In recent years, the conventional wisdom about “comfort women” – promoted by NGOs, inscribed on the bases of memorial statues raised globally and regurgitated in international media – has become established: There were 200,000 of them, they were mainly Korean and they suffered as sex slaves of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) during the Pacific War.

The politicization of the comfort women – the euphemism used by the IJA to describe military brothel sex workers – has become perhaps the prickliest issue in the endless spats between Seoul and Tokyo over history, historical interpretations and related issues of compensation and apologies.

But according to Ikuhiko Hata – whose Japanese book on Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone appeared, expanded and updated in English in 2018 – the conventional wisdom is flawed for multiple reasons.

The nuanced truth

Hata, a professor emeritus at Nihon University in Tokyo and a former researcher at Harvard and Princeton in the United States, is one of Japan’s leading historians and a winner of the prestigious Seiron and Kikuchi Kan prizes. He is no nationalist. Like any good historian, Hata’s professional commitments take precedence.

In a high-profile case, Hata took retired Japanese Air Self-Defense Force general Toshio Tamogami to task over the latter’s revisionist 2008 essay on World War II. “Even a high school student,” could point out Tamogami’s mistakes, Hata scolded.

Hata made clear that Japan was, contrary to the former general’s assertions, responsible for the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo and the invasion of China in 1937.

“I have been criticized from inside Japan and from overseas from every conceivable angle. Some say I am too leftist, others that I am too far to the right,” Hata told Asia Times. Though he accepted that the comfort women issue is a contemporary as well as historical issue, he denied any political agenda: “The historian’s allegiance is to facts, and nothing else,” he said.

His research took him to archives in Japan and the United States. He conducted interviews across Japan and South Korea, included testimonials of comfort women of all nationalities and pored through wartime diaries, mostly unpublished. To broaden his research, he also studied the history of sex in war.

Having researched the women’s background, their journeys from their homes to the comfort stations across Japan’s far-flung colonies and battlefields and how the Japanese bureaucracy and military interacted with the recruitment and management of comfort women, he said he has no particular message.

“If there is a message to the book,” he said, “it’s that the truth is complicated.”

One of the leading experts on Japan’s role in World War II, historian Ikuhiko Hata, questions much of the conventional narrative surrounding comfort women. Photo: Jason Morgan

The real number?

Hata is convinced that the real numbers of comfort women is about one-tenth of the most widely repeated number. Hata estimates “between 20,000 and 40,000 comfort women … probably closer to 20,000.”

He used multiple metrics to reach the figure.

“For example, I calculated by number of prophylactics distributed to Japanese troops, by number of comfort stations, by amount of disinfectant provided to the women, by typical client numbers for prostitutes in licensed and unlicensed brothels in Japan and throughout East Asia, by comfort women pay, by the average soldier’s disposable income, by the availability of facilities for sheltering and protecting the comfort women, by standard length of comfort woman contract and standard turnover rate, and by other metrics – whatever could possibly shed some light on how many comfort women there were,” he said.

Nor were the majority of the comfort women Koreans, Hata discovered.

“Many were Korean, but most were Japanese,” he said. “The troops preferred Japanese women, and there was already a well-developed system of licensed prostitution in place in Japan, so it was easy to arrange for Japanese prostitutes to relocate to Manchuria or China, where the pay was much better.”

He noted that some Japanese women at the time considered the work “patriotic.” “This may sound bizarre today, but at the time this was the way many people thought,” he said.

Despite widespread claims that Japan attempted to cover up the institution of comfort women during the Pacific War, a Christian-founded rehabilitation village, Kanita Women’s Village, was established in Tateyama, Chiba Prefecture, in 1965. An official memorial to the comfort women was raised there in 1986.

A resident of the village – Mihara Yoshie, also known as Shirota Suzuko – was the first comfort woman to publicly broadcast her experiences, on a radio show in 1986. Mihara’s pronouncement predates what is usually reported as the first public appearance by a comfort woman – by South Korean Kim Hak-sun, in 1991.

Abduction allegations

Most allegations that Japanese troops kidnapped women for the comfort stations are untrue, Hata added.

“Korea was simply not a theater of war. All the laws of Japan applied in Korea because Korea at the time was Japan,” he said. “If kidnapping was illegal on the home islands – which of course it was – then it was illegal on the Korean peninsula, and anyone who tried it would have faced severe penalties.”

