Setting the Record Straight: Comfort Women and Compensation

The comfort woman system did exist during the World War II. It was built by the Imperial Japanese Army to prevent sexual crimes, STDs, and spying. The similar system was adopted and operated by the South Korean Military Force during the Korea War and the Vietnam War for own soldiers as well as soldiers of allied nations.

But the comfort woman system was not the invention of the Japanese military. As Professor Park Yu-ha of Sejong University points out, the comfort women system was a systematization of the commercial prostitution system which already existed at the time. Prof. Park stresses that comfort stations took various forms depending on location and time built.

By the same token, there were a variety of women working to serve soldiers. Prof. Park contends that only Japanese women, along with Korean and Taiwanese women who were Japanese at that time and served with a sense of patriotism, should be referred to as “comfort women.” Apart from these women, there were women at ordinary prostitution facilities also engaged in sex work, but not exclusively for the “comfort” of the Japanese military.

Women in prostitution were socially weak and vulnerable in general. Some were sold by their parents or deceived by vicious brokers and susceptible to exploitations even if they earned some money under their contracts. Prof. Park argues that Japan’s responsibility for Korean comfort women should be accounted for in its annexation of the Korean Peninsula, which became a source for comfort women. This accounting should be undertaken from a moral standpoint. Conversely, the forcible abduction of women off the streets and from normal households by military forces was hardly plausible, and so there is no need for the Japanese government to apologize for something that did not happen. In other words, the moral reckoning must be grounded in remorse for real actions, and not subsumed to political calculations.

Probably the most famous figure brought up as a symbolic victim of the comfort women system is Ms. Jan Ruff-O’Herne who was subjected to a gruesome war crime in Indonesia during World War II. Where do women like Ms. Ruff-O’Herne fit into the whole picture of the comfort women argument?

Prof. Park says that the Dutch women such as Ruff-O’Herne, who were forced to provide sex to soldiers, were not comfort women but clearly victims of crimes. The criminal perpetrators were punished as individuals. It is important to clarify this, because it shows, among other things, that the Japanese military, contrary to much of what is now said about the imperial forces, was the first advocate for the safety of the comfort women.

Ms Ruff-O’Herne was a victim of a dreadful crime known as the “Semarang Incident” (February 1944), which took place in Indonesia, a colony ruled by the Dutch for 300 years. The Semarang Incident saw the rape and forcible detention of 35 Dutch women by a small group of Japanese Army soldiers and prostitute-brokers.

These soldiers and prostitute-brokers violated the strict moral guidelines issued by the administrative office of the 16th regiment of the Japanese Army in Djakarta, Indonesia. They forcibly removed the 35 women, aged 17 to 28, from three Dutch internment camps, confining them in four brothels in Semarang. The soldiers and brokers then raped the women repeatedly, holding them at length against their will.

During Colonel Kaoru Odajima’s inspection of the Dutch internment camps, a leader of the Dutch detainees (whose own daughter had been among the abductees) reported coerced human mobilization of Dutch women from camps by some Japanese Army officers and prostitute-brokers. Upon receiving the Dutch leader’s information, Col. Odajima ordered the 16th Army regiment headquarters to immediately release all the abducted Dutch women. Col. Odajima also ordered the closure of the four brothels in Semarang.

The eleven perpetrators (soldiers, prostitute-brokers, and brothel-operators) were court-martialed. After the war, the offenders were classified as B and C war criminals during the Batavia War Crimes Temporary Tribunal in 1948. They were found guilty and sentenced. Major Keiji Okada, believed to be responsible for the entire incident, was executed, and the others were imprisoned.

Furthermore, Army Colonel Asao Ōkubo, who was believed to be the ringleader of the group, was returned to Japan at the end of WWII. He committed suicide, fearing he would be summoned by the Batavia War Crimes Temporary Tribunal before it was dissolved. Eventually, 25 out of the 35 abducted Dutch women were officially recognized as victims of coercive human mobilization and rape by the Japanese Army soldiers and prostitute-brokers.

According to the 1994 report by the Dutch government, there were about 200-300 Dutch women working in brothels in Indonesia during WWII, of which at least 65 were said to be victims of forced prostitution. The others were sex workers.

This issue has been resolved between the Netherlands and Japan. The Dutch government officially acknowledged its absolute closure. The Japanese government established the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995 with about $ 4.5 million in order to compensate the victims of these crimes. By 2001, reparations to the Dutch victims had been paid in full, and the cases were closed.

Many people criticized the fund due to its being private, and not official. In fact, the fund was supported by the Japanese government with a fiscal injection, but it remained de jure private for the simple fact that all war-related compensation was completed upon the execution of the Peace Treaty in 1952. Many Japanese individuals donated to the fund in order to express their sympathy for what the women suffered in the war. The record of the Asian Women Fund shows that 79 Dutch women received goods and services valued at an average of approximately 50,000 guilders (3 million yen) per person, along with an apology letter from then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.  Ms Ruff-O’Herne refused to receive them at her own will.

Unfortunately, the comfort women issue—which should be about rendering justice to those who suffered—is no longer about the women themselves. Anti-Japan political activists in East Asia and elsewhere with connections to North Korea and the Chinese Communist Party are now exploiting the comfort women issue for their own ends.

As Prof. Park Yu-ha recommends, Japan must make amends for things that actually happened in the past. The record shows that Japan has done this, time and time again. While communist forces attempt to turn the comfort women history into the comfort women political issue, we must refuse to be embroiled in political sidetracking. Justice demands no less.

Tetsuhide Yamaoka
The Institute of Moralogy

Korean Comfort Women arrested and interviewed by US soldiers in Burma,1944
Source: The National Archives of the United States

Professor Park Yu-ha
Source: The Asahi Shimbun

Ms.Jan O’Herne
Source:ABC News