'Comfort Women': The Past and Present of Japan's Forced WWII Prostitutes

This statue in Seoul represents the challenges of wartime sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
This statue in Seoul represents the challenges of wartime sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

In 1936, a 17-year-old Korean girl named Hwang So-gun accepted an offer for a factory job, leaving her impoverished family to head to China. But when she arrived, she faced a horrifying fact — she had been coerced into sex slavery. Unfortunately, this story wasn't uncommon for a lot of women during World War II, as hosts Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin explain in this episode of Stuff Mom Never Told You. (Click the player on this page to listen to the full podcast.)

From 1932–1945, somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 "comfort women" — a euphemistic and controversial term — were forced to work as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers. Recently, debate and diplomatic tension flared over a statue memorializing the history of "comfort women" erected outside the Japanese Consulate in Busan, South Korea. Decades after the end of the war, survivors and their allies continue to fight for the recognition of the thousands of Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Dutch and Taiwanese women who endured harsh living conditions. As Cristen points out in the episode, shame of the events has slowed progress on acknowledgement and reparations for the affected.

Recruiters lured women into sex slavery by promising them well-paying jobs and better lives, as described in more detail in the podcast. And as if this bait-and-switch weren't deceptive enough, the environment at the so-called "comfort stations," or state-sanctioned brothels, was hostile. The women often lived behind barbed wire, had no free time and were provided health care only for sexually transmitted diseases. Even with regulations on aspects like payment, hours of service and hygiene, working conditions were still terrible. "Women were objects," Caroline says. "They were nothing but military rations."

As an issue so tied to racism, classism and rape, the subject of comfort women has been a sensitive point for the Japanese and South Korean governments. But it's not one limited to World War II, or even the past. It's important to realize that forced prostitution happens during wartime all over the world, Cristen notes. The treatment of comfort women — being disbelieved, turned away by family and forced to live in silence — is the struggle of all survivors of sexual assault. "We can't let the history of what happened to them die," Cristen says.

For a deep dive on wartime prostitution, check out this episode of SMNTY. And to hear Cristen and Caroline explore more feminist topics, subscribe via iTunes or your favorite podcast app.