A Seoul National University Professor Completely Rejects The Theory That The Comfort Women Were Sex Slaves

Tsutomu Nishioka, Visiting Professor, Reitaku University

In 1992, after maliciously incorrect reporting appeared in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Japan sparking the sudden emergence of the comfort women as a topic of debate, I traveled to Seoul to obtain information on the subject. During that trip, the elderly Koreans I met all told me the same thing:


“The Japanese military forcibly kidnapped Korean women in order to use them as comfort women? That’s such a stupid thing to say. At that time, Korea was poor. There were so many parents who had no choice but to sell their daughters to pimps in order to alleviate their own poverty. The Japanese were not able to go into the poor farming villages. The pimps who bought the daughters were Korean. There was no need for the Japanese military to be a part of this.”


The elderly Korean people with whom I spoke had all directly experienced life under Japanese rule. They were former members of the Korean National Assembly, former editors at major South Korean newspapers, and university professors.


I was a foreign exchange student in South Korea from 1977 to 1978. Some of the South Korean university students with whom I was close friends told me unhesitatingly that, upon being drafted into the military but before entering their actual military service, they planned to go to a brothel and have their first sexual experience.


Even in the 1970s, there were many women working in unlicensed prostitution dens who had ended up as prostitutes after taking advance payments as a way out of poverty. There were many films in which actresses portraying such women starred in leading roles. This, for me, was when I first began to think about the issue of the comfort women.


For this reason, I have consistently held to the same position: the comfort women did, in fact, exist. It is an historical fact. But until the “comfort women issue” was created by false reporting as part of an Asahi Shimbun campaign in the 1990s, there were no further questions to be answered.


Now, the comfort women issue means something quite different than the facts as found in history: it involves how to clear away the groundless calumny that has now taken on international proportions.


In August of 2016, Seoul National University professor emeritus of economics Lee Young-hoon, in an internet lecture which rooted the study of history in empirical research, said almost exactly the same things that I had been told during my interviews with elderly Koreans in Seoul in 1992.


For example, Prof. Lee said in his lecture that, “The comfort woman system was a licensed prostitution system under the control of the military. […] The comfort women were not sex slaves. […] Korean comfort women were recruited by pimps by means of advance payments and outright fraud. […] There is no evidence that there were 200,000 Korean comfort women. The number is somewhere around 5,000.”


I viewed this internet lecture with deep emotions, as debate based upon clear facts had finally surfaced within the South Korean academy. What follows is a detailed introduction of the points raised by Prof. Lee in his remarks.


The original of the lecture was delivered, of course, in Korean. My introduction here is made under my own responsibility, and I alone bear full liability for the translations and summaries contained herein.


Pronouncements in Accordance with Academic Conscience


Prof. Lee specializes in South Korean economic history. He is the standard-bearer of the colonization-as-modernization theory, or the idea that the South Korean economy experienced growth under Japanese rule. Prof. Lee has argued that history textbooks in South Korea are biased toward a leftist view, and has been at the forefront of textbook reform efforts.


For example, in 2007 Prof. Lee published, in South Korea, The Tale of the Republic of Korea. (This book was released in a Japanese-language edition in 2009 by Bungei Shunju.) In this book, Prof. Lee writes:


“In textbooks we read that, ‘Japan used methods of thoroughgoing viciousness to suppress and exploit our people which are without parallel anywhere in history’.


“However, I beg to differ. This sentence is not factual. For example, the reason that half of Korean rice was exported to Japan was not because the Governor-General of Korea forced Koreans to do this, but because the price of rice in the Japanese home islands was some 30% higher than it was in Korea.”


In this same book, Prof. Lee is less than full articulate when discussing the comfort women issue. In September of 2004, approximately two and a half years before The Tale of the Republic of Korea was first published, Prof. Lee appeared on a television debate program and was criticized by a South Korean Assembly member from the opposition party: “To say that comfort women were licensed prostitutes is to repeat what the Japanese right-wingers say.” Internet news sites picked this up and reported that “Lee Young-hoon calls the comfort women licensed prostitutes,” which led to massive protests against Prof. Lee.


It was perhaps for this reason that Prof. Lee refrained from saying in his book that the comfort women were licensed prostitutes. In fact, Prof. Lee wrote in The Tale of the Republic of Korea that the comfort women were sex slaves.


Nine years after the book was published in South Korea, the governments of South Korea and Japan entered into a formal agreement on the comfort women issue in December of 2015. A majority of former comfort women supported this accord. In the midst of these greatly altered circumstances, Prof. Lee summoned the courage to speak out of academic conscience.


