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Japan's Comfort Women

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Japan's Comfort Women
Sexual Slavery and Prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation

by Yuki Tanaka. (London, Routledge: 2002. Illustrated, Pg. 212.) ISBN: 0-415-19401-6.

Reviewed by Anna Dogole - July 21, 2002

During World War II, many atrocities occurred and no nation escaped untarnished. Many of these crimes are well known. Others have faded into the background - in some cases simply because no one cared, and in others because those that suffered were too ashamed of what had been done to them to tell their story. One such atrocity was the enforced sexual slavery of an untold number of women. During World War II, and continuing under the US Occupation of Japan, the Japanese forced, or tricked, women from a variety of countries into forced prostitution. Their job, to service the sexual desires of Japanese soldiers.

In Japan's Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the US Occupation Yuki Tanaka takes an honest and in-depth look at the history of Japan's Comfort Women. Tanaka delves into the circumstances that caused the Army to begin to use Comfort Women - including wanting to increase the moral of the men, to maintain army discipline, to prevent the wholesale rape of the women in overrun communities, and as a means of preventing the spread of VD and other sexually transmitted diseases. The Japanese Navy also had their own 'form' of comfort women, euphemistically called special staff. As Tanaka points out, at first the army used professional prostitutes, but as the 'need' increased, they found that professionals could not longer meet the demand. To fill this gap, ordinary women, and even young girls, where forcefully taken, or tricked, into becoming an inmate at a comfort station.

In this monumental work, Tanaka describes the various types of comfort stations that existed during the war, the duties the women were forced to perform - and the punishments if they did not obey. Tanaka also describes who the comfort women were. While many were from Korea (a Japanese colony at the time), the Japanese also forced women from just about every country they entered to serve as sexual slaves. Into the mix were also found numerous Western women captured by the Japanese. However, in each area, the Japanese tailored their 'recruitment' methods to maximum advantage - including bargaining for the women, i.e., give us so many women and your village will be spared...

The comfort women suffered much more than physical abuse and rape. They also faced the prospect of forced abortions, venereal disease, and worse - shame. To make matter worse, after the war many of these women where unable to return home due to lack of funds, others because they did not want to shame their families by returning 'tarnished' even through no fault of their own. Many of these women kept their horrid secret for decades, and it is only recently that a number of women have begun to speak out about what happened to them.

Tanaka has done much to unbiasedly tell the story of the comfort women, and the culpability that other nations had in fostering, even sanctioning, the continuation of the slavery of many women - even after the war ended. Perhaps the most controversial topic covered in this book is the information concerning the prosecutions that followed the war. When it came to the enslavement of Asian comfort women, the allies, namely the US, looked the other way. However, when they discovered a Western, i.e., white women, had been thus abused, they went after the offenders with every means at their disposal. This indifference to the plight of the Asian comfort women was perhaps as insidious as the abuse of their bodies had been, for it told them in clear and uncertain terms that they did not matter! It is little wonder that so many of these women bore their secret in silence and shame.

In this work, Tanaka does not simply list the various crimes committed against the women, but also how the activities they were forced to endure affected them - both at the time and in years since. He also details the available scholarship on the subject, and attitudes in Japan, during the war and today, regarding the subject of comfort women. A monumental work of scholarship, Japan's Comfort Women includes a comprehensive list of end notes.

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