Comfort Women, Sex Slaves, or Contracted Prostitutes?: The unresolved “wianbu” issue of Japan and South Korea

During World War II, Japan was the most powerful agent in the Asian-Pacific region and most of the Asian countries were under the rule of Imperial Japan including the Korean Peninsula. Following the failure of Japan in the War, war atrocities committed by Imperial Japan were brought to the agenda by different countries but mainly by the Asian countries which were once occupied, annexed, or colonized by Japan. The issue of comfort women, also known as “wianbu” (위안부) or “ianfu” (慰安婦), has been one of the most controversial topics of all time, among other war crimes.

The term “comfort women” has been used to characterize young girls or women who were taken to have sexual intercourse with the Imperial Japanese Military officers in comfort stations. Those girls were mostly from certain Asian countries such as Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaya (Tanaka, 1999). This issue has been undercover till some of the victims of this alleged sexual enslavement came out and shared their testimonies publicly. Since then, these victims expected a formal apology from the Japanese Government, and controversy continued to take place as the approach of Japan to this issue changed over time by different governments taking office.

The article called “Contracting for sex in the Pacific War” written by a Harvard University professor, J. Mark Ramseyer (2021), has been criticized by many, since he claims that comfort women were not sex slaves, but they were employed of their own free will, as prostitutes. In this paper, I will be analyzing this article and addressing some other articles written as a critic for Ramseyer’s paper. 

Firstly, the paper mentions the comfort women issue, as if there is undeniable or unquestionable evidence that those women chose to work in brothels to earn more money compared to other occupations they could do, and they were not forced by the military or the government to work there. But he does not actually share any factual or historical evidence to support his claims. He states that Korean comfort women signed contracts with local brokers in the past and he even shares the exact income amounts of Korean prostitutes, however, the contracts that he uses to make these claims belong to prostitutes who worked in the pre-war period which could not be used as a basis to claim that comfort women were employed as prostitutes. Upon the tracking of these contracts by several scholars and their reports about not being able to reach any contracts belonging to Korean comfort women, Ramseyer eventually admitted to Jeannie Suk Gersen (2021), a fellow Harvard Law School professor, that he did not have any contracts belong to Korean comfort women. 

And the author also claims that the prostitutes were expecting to be paid higher and earn more to compensate their infamous reputations, but he also claims that most of the Korean comfort women were not even aware of the occupation that they are going to perform overseas because they were tricked by their parents and their recruiters. These two statements sound contradictory. Additionally, the term “comfort women” is indeed extremely vague and ambiguous that Gersen (2021) also mentions that most Korean girls did not have any idea what would comfort women do since the Korean word used for this term is similarly vague.

The author basically structured his article and arguments based on game theory and he assesses being a comfort woman through advantages and disadvantages in terms of income or reputation. However, the examples he gave throughout the article and the indirect justification of the comfort women phenomenon are disturbing and received criticization from many scholars. As reported by Jeannie Suk Gersen (2021) in her response article to this paper, even an economics professor who teaches game theory, Michael Chwe, states that “game-theory does not provide some magical cover for the article’s reckless claims”. And additionally, since he structured, his article based on game theory and mentioned the potential gains of prostitutes by choosing to work in brothels, it is quite a mystery to me that how 14-15 years old girls could calculate these benefits and leave their families behind to serve Japanese military intensively in a war zone, risking their incomes or even their lives.

In addition to all these, terms used throughout the article could be found biased. Even the title and the keywords include words such as “prostitution”, “indentured servitude”, “contracting” but not “comfort women”, “sex slavery” or “war crimes”. The author prefers to use the word “brothel” instead of “comfort station” and this makes readers think that he has real evidence that comfort women were paid workers and they chose to perform this job. Personally, I do not even find the terms “comfort women” or “comfort station” proper. These words and referring to this act as “comforting” make this atrocity sound more acceptable. They help to justify and normalize the act of sexual slavery. We can even compare it to the use of the term “ethnic cleansing” instead of “genocide”. It could be stated that such terminology is a direct example of hedging language. For this reason, using the terms such as sexual enslavement or sex slaves is more direct and appropriate in my opinion. Tanaka (1999) also touches on this issue by calling these terms “official euphemisms” and he also states that “rape camps” would be a more appropriate term instead of comfort stations, just like in the case of the Bosnian Genocide.

The author claims in one paragraph that the Japanese Government or the military did not kidnap or convince young girls, but they employed women who were already in the prostitution sector. But in a different paragraph, he says that the Japanese military did not need more prostitutes, but it needed healthy ones to prevent the spread of venereal diseases and that was the underlying reason to prefer these girls for comfort stations. Then how come “the already in the sector Korean prostitutes” could be the healthy addition to the Japanese group of prostitutes? Claiming that the prostitutes were hired only if they were licensed or already in the sector and saying that most of the girls were tricked and they were actually promised to be hired at factories suggest that they didn’t have a license at all and they did not know the true nature of being a comfort woman.

