and Korean survivors due to limited literacy and lack of experience writing lengthy prose. Misaka’s story of life at the front lines broadly fits into the post-Occupation memoir boom in Japan that saw hundreds of Japanese returning from across the Asia-Pacific writing and publishing their experiences. From it, we can glean insights into these women’s lives, as well as their thoughts on a variety of topics.

This chapter’s narrative takes place not long after Misaka, a high school student, was dragged to a local police station in her hometown. Although privately against the war, she has mostly kept these views to herself; yet, at the police station, Misaka learns that someone close has informed on her. She is questioned by the police and is denounced as an unpatriotic citizen. Facing a trial and possible jail sentence, she is offered a chance to redeem herself and prove her loyalty as a Japanese citizen. Coerced by her teacher and the authorities (all with the tacit acceptance of her family), Misaka agrees to become a so-called “comfort woman” and departs for the front lines: an island somewhere in the Pacific.

The excerpt below, Ikantai, [12] comes shortly after Misaka joins these other Japanese “comfort women” at the front lines. In it we see Misaka, along with four of her colleagues, relaxing and talking. This conversation lays out a wide range of important topics for readers today. The chapter’s focus is on one of Misaka’s colleagues, Furutani, who by all accounts is anxious and troubled with Japan’s war situation and forms the nucleus of the chapter. Furutani comes across to the reader as exceedingly grim and defeatist, all in stark contrast to two of the other young women in the group, who have a near-unfailing belief in Japan’s military and eventual victory. Misaka, whose encounter with the police led to her being coercively recruited as a “comfort woman” is clearly uneasy listening or discussing Japan’s worsening military situation—yet privately appears to agree with the bulk of what Furutani says.

Tomita Kunihiko, ed., Senjō ianfu [Battlefield Comfort Women] (Tokyo: Fuji Shobō, 1953), 72-78.

“It’s okay. I promise not to get angry.”

“That’s right—all of us get along together. You can say anything you want to—we promise not to get angry.”

Furutani was so tense and strained that everyone could see it in her face. She said, “But what I’m about to say must never leave this room. You have to promise me that. Promise you’ll never tell anyone.”

For some reason, I thought she might stop breathing at any moment. If I only expressed a hint of agreement, a nod of my head, Furutani would think I agreed not to tell.

(No, that wasn’t it. If I were to hazard a guess now, Furutani’s worry was different than that.)

I struggled to control my burning cheeks as I stared at Furutani’s face.

“Fine, tell us,” I said.

Furutani looked around.

We couldn’t see anyone’s shadow nearby. Only in the big blue sky were there the glittering, silvery wings of warplanes, flying incessantly around. “You understand, right?” Furutani said.

With that as her opening statement, her conclusions were clear. The important details she wanted to tell us…just didn’t matter.

“Um. Let’s see. What did I want to say?”

“Don’t be so worried,” I said. “Start again from the beginning.”

In any case, the buzzing from the warplanes needed to keep in flight as they practiced low-altitude attacks meant that we couldn’t hear anything at all. Even though we were deceiving ourselves by acting so calm, we didn’t want anyone, no matter what, to hear what we were discussing.

“Well, let’s try again. Um. Could you comfort a soldier?”

Furutani was direct this time.

“What—–? We’re comfort women, aren’t we?” said Kurabashi in a rather disappointed voice.

Of course, the military had organized “comfort women” at the front lines to sing, to dance, and to provide some “comforting” for the troops. Yet, for some reason, Furutani lowered her head.

“No, no, that’s not it.”

“Hun? Why? If soldiers want us to comfort them, it’s unthinkable to do something other than that.”

“Ah, that’s it. You want us to make up and send some comfort packages, right? That must be it,” Komaki said. [13]

“No, no,” Furutani said while laughing and shaking her head.

Everyone kept silent, waiting. Inside our minds we started conjuring up different ideas about what it could be. With that bit of imagined proof, everyone’s faces gradually became red and we began to take short, sharp breaths. I remember that my face was the reddest one amongst us.

Suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, Furutani let everything out in one huge burst.

“There’ve been so many young women who have gone to the front lines.”

After which Kurabashi said, “I guess so, eh?”

After which us five started talking faster and faster.

When three women get together they almost certainly gossip. It’s a rowdy, but, more importantly, a frank discussion between all those involved. Gradually the conversation picked up steam.

“Soldiers get a burst of courage and bravery [after sleeping with us]…that’s the most important point. All the soldiers that I know think that that’s the most important part of our job,” said Furutani in all seriousness.

“I wonder…,” we mused, “I wonder…”

With serious expressions on our faces, everyone turned to stare at Furutani.

“You know, this war really hasn’t turned out to be so simple as many thought it would—it’s actually become a much larger war. If Japan has made only one mistake, it was becoming needlessly rash in its attacks.”

“Who was it…the person who said that?”

“An acquaintance of mine, a first lieutenant,” Furutani said. “He was stationed on the continent, charged with a mission of great importance for the people of Japan.”

“I don’t believe that. Up until now, no matter what kinds of violence the war has seen, Japan’s dreams haven’t been shattered, right?”

“That’s right, Japan is the land of the gods. Aren’t there countless gods enshrined at Shinto shrines across the country?”

“That’s right. What’s more, the gods throughout the country have awoken and risen up—they’ll break the defenses of the opposing armies and destroy them for our people.”

“Exactly,” chimed in the other girls. “Exactly.”

Throughout all this however, only Furutani had a dark but resolved facial expression that wouldn’t go away.

“If it was me, I would want to believe that. But…well…listen to me everyone. This is the age of science, right? If that’s so, we need to totally deny the existence of the gods. If, at the end of it all, the gods don’t awake and rise up like we hope…”

“If that happens, it happens.”

“The only thing left would be the honorable deaths of 100 million…”

“His Honorable Majesty the Emperor, what would happen to him?”

“I wonder…”


As we faced each other, everyone had a serious look on their face.


All of a sudden we heard a terrible explosion. Another formation of planes flew low overhead. Everyone was startled as we looked up at the sky. The silvery wings, skillfully emblazoned with the emblem of the Rising Sun, penetrated everyone’s eyes.

“Please, come home safely.”

Everyone took out and waved their handkerchiefs, grasping them and waving them aloft. The five of us had lowered our heads—and up until then, the uneasiness of the low-hanging storm clouds surrounded us. Our old smiling faces suddenly returned, however, the clouds blown away in that terrific and heroic explosion that we had just heard.

“Don’t lose!”

“His Majesty the Emperor is behind the Great Empire of Japan. There’s no way we can be defeated.”

Dejected, I spoke: “Mr. Soldier. Banzai.”

“Banzai,” said the others.

That said, tears began to trickle out of everyone’s eyes as they cried. I left everyone and returned to my quarters.

In the entranceway was a pair of shoes I had never seen, neatly arranged. A strange sensation suddenly grew over me. Maybe it was a hunch. From those shoes I sensed that a young boy was waiting inside. Of course, just from the shoes I didn’t know for certain who was waiting inside, but I had an idea.

I was right on the money.

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