He also made clear that abduction of local girls by foreign troops would have ignited local resistance. “The idea that local villagers would do nothing while daughters and wives were kidnapped is highly offensive to the Koreans I have met and asked about [Seiji] Yoshida’s allegations of kidnapping,” he said.

Seiji Yoshida, in two books, claimed to have been part of an IJA unit on Jeju Island, off the southern coast of Korea, which kidnapped women for comfort stations – allegations that were given widespread publicity via the authoritative Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Hata traveled to Jeju but could find no corroborating evidence. A Jeju-based journalist even grew angry when Hata tried to interview her about Yoshida’s claims, wondering why someone from Japan was telling such humiliating lies about Koreans doing nothing while young women were kidnapped.

Hata also interviewed Yoshida. Yoshida, a member of the Japanese Communist Party, would eventually admit that his claims were fiction and in 2015, the Asahi officially retracted the many related articles it had written in previous years.

However, the belief that IJA units conducted kidnapping operations stuck. Yoshida was widely cited in comfort women histories that remain in print, in a UN report and in Korean newspapers as recently as 2012.

Still, Hata conceded that the IJA did carry out abductions in a small number of “isolated criminal cases.” These took place “in the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies [today, Indonesia] which had become newly occupied territories where, unfortunately, women were seen as kinds of POWs,” he said.

Hata’s detailed research into the comfort women was updated and republished in English in 2018.

Slaves or contract workers?

Their description as “slaves” is also problematic, Hata found.

“The comfort women mainly worked at comfort stations run by private citizens. They were recruited by brokers and had fixed-term contracts,” Hata said. “I found examples in military records and in diaries of women being encouraged by Japanese officers to finish their contracts and return to their hometowns.”

Some comfort women made considerable sums – a few were even paid more than Japanese generals. “Bankbook and bank transfer records prove that the comfort women wired money home to their families to buy homes or start businesses,” Hata noted. “Many comfort women bought luxurious goods and were the envy of other women attached to the military, such as nurses.”

This, however, does not mean all were there voluntarily, that the system was not exploitative of women or that the work was not sordid.

“As for being held against their will, that varied by woman and by circumstance. Many women were at comfort stations voluntarily as a way to make money, but this doesn’t mean that those women would have chosen such work if their lives at home hadn’t been so hard,” Hata said.

“Poverty and famine were very bad in Korea and Japan and elsewhere at the time, and daughters of farm families often had no choice but to go with a broker when her father sold her. So, when we talk about free will, we have to take into account the range of choices available to women. In a lot of cases, the range of choices was severely limited.”

Still, Hata said ‘slave’ is the wrong word to describe women who had contracts, received relatively good pay – a commission of what soldiers paid – and, unlike soldiers, could go back to their hometowns after a year or two, even though the war was still continuing.”

Brothel management

Who recruited comfort women and managed the brothels?

“It was mainly local brokers … in Korea, Japan, China and elsewhere,” Hata said. “Local brokers spoke the local language and had the contacts … even though there was a war going on, there was still law and order in places apart from the front. You couldn’t just walk into a village and kidnap people.”

The comfort stations operated on different models, mainly run by local entrepreneurs. “There are examples of some operators transporting dozens of women at the operators’ own expenses to a comfort station in Manchuria or China,” he said. “It was a business done for profit and to fulfill a need. This is not a pleasant fact – but it is true.”

Although the IJA were the sole customers of the brothels, the military was “mainly hands off” in management, according to Hata.

“Sometimes garrison troops would set up a temporary room for when one or two comfort women would arrive for a day,” he found, and military police ensured order, “but the military was not in charge of running the comfort stations, in most cases.”

And they were no secret. “The Japanese military knew that the comfort stations were operating and benefitted from them,” he said. Japanese commanders – like US and European officers – sought to reduce venereal disease and ensure security in brothels their men patronized.

The stations did not end with World War II. Systems of prostitution catering to US troops were established under official auspices in Japan and South Korea. The latter system – set up during and after the Korean War – might even have been worse, he suggested, due to the absence of contracts.

“Working as a comfort woman during World War II was a terrible thing,” he said. “Working as a comfort woman through the Korean War and during the American occupation may have been even worse because there’s no time limit, unlike in the 1940s.”

Given how emotive and humiliating the issue has become for Japan in the international space in recent decades, should Japan feel uniquely ashamed of the comfort women legacy?

“Japan should not be proud of such things – no country should,” Hata stated. “But Japan also should not be singled out as uniquely villainous. Making arrangements for soldiers to have access to women during wartime is, sadly, one of the perennial aspects of war.”