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

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

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Misaka’s experiences shed light on the inner thoughts, doubts, worries, or concerns of young women at the front lines—a contrast to those of many Korean survivors who (for good reason) focus on their physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Misaka’s tale is further complemented with interviews conducted by journalist Hirota Kazuko, which provides additional details (and raises further questions) about Japanese so-called “comfort women”. Kikumaru, one survivor that Hirota interviewed and whose experiences are translated in part below, recalled that her life on the island of Truk in the South Pacific was the happiest time of her life. [14] Much to Hirota’s surprise, this view was not in any way unique after interviewing other Japanese survivors. Knowing now about the tens of thousands of women kidnapped or forcibly recruited from Korea, China, and elsewhere, it is equally surprising for us to learn that Kikumaru and other women that Hirota interviewed confessed to having volunteered for service—drawn by the salary offered and a sense of adventure that living overseas might bring.

As we see in the selections below, Kikumaru describes clear distinctions between different grades of Japanese so-called “comfort women”. Women like Kikumaru who exclusively served officers were granted special status and privileges; other Japanese women described elsewhere in Hirota’s collection served enlisted soldiers. If the chapter from Misaka’s memoir sheds some light into the minds of young Japanese women stationed at the front lines, Kikumaru’s testimony helps paint a picture of daily life and occurrences that a so-called “comfort woman” in a position of privilege might have experienced—experiences that are rarely mentioned in any significant detail by non-Japanese women. It is also interesting to note at the end how Kikumaru is attentive to the negative (or even corrupting) influence of Japanese on the island’s native population. While we come away with a sense that, for Kikumaru at least, life was fairly carefree, we should be cautious of drawing far-reaching conclusions from her story. Importantly, she herself is forthright in admitting that her time on Truk was peaceful and avoided the later period of the war, where Japan saw brutal island-to-island combat against advancing Allied forces.

The selection below sees commentary by Hirota, the editor, along with testimony by Kikumaru herself. I have indicated the speakers below for clarity.

Selections from Hirota Kazuko, Shōgen kiroku jūgun ianfu kangofu (Tokyo: Shin Jinbutsu Ōraisha, 1975), 35-42 passim.

“Shikanyō ianfu to ippan heitaiyō ianfu [Comfort Women for Officers and Comfort Women for Enlisted Soldiers”

Hirota: Kikumaru’s memories of her life on Truk were seemingly “nothing but fun.” While collecting material on her life for this book, Kikumaru told me that “up until today, the most fun and enjoyable time of my life was on Truk.” My own impression of the kind of work that “comfort women” were involved in was much darker than what Kikumaru told me, and her story was an unexpected and honest account of her experiences.

Kikumaru: Because the sun on Truk was so strong, walking outside during the day meant getting terrible sunburns. If that happened, [military] headquarters [on the island] would complain. To avoid this, they told us to only go outside if we used a parasol. We didn’t have any—that’s the military for you—but it was fortunate that a passing destroyer [that was visiting Truk] offloaded 30 of them for us. We [parasol-toting] comfort women were only for the officers’ use. Once a week we had medical examinations at the hospital, and a universal distinction between comfort women designated for officers and those designated for enlisted soldiers was whether or not you showed up at the exam with a parasol.

When we wore out our geta, we begged officers returning to Japan to bring a few pairs back with them. One could purchase them in villages [on Truk], but the pairs were mismatched and didn’t fit right. This was because the geta had been salvaged from sunken transport ships and laid out in front of the store [to dry out, where the wooden geta warped as they dried]. Usually we’d look for a matching pair in this mess and purchase them. However, because comfort women designated for officers’ use were often coming and going from the local store [looking or geta and other sundries, headquarters decided to] prohibit us from visiting. This was done to prevent highly classified military secrets leaking out (that were told to us as bedtime stories), or perhaps because there was a danger of war materials being diverted [if these military secrets were leaked to the Allies]. Some Okinawans [living on Truk] managed a delicious jelly shop, and there was a prohibition order pasted outside the restaurant preventing us from visiting there too. We weren’t free [to go where we pleased] even though we were designated for officers. Since none of this could be helped, we asked the old woman who did our cooking to buy us what we needed.

We were able to ask the paymaster for rice cakes, red beans, butter balls, and other treats. From the islanders we traded liquor and tobacco for chicken and bananas wrapped in pineapple leaves that were grilled over hot stones. The particular kind of bananas on Truk, monkey bananas, had an incredibly thin and delicious peel. At first we were able to trade one leaf of tobacco for bananas, but soon that wasn’t enough. Tobacco wasn’t enough—they wanted liquor as well. It was soldiers as well as us who made these rustic islanders come to desire these sorts of things.

Hirota: Kikumaru’s observations naturally gravitated towards details of soldiers.

Kikumaru: There were many kinds of officers, yet it was strange. Those who became nasty drunks would immediately be whipped into shape if I said ‘You fool, you’re an officer.’ They’d then apologize to us. But, if they broke or destroyed a single item in the comfort station, we would write the item and reason down then have them escorted them back to headquarters. It was something like leaving them in the custody of a superior officer. After that they’d be prohibited from entering [the comfort station] again.

* * * * *

Both selections present a number of interesting details to consider. Using testimonies like these, we are able to draw out both the similarities and differences between the cases of Japanese so-called “comfort women” and those of women from Japan’s colonies and occupied territories such as Korea. The accounts by Misaka, Kikumaru, and others provide evidence of the conditions that so-called “comfort women” from Japan experienced—evidence that can be used to compliment and corroborate testimonies by other survivors, especially Korean women. First, Misaka’s story makes clear that wartime propaganda and devotion to the Emperor was not an absolute and universally held belief. Indeed, readers come to terms at the beginning of her memoir with the unyielding pressure from authority figures (school teachers, principal, police, parents) of conforming to the government and military’s wartime policies and propaganda, and that dissent, or mere rumors of dissent in Misaka’s case—could result in severe and unforeseen consequences. This kind of pressure by authority figures is likely the main type of coercion that Japanese women experienced, rather than outright kidnapped or abduction typical amongst Korean women. Therefore, like women from Korea, we see that “recruitment” practices in Japan could also be coercive, as well as politically or ideologically motivated. Furthermore, the kinds of Japanese women who were involved in military prostitution, either coerced or as volunteers, were in terms of class or educational status very similar to Koreans. Both Japanese and Korean women typically hailed from poorer families living in rural parts of their respective countries. Many lacked education beyond primary school: Misaka’s case is unusual in that she was attending high school before being “recruited” and sent to the front.

In the case of Kikumaru, what is not conveyed in the excerpt above is background on her life before volunteering as a so-called “comfort women”. In fact, many of these volunteers who Hirota interviewed had prior experience as lower-class geisha or as prostitutes. In Kikumaru’s case, having already been involved in prostitution as a low-class geisha, she saw Truk as an opportunity to escape her dismal circumstances in Japan. Like many other so-called “comfort women” from Japan and Korea, Kikumaru is sadly representative of many young women who were exploited by their families and relatives. While she almost exclusively served officers in her time on the island, other Japanese women (including Misaka) make clear that they served rank-and-file members of the Japanese military, again like many Koreans. This suggests that ethnicity was not a key determining factor in the rank of soldier women were assigned to serve. Finally, and tragically similar to Korean survivors’ stories (and what the above selection does not reveal), are Kikumaru’s struggles with alcoholism, continued employment as a prostitute during the Occupation Period in Japan, mental illness, and eventual suicide.

As noted above, many Japanese recruits (although not Misaka) had some experience as geisha before becoming so-called “comfort women”. These women were not the glitzy and elegant geisha strolling through the Gion District of Kyoto of today, but rather the exploited and impoverished geisha employed in the “water trade” similar to the life of Masuda Sayo. [15] In the two testimonies transcribed above, and by Japanese (and occasionally Korean) survivors, it is suggested that soldiers sometimes viewed so-called “comfort women” as specialists in entertainment, particularly song and dance. For Misaka, it is only near the end of Ikantai that we see a glimpse of what is perhaps the more common understanding of so-called “comfort women”.

While these and other similarities between Japanese and Korean cases emerge, both these testimonies also throw into sharp relief some of the stark differences between Japanese women and those of colonial/occupied nationals. Perhaps the clearest differences emerge in the treatment of Korean and Japanese women: in how soldiers spoke to and interacted with them, and in the kinds of and scale of sexual violence attested to by survivors. In general, Japanese survivors avoid discussing sexual encounters or assaults by soldiers—a point that marks what might be the clearest and most distinctive contrast compared to accounts of non-Japanese women. Moreover, it appears that Japanese women, regardless of the rank of soldier they were assigned to serve, had a somewhat greater freedom of movement where they were stationed and were subjected to fewer controls by military officials than those women hailing from Japan’s colonies or occupied territories (though, as Kikumaru discussed, there were always some restrictions). Finally, Korean survivors and NGOs have been actively involved in seeking redress and an apology from the Japanese government, including compensation, whereas Japanese survivors have not had any visible public presence or representation seeking similar redress measures from their own government.

We must be careful to never equate or use the memories by some Japanese women to diminish or detract from the horrific experiences that other survivors have attested to: to do so would be a great disservice. Yet, to ignore the experiences of women like Misaka and Kikumaru in narratives of wartime Japan simply because they do not conform to our expectations of what a so-called “comfort woman” was is also a disservice. In short, the experiences of Japanese women like Misaka and Kikumaru present a complementing viewpoint to the majority experiences that Korean, Chinese, and other survivors of enforced military prostitution by the Japanese military.



Erik Ropers is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Towson University. He completed his PhD at the University of Melbourne in 2011. His research focuses on the Japanese historiography of Koreans mobilized during the Asia-Pacific War and how Japanese wartime experiences have been visually and narratively represented in writing, film, and manga.


Additional Primary Source Reading (in English)

  • Ruff O’Herne, Jan. Fifty Years of Silence. Sydney: Editions Tom Thompson, 1994.

  • Henson, Maria Rosa. Comfort Woman: A Filipina’s Story of Prostitution and Slavery Under the Japanese Military. Oxford: Roman and Littlefield, 1999.

  • Howard, Keith, ed. True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women. New York: Cassell, 1995.


[1] Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the result of the study on the issue of ‘comfort women’,” (accessed February 23, 2014).
[2] Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama ‘On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end’ (15 August 1995),” (accessed February 23, 2014).
[3] Tsuda Mamichi, “Hito wo baibai suru koto wo kinsubekigi,” quoted in Takamure Itsue zenshū, vol. 5, “Josei no rekishi” (Tokyo: Rironsha, 1966-1967), 966. In English, see a later essay by Tsuda, “On Destroying Prostitution,” in Meiroku zasshi: Journal of the Japanese Enlightenment, translated with an introduction by William Reynolds Braiste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 517-518. Patessio notes that the absence of women’s voices in debates about prostitution before 1889 is likely due to it having been a “sensitive issue” that could not be discussed in public. See Mara Patessio, Women and Public Life in Early Meiji Japan: The Development of the Feminist Movement (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 131.
[4] The situation was actually more complex. See Sheldon Garon, Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 88-114. Fujime Yuki further explicates the connection between the collapse of the People’s Rights Movement and the abolition movement. See Fujime Yuki, “The Licensed Prostitution System,” 142-145; 153-158. In Japanese, refer to Fujime Yuki, Sei no rekishigaku: kōshō seido, dataizai taisei kara baishun bōshihō, yūsei hogohō taisei e (Tokyo: Fuji Shuppan, 1997).
[5] For example, the 1872 Ordinance Liberating Prostitutes. See Fujime Yuki, “The Licensed Prostitution System,” 137-138, where a more comprehensive list of early Meiji reforms can be found. Details concerning the Maria Luz incident, which factors into these legal changes, can be found in Daniel V. Botsman, “Freedom without Slavery? ‘Coolies,’ Prostitutes, and Outcastes in Meiji Japan’s ‘Emancipation Moment’,” The American Historical Review 116 (2011): 1323-1347.
[6] Garon, Molding Japanese Minds, 93. Prostitution outside of licensed establishments was illegal and subject to arrest. Moreover, prostitutes lacked freedom of movement or the ability in many cases to leave their profession. This would change in 1900 when the Supreme Court overturned contractual provisions that obliged prostitutes to continue their work against their will. Yet in the same stroke, the court upheld provisions requiring the prostitute to repay any debts they had accumulated. Therefore the effect was that while prostitutes (theoretically) had the ability to leave the profession after the 1900 ruling, they could only do so after repaying what amounted in most cases to crippling levels of debt (which would have to be worked off).
[7] C. Sarah Soh, The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 8.
[8] Fujime Yuki, “The Licensed Prostitution System,” 147.
[9] See Song Youn-ok, “Japanese Colonial Rule and State-Managed Prostitution: Korea’s Licensed Prostitutes,” positions: east asia cultures critique 5 (1997): 171-217.
[10] Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women, 10-11; Yoshimi Yoshiaki, Comfort Women, 43-44.
[11] Important medical reasons for the establishment of so-called “comfort stations” also trace back to this expedition. These reasons, refined by the military medical establishment, are best outlined by army medical doctor and gynecologist Asō Tetsuo himself: see Asō Tetsuo, Shanhai yori Shanhai e: Heitan byōin no sanfujinka i (Tokyo: Sekifūsha, 1993), translated into English as From Shanghai to Shanghai: The War Diary of an Imperial Japanese Army Medical Officer 1937-1941 (Norwalk: Eastbridge, 2004). Further details can be found in Asō’s self-published diaries, Rabauru nikki (Fukuoka: Asō Tetsuo, 1975).
[12] Misaka and Tomita use the rather unusual ikantai (慰間隊), lit. “comfort corps” as the title of the chapter.
[13] Imonbukuro (慰問袋), lit. “comfort packages” were care packages sent to soldiers which contained small items such as food, cigarettes, pieces of clothing, etc. These packages were available for purchase at department stores or put together by members of the Dai Nippon Kokubo Fujinkai (Greater Japan National Defense Women’s Association), students, or individual families. Here, it is evident that so-called “comfort women” like Misaka also put together packages for soldiers.
[14] Today, Truk (Chuuk) is one of four states of the Federated States of Micronesia.
[15] Masuda Sayo, Autobiography of a Geisha, G.G. Rowley, ed. and trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).