In 2016, conservative pundit Jung Kyu-jae (鄭奎載), editor-in-chief of the Korea Economic Daily, presided over a series of lectures on modern South Korean history given as part of an internet television program. The final lecture in Prof. Lee’s segment, titled “Prof. Lee Young-hoon’s Country of Illusions,” was “The Women of the Comfort Stations”.


In this more than two hour lecture, divided into three parts and uploaded on August 22nd and 23rd, is still available as of this writing (November 10, 2016) to view on YouTube without interference. The first part of the three-part lecture alone has been viewed, again as of November 10, 2016, 19,740 times.


Even after more than two months had passed since the lectures were uploaded to the internet, there has been no news of any protests by activist groups or the left-wing media. Of the 64 comments on the page, just 11 aggressively criticize and insult Prof. Lee. This represents a change taking place inside of South Korean society.


Lecture Replete with Citations from Primary-Source Documents


Prof. Lee seemed a bit nervous during his lecture. He began:


“The title of today’s lecture is, ‘The Women of the Comfort Stations’. The lecture will be on the women who used to work at the Japanese military comfort stations—the women that today we call ‘comfort women’. As you know, the comfort women became a very hot topic of general public debate in 1991. For the twenty-five years since then, the comfort women issue has remained hotly and bitterly contested, and has virtually defined the relationship between Japan and South Korea.


Indeed, the comfort women issue has exerted a profound influence upon not only diplomatic relations between the two countries, but also upon all aspects of exchange: the economy, society, culture, and beyond. Not only this, but over the past two and a half decades this issue has greatly inflamed South Korean anti-Japanese ethno-nationalism, and has deeply affected not just South Korea’s relationship with Japan, but also the South Korean people’s understanding of their own history, culture, and intellectual life.


Therefore, in this lecture on the “country of illusions,” I think it would be impossible for me to avoid touching on the topic of the comfort women.


(Hereafter, direct quotes from the lecture are in quotation marks, while my own summaries are in brackets.)


Prof. Lee begins his lecture after these brief prefatory remarks. Before touching on the subject of the Japanese military comfort women, Prof. Lee says that the comfort women should be understood in the longue-duree historical context. Prof. Lee first points out that the South Korean military had comfort women, too.


Prof. Lee’s lecture is distinguished by his heavy use of primary-source documents, from which he liberally cites while advancing his empirical view of history. For example, Prof. Lee introduces in the course of his lecture the 1952 collection “6.25 Military Back Office History (Human Resources) 6.25軍事後方戦史(人事編)”, compiled by the South Korean military, which contains a statistical document titled “Service record of the special national military comfort brigade”. According to this document, there were three comfort brigades in Seoul, numbered 1 through 3, and one in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. There were a total of 89 women in these four stations, who together provided sexual “comfort” to 204,560 people in 1952. Prof. Lee then calculates that each woman serviced an average of 6.4 clients per day for that year.


The Generation Raised Alongside the Comfort Women


Prof. Lee then turned to a discussion of the comfort women provided to the US military forces stationed in South Korea. In 1961, the Park Chung-hee administration forced the US-military comfort women to undergo registration and health checkups. According to statistics from the Health and Society Department from the time, in 1961 there was a total of 14,912 comfort women servicing the US military. (The women were registered by profession: dancers, comfort women, and customer service women.)


In 1962, this number had skyrocketed to 36,355 women. The number dropped to 20,436 in 1963. Prof. Lee included information in his lecture on the numbers of US-military comfort women by region and registration subheading, and then said, “There were around 30,000 comfort women servicing the US military until the mid 1960s. The term ‘comfort women’ is used in the South Korean government’s own official statistics.”


“The comfort women issue,” Prof. Lee continued weightily, “is not limited to the Japanese military. It has been a part of South Korea’s own reality, too—it is a history that very much has a present dimension. My generation was raised alongside the comfort women.”


Prof. Lee then turned to a comparison of the way of life of the comfort women who serviced the South Korean military and the US military, respectively. Prof. Lee here focused on an invaluable PhD dissertation submitted to the Seoul National University Graduate School of Public Health in 1964 titled, “Research in Social Medicine for the Comfort Women, with an Emphasis on the Gunsan Region.”


The dissertation comprises a report on an investigation of 188 women registered with the Gunsan City Health Center as comfort women for South Koreans, and 132 women registered with the same Center as comfort women for the US military. The average age of the US military comfort women was slightly higher than that of the comfort women for the Korean forces. Most of the comