Remembering the Suffering and Contributions of Korean Women

The candlelight protests that refuse to go out.

By Joseph Essertier, March 12, 2018.

“Qualities characteristic of but not unique to the United States—including common and casual sexual violence and racism—are, through pornography, promoted throughout the world as sex. From American women’s standpoint, the international pornography traffic means that American women are violated and tortured and exploited so that pornography can be made of them, in order that women in the rest of the world can be violated and tortured and exploited through its use. In this way misogyny American style colonizes the world on the social level as obscenity law British style, having colonized the world on the legal level, makes sure nothing is done about it.”

Catharine MacKinnon, Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues (2006)

Three Dirty P’s: Patriarchy, Prostitution, and Pornography

It is hard for anyone to put themselves in the shoes of someone else. This idea is so widely understood that it is a cliché. But it is especially hard for most men to imagine themselves in the situation of a woman. Nevertheless, for anyone who recognizes patriarchy as a problem in the world today, an effort must be made.

Fortunately, some men today are making an attempt to overcome the deceptions of patriarchy. As the feminist bell hooks has written, “To take the inherent positive sexuality of males and turn it into violence is the patriarchal crime that is perpetuated against the male body, a crime that masses of men have yet to possess the strength to report. Men know what is happening. They simply have been taught not to speak the truth of their bodies, the truth of their sexualities” (bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, 2004). Beginning to question prostitution and pornography and challenge the legitimacy of “sex work” is probably part of the process we men must go through, for the sake of women first and foremost but even for the sake of ourselves, boys, and other men. “Feminism is for everybody” goes the title of one of bell hooks’ many books.

Consider the words of a Korean survivor of civilian prostitution:

If you think that prostitution is sex, you are so very ignorant. Having sex with your boyfriend 350 out of 365 days a year sounds exhausting, so how could taking several clients each day every day feel like sex? Prostitution is clear exploitation of underprivileged women. It only seems like a fair exchange because johns [i.e., prostitution buyers] pay for the services. And prostitutes in turn are treated like people who deserve to be assaulted and insulted. We are not asking you to see us as victims. We’re not asking for your sympathy. We are saying that prostitution is not just our problem. If you continue to think that it is, the problem will never be solved. (This and all subsequent quotes come from Caroline Norma’s book unless otherwise noted: The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

And the problem with prostitution is aptly expressed so clearly and bravely with Susan Kay’s words:

Like the rapist, he is not concerned with her needs or wants or desires. He does not have to treat her like a human being because she is an object to be masturbated on and in. When we see the violence unmasked and we set aside the money which is used to scapegoat her, his sex is an act of rape.”

This describes most prostitution. It also describes most pornography, the kind with real human actors (versus animation). Even if you know a little about the injustices of prostitution, even if you consider yourself a feminist who is against sex trafficking, and even if you have read a little about Japan’s prostitution and pornography industries, you will probably be shocked by much of what you learn in Caroline Norma’s The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars, if you are brave enough to take a look.

One of her core arguments is that civilian sexual enslavement and military sexual enslavement are historically very linked, that these two types of injustices that are perpetrated against the bodies, hearts, and minds of girls, female adolescents, and women are mutually supporting. Norma’s book focuses on the Japanese women that were entrapped in civilian prostitution, and the ones entrapped and incarcerated by a type of military prostitution called “comfort stations.” Many women were victims of both types of prostitution. The “comfort stations” were scattered throughout the territories of the Empire of Japan and near the battlefields of lands that the Empire was in the process of conquering. The sex trafficking of the “comfort stations” that the government set up and operated throughout the Fifteen Years War (1931-45) represents just one way that Japanese women in the past have been enslaved for the purposes of the sexual gratification of Japanese men.

But her book also covers some of the history of the violence against Korean women in this system of military sexual slavery. And this month, Women’s History Month in the United States, I would like to offer a small sampling of important conclusions about Korean women’s history that one can draw from this book, a product of years of research on prostitution, pornography, and trafficking in Japan and South Korea, as well as in Australia.

Caroline Norma on the Civilian and War-time Entitlements of Japanese Men

Norma demonstrates that, like the patriarchal systems of indoctrination in other countries, Japanese patriarchy entitled men in the Taisho period (1912-26) the right to prostitute women in a relatively open way. From my perspective, as someone who has studied Japanese literature and always found Japanese feminist writers interesting, this is not surprising. This is the country of the doll-like women characters and fetishism of the celebrated novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichiro (1886-1965), of the geisha history, of pornographic anime, and of the Meiji period (1868-1912) feminist struggle to end concubinage, bigamy, and prostitution.

I remember how in the early 1990s one would often see men riding the always-on-time, wonderful, modern trains with a newspaper or magazine held out openly with straight arms in such a way that offensive pornographic photos or drawings could be seen by other passengers, even children and young women. With the advent of mobile phones and with a small but significant level of consciousness raising, one sees far less of this today, but I remember being shocked many times then, not so much at the constant nude photos of women but the occasional scenes of sexual assault and sexualized images of children and adolescents in manga. The famous feminist Ueno Chizuko long ago called Japan a “pornography society.”

But, even if armed with such knowledge, the picture that Caroline Norma portrays of the early days of the modern Japanese prostitution industry is shocking. I have not read much on American prostitution, so this is in no way a comparison of the US and Japan, but just taking the facts for what they are, for example,

While the majority of Japanese women trafficked into comfort stations had already reached adulthood, they had almost always been prostituted before this in the civilian sex industry since childhood. This was particularly the case for women trafficked into comfort stations from ‘geisha’ venues. The use of adoption contracts by geisha venue proprietors as a central plank of their procurement activity made the prostitution of underage girls a particularly notable feature of these businesses, and geisha venues were a common site of origin for Japanese women trafficked into comfort stations.

Japanese fathers and mothers who were faced with desperate poverty were deceived by brokers to relinquish control of their daughters on the promise of their daughter’s future factory work or artistic “training” as a geisha. That I already knew, but I did not know that since they were adopted, they could be abused even more than in other types of prostitution.

Indentured servitude was a procurement strategy that led to the trafficking of, notably, a high proportion of underage girls into Japan’s Taisho-era sex industry, especially into kafes, geisha venues, and other non-brothel venues that were comparatively unregulated… Kusuma nominates two reasons for this high proportion of underage girls in Japan’s sex industry: regional governments were allowing girls from age 16 to work at kafe venues, and underage girls could be legally sold into geisha venues under the guise of receiving artistic “training.”

(What were then called kafes [from the English word “cafés”] offered avenues for men to prostitute girls and women). With the later “comfort women” system of the late 1930s and early 1940s, one expects horror stories, but I was surprised that indentured servitude and trafficking of children was widespread in the Taisho Period (1912-26).

We learn that later, in the 1930s, this industry is basically adopted by the government with only minor modifications such that the military is quickly able to set up a system of sexual enslavement that gives Japanese soldiers access to a kind of sexual gratification before and after they are sent to the battlefields of death and destruction in the “total war,” where they are up against the likes of the United States, in what John Dower called the “war without mercy.”

It was racist and brutal on both the American and the Japanese side, but the US was a richer country with the advantage of far greater destructive capacity, so casualty rates were much higher on the Japanese side and Japanese soldiers had a lower chance of surviving than American soldiers. That generation of lost men led to an unusually large number of suicides among the many unmarried Japanese women—unmarried because so many Japanese men had died in the War that there was a lack of available male partners with whom they could marry—in the early 1990s, who were then elderly and who felt, for whatever reason, that they were a burden on their brothers or other family members who had to support them financially.

The “comfort women” system began with the procurement of mainly Japanese victims before it came to rely far more heavily on the trafficking of adolescents and women out of Korea and into the many sex-slavery torture stations throughout the Empire. The transition from a civilian, licensed, and openly legal prostitution industry to the government’s military prostitution, i.e., the sex trafficking, that is usually referred to as the “comfort women” system, was relatively smooth. The system was also quite open. Men simply lined up and paid to have sex with the entrapped and incarcerated victims that the government had provided them.

The Taisho period has been associated with the democratization of Japanese society, such as the expansion of the franchise in elections, but during this period access to brothels was also democratized, Norma explains. Male entitlements were expanded, while Japanese women were stuck in out-of-date patriarchal bondage. The number of women abused, tortured, and violated—suffering from what today we know as PTSD—in houses of prostitution actually increased. (My definition of patriarchy I take from the Oxford Dictionary of English, i.e., a “system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it” and add to that the habits of thinking behind that system—the systems, institutions, and ideologies).

Here is a tiny sampling of the many shocking facts and statistics:  In 1919 (i.e., the very year of Korea’s declaration of independence and the beginning of the March 1st Movement against foreign domination), prostitution was legalized for all of Korea by the colonizing Japanese government. By the 1920s, half of all prostituted women in Korea were Japanese. Eventually, Korean victims soon dwarfed the number of Japanese victims, but the early days of prostitution under the Empire of Japan saw huge numbers of Japanese prostituted women as well. “Civilian sex industry entrepreneurs” paved the way for the military involvement later and many of those entrepreneurs used the capital built up through sex trafficking to establish very profitable and “respectable” companies in other industries. Starvation conditions in the countryside in 1929 (i.e., the year of the stock market crash) provided thousands of wretched Korean women to sex traffickers. (I borrow this term “wretched” from Kropotkin. He explained how capitalism cannot function without a steady supply of desperate people, who have been knocked down onto their knees into a condition of wretchedness where they can be coerced into degrading work that they would not otherwise have ever engaged in). And finally, “the number of prostituted Korean women grew five times between the years 1916 and 1920.” This book is filled with eye-opening historical facts that will change our understanding of the War.

Who was responsible for this violence, besides of course the men who patronized the stations, i.e., the men who had been taught under conventional civilian patriarchal indoctrination that men had the right to regular access to women’s bodies, to dominate them as they pleased? Many historians would point the finger at the loyal servant of the Emperor, Tojo Hideki (1884-1948), one of the executed war criminals. According to Yuki Tanaka, one of the most distinguished Japanese historians of the “comfort women” history, Tojo “bore final responsibility for the ordeals of the comfort women” (Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes In World War II, 1996).

Tojo’s crimes were so unspeakable they were almost on par with those of the man in charge of our executive branch from 1945 to 1953, President Harry S. Truman. Truman authorized the atomic bombing of Nagasaki three days after his bombing of Hiroshima just in case nobody had noticed the extent of the damage in Hiroshima. One of his most trusted advisors after that war was the mastermind of the Korean War and the massive buildup of the military-industrial complex Dean Acheson (1893-1971).

Anyone ready for Korean War 2.0 with a nuclear power? If what the US did to Japan was bad, consider what would be done to nuke-armed North Korea. Consider what would happen when US bases in South Korea and Okinawa were hit, or if Beijing felt threatened by the US invasion of North Korea (as it did during the last Korean War) and stepped into the conflict. Consider what would happen to women and girls in Korea as the refugees fled from Korea into China.

American Military and Civilian Men’s Entitlements

73 years have passed since the end of the Pacific War, since Japan’s military sex trafficking dwindled to a trickle. Due to the fact that the Empire of Japan documented its employment of sex traffickers, there is no question now among historians—of Japan, Korea, China, the US, the Philippines, and other countries—that the Japanese government was one of the agents responsible for this atrocity of military sexual enslavement. But historians, women’s rights activists, and other specialists are now also beginning to excavate historical materials from the next stage in the patriarchy-based torture of Korean women, i.e., that of the United States government and American men, that lasted even longer than Japan’s military sex trafficking.

Fortunately, the prostituting of people by US military personnel was banned by the US military in 2005, and in recent years progress is being made in the US in terms of the struggle to end sexual violence in general. Some credit for that is due to the “comfort women” survivors, feminist activists, and historians who have worked in solidarity with them, many of them Korean. Such people have opened our eyes to what can happen to sex trafficking under wartime conditions, but Norma’s book shows us that it can be horrifyingly destructive of human beings even under civilian conditions.

In the case of the Japanese comfort women, the bondage and trafficking generally started when the women were in their teens. This is consistent with what we know about sex trafficking in America today: “The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12 to 14.  It is not only the girls on the streets who are affected; boys and transgender youth enter into prostitution between the ages of 11 and 13 on average.” ( “Every year, human traffickers generate billions of dollars in profits by victimizing millions of people in the United States and around the world. Traffickers are estimated to exploit 20.9 million victims, with an estimated 1.5 million victims in North America, the European Union, and other Developed Economies combined.” (“Human Trafficking,” National Human Trafficking Hotline, accessed July 17, 2017:

Thus it is true that around 100 years ago Japan had a huge prostitution/sex trafficking industry, but it should concern Americans that we have one even today. And that is after decades of education about sex, child abuse, wife-beating, rape, etc. in the richest nation on earth where feminism and child advocacy movements are relatively strong. Unlike Japanese who stopped engaging in war in 1945, Americans are still killing huge numbers of innocent people on battlefields. And our government’s wars stimulate entrapment and enslavement of women for the sake of soldiers on a massive scale. So we have a civilian sex trafficking industry and we have military sex trafficking, just as the Empire of Japan did in its final years. (I will not attempt to compare the scale of the sexual violence—a reminder once again that this is not a comparison).

There is growing awareness of the problem of sex trafficking of Filipinas in the US and how men who prostitute Filipinas also often/usually violently abuse them. (For an example of a shocking UN report see Treatment of South Korean women must have been even worse during the US occupation of Korea (1945-48), the Korean War, and in the years immediately after the Korean War. Historical research on atrocities committed against Koreans is just beginning. If and when peace comes to the Korean Peninsula, much new English-language research on North Korea will be published, certainly on US atrocities, probably on other UN Command atrocities, and of course on early twentieth century Japanese atrocities.

In the case of the Japanese girls and adolescents trained as geisha, who eventually were trafficked into “comfort stations,” they had already experienced the usual pain of child prostitution before they became “comfort women,” including “broken bones, bruises, reproductive complications, hepatitis and STIs… [and] psychological hardships including depression, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, self-mutilation, and strong feelings of guilt and shame.”  This is the kind of suffering that victims of sex trafficking in the US must be facing now.

The practice of prostitution is “found throughout the world to induce rates of post traumatic stress in women greater than that of war veterans, even when prior childhood sexual abuse is discounted as a correlating variable.” This is the kind of pain that Japanese military men visited on Korean women for two or three decades, and what American military men have visited on women in South Korea for about seven decades now mainly in areas near US military bases.

It is common knowledge that American military men prostituted women on a huge scale during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, not only in Korea and Vietnam but also in Japan, Okinawa, and Thailand. There is less consciousness of the fact that they picked up bad habits in war zones and brought them back to the US. Sexual aggression against Asian women “exploded” in the US after the Vietnam War, according to Katherine MacKinnon. She writes,

When the army comes back, it visits on the women at home the escalated level of assault the men were taught and practiced on women in the war zone. The United States knows this well from the war in Vietnam. Men’s domestic violence against women escalated—including their skill at inflicting torture without leaving visible marks. Sexual aggression against Asian women through prostitution and pornography exploded in the United States during this period. American men got a particular taste for violating them over there.

MacKinnon, Are Women Human?, Chapter 18 (Quoted by Norma).

The military experience of war amplifies the problems of sexual violence within the US. Even without any wars, societies will often permit horrific commercial sexual violence, but wars breed sexual violence. “Casual sexual violence and racism are now, through pornography, ‘promoted throughout the world as sex’.” Both the US and Japan are facilitating that promotion of violence and racism as sex through our huge civilian prostitution and pornography industries today.

Korean Women Trailblazing Human Rights and Peace

Civilians in South Korea, including many sex tourists, continue to take advantage of the sex trafficking industry there that was amplified by Japanese colonialism and US military base “camptowns” (areas around bases where prostituting of women was tolerated in South Korea for the benefit of American troops). And the global enslavement of women, unfortunately, does not seem to be shrinking. Global sex trafficking is big business in 2018, but it must be stopped. If you care about the victims of war, then you should be concerned, too, about sexual violence. Both have roots in patriarchy, where boys are taught that it is their role to dominate through violence, even as many boys, too, are victimized by it. Let us say enough is enough. Please join us in calling for an end to all forms of sexual violence.

Imagine a sex-trafficked woman singing Tracy Chapman’s song “Subcity” (1989) with the words “I’m at the mercy of the world, I guess I’m lucky to be alive.”  ( I have always imagined this song as one about an African-American woman being thrown crumbs from America’s vast wealth in the form of government welfare and food stamps, but now during Women’s History Month, with peace in Korea looking more possible than at any time in 2017, as I listen to this song, I am imagining a Korean woman who has previously been sex-trafficked for the sake of the momentary gratification of violent soldiers. I am imagining her singing, “we might not just want handouts but a way to make an honest living. Living? This ain’t living,” in the sense that she does not want cash to be thrown at her after a man has sexually abused her. She wants to live, not as a humiliated creature surviving off of these “handouts” from perpetrators of violence against her and other women but as an “authentic” human being in the sense of the word “authentic” expressed by the revolutionary Japanese feminist Hiratsuka Raicho, the founder of Japan’s first feminist journal Seito (Bluestocking) in 1911:

In the beginning, woman was truly the sun. An authentic person. Now she is the moon, a wan and sickly moon, dependent on another, reflecting another’s brilliance. (In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun, translation by Teruko Craig, 2006)

Imagine a South Korean survivor of sex trafficking saying, “Please give Mr. president my honest regards for disregarding me”—words to pass on to President Trump when you see him.