What Ramseyer forgets or disregards when claiming that comfort women either worked as paid employees of their own will or they were tricked by their parents or local recruiters, is that the Japanese Government has already acknowledged and apologized upon comfort women issue in 1993 through Kono Statement. Below is an unofficial translation of one part of this statement.

The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. The recruitment of comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.”

In the following parts of his statement, the then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologizes for the pains of comfort women and states that Japan should face historical facts rather than evading them which shows us that the forced recruitment of comfort women by Japan has been already acknowledged by the Japanese Government.

The article also justifies the main reasons for the establishment of comfort stations and recruitment of comfort women for these places by claiming that the Japanese Government wanted to prevent further rapes of local women and the spread of venereal diseases as if it was the right thing to do for the common good. However, even these objectives could be regarded as in favor of Japan but not the local people of the occupied lands. In his introduction to the book “Comfort woman a Filipina’s story of prostitution and slavery under the Japanese military” by Maria Rosa Henson (1999), Yuki Tanaka claims that the reason why they wanted to prevent rapes of local women by the Japanese military is not that they cared about local women, but they did not want to “arouse the antagonism of civilians toward their conquerors in the occupied territories”. And the reason behind the precautions against venereal diseases is that the military did not want to bring diseases way back home to Japan. Also, they did not prefer brothels with prostitutes because they were concerned about potential spies but with the comfort stations, they could have “recruited” and controlled comfort women all day.

Information on the age of sex slaves and their daily routines in the article also contradicts the testimonies of sexual slavery victims and the historical consensus. In her interview with Asian Boss (2018), a former comfort woman Kim Bok-Dong who was only 14 when she was forced to work at a comfort station tells her story:

Even though we didn’t want to go, they forced us. When I asked my mom where I was going, she told me that because of WWII, I was going to a factory that made soldiers’ uniforms. Because they were short-staffed, they apparently needed more young women. They also promised my mom that I’d return once I was old enough to marry.  So, they said I had no reason not to go… If I have said no, we would’ve lost everything, and gotten exiled from Korea. That’s how they blackmailed us. If the Japanese had confiscated all our possessions, how was our family supposed to live? I figured if I’m working at a factory, at least I won’t die”.

A Japanese soldier posing with Korean comfort women on Sept. 7, 1944 (the Seoul City government and the Seoul National University (SNU) Human Rights Center) (Hankyoreh, 2018)

Ramseyer states that prostitutes served a mean of 2.54 customers every day before the war, and he uses contracts and working conditions of pre-war prostitutes as a reference point most of the time. However, Kim Bok-Dong’s claims (2018) make it impossible to compare those prostitutes’ conditions with comfort women.

“I’d start from noon till 6 PM on Saturdays. They stood in queues. If there’s a delay, the guy next in the line starts banging on the door. Just one after the other. I did it so many times a day that I lost count. By 5 PM, I couldn’t even get up. I couldn’t walk properly… At the end of the day, the medics would come to treat the areas on our bodies that needed it. They injected us and told us to take medicine…”

Also, a recently released footage by Seoul National University provided evidence that Korean Comfort women were massacred in China by Japanese forces and this strengthened the claims regarding the existence and massacre of sex slaves in WWII (Nam, 2018). This kind of footage and other historical evidence in addition to the testimonies of the last comfort women who are still alive, function as very important means to comprehend the potential extents of alleged war crimes and atrocities of WWII on the Japanese side. 

According to the victims’ testimonies, young girls and women experienced very traumatizing incidents by being forced to leave their homes and serve as sex slaves contradicting the claims made by Ramseyer. His claims suggesting that comfort women chose to serve the Japanese military because they could earn money and they had decent working conditions are remained unproven and lacking historical evidence. What former comfort women shared with us could be nothing but very brutal examples of systematic human rights violations. We hope that more research and investigation will be conducted on this issue to uncover the reality behind comfort women and to establish a stronger historical consensus.

Anakız Elif Şentürk



 Ramseyer, J. M. (2021). Contracting for sex in the Pacific War. International Review of Law and Economics65.

Gersen J. S. (2021). Seeking the True Story of the Comfort Women: How a Harvard Professor’s Dubious Scholarship Reignited a History of Mistrust between South Korea and Japan. The Asia-Pacific Journal, 19(5).

Tanaka, Y. & Henson, M. R. (1999). Comfort Woman: A Filipina’s Story of Prostitution and Slavery under the Japanese Military. Rowman & Littlefield.

Nam, E. J. (2018, February 28). Video evidence surfaces showing Korean comfort women were massacred by Japanese military. Hankyoreh. (05.03.2021).

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (2015). Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono
on the result of the study on the issue of “comfort women”. (06.05.2021).

Feliview (2016, February 03). Park-Yuha, “Jegug-ui wianbu”.

Asian Boss (2018, Oct. 28). Life as A “Comfort Woman”: Story of Kim Bok-Dong | Stay Curious #9. (02.05.2021). (02.05.2021)

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