Let this month, as peace looks more and more possible and as we struggle to raise the cost of violence on the Korean Peninsula and protect the lives of innocent children, women, as well as men, be a time to mourn, to let the tears flow, in our awareness of what Korean women have been through. But let it also be a time to resolve to do our part, to stand up and join the Korean women working tirelessly today for human rights and peace. We all can gain confidence and courage from their actions and writings, men and women. That resolute expression on the face of the “Young Girl’s Statue for Peace” in front of Japan’s embassy in Seoul (also called the “Comfort Woman Statue”) is now a constant reminder of why we hope for peace and for an end to sex trafficking. Hundreds of years from now, these statues may still be educating people and inspiring courage. Just as consciousness is being raised one person at a time, they are multiplying one by one, having now appeared in Glendale, California; Brookhaven, Georgia; Southfield, Michigan; and Toronto, Canada, not to mention other places outside North America.

The Japanese survivor of the “comfort stations” Shirota Suzuko published her biography in 1971. Sadly, she did not gain international attention or even much attention in Japan, but before she passed away, she was fortunately comforted with the knowledge that South Korean survivors had publicly come out with their story, and that they had captured an international spotlight that would be used to promote both anti-war struggle and stopping sexual violence. The South Korean survivor Kim Hak-sun (1927-94) surely eased the pain of thousands of such survivors, of a dozen nationalities, when she courageously made her personal history public in 1991, in the face of East Asian Confucianist patriarchy and the usual discrimination toward sex-trafficked women—a kind of discrimination that America shares with East Asian societies, where the victim is blamed for the violence done to her.

Not least of all among Korean women’s accomplishments is that which they achieved last year shoulder-to-shoulder with South Korean men in the Candlelight Revolution that brought to an end the rule of former president Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the US-backed dictator Park Chung-hee who ruled the country from 1963 to 1979. Millions of Korean women helped make the current moment of near rapprochement between North and South Korea possible. Korean and other comfort station survivors—from other countries such as Japan, China, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Indonesia—can also be thanked for bringing about the happy day when President Moon Jae-in invited the survivor and women’s rights activist Lee Yong-soo to a state dinner with President Trump. South Korean women are making social progress that will benefit millions of women in Korea and millions of women outside the Korean Peninsula in other countries.

Lee Yong-soo, one of the rare prominent victims of sexual violence on the international stage, actually hugged the world’s most famous misogynist and head of an institution notorious for sexual violence—the US military. Her single gesture was an act rich with symbolism that holds out a possible future of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace in East Asia. That future reconciliation will be achieved as men everywhere come to terms with patriarchy and the ways in which we have been indoctrinated, deceived, and disciplined since boyhood to believe that dominating women, sexually and in other unjust ways, will be more satisfying and manly than loving women and working in solidarity with them.

Christine Ahn, a leading American advocate for peace on the Korean Peninsula, has recently written that “as the Trump administration will soon discover, Korean women and their allies are on the forefront of redefining their country’s relationship with Washington and will make sure they’re heard—in the streets, in front of embassies, and through their pocketbooks.” Yes. Today, when there is great potential for peace on the Korean Peninsula, let us remember both the suffering as well as contributions of Korean women.

One Response

  1. All together now, with spirit!:

    The Blood Spattered Banner

    Oh say can you see by the nation’s sad plight
    Just how badly you’ve failed to live up to your meaning?
    In dark streets and bright bars thru the perilous night,
    More than once, as we watch, men go silently screaming.
    And the people despair, hope adrift in the air
    To delight of the right all our cupboards are bare

    Oh say does that blood spattered banner yet wave
    O’er the land that’s not free nor are its people so brave?

    Go, Kaepernick, my hat’s off to you and those brave enough to join you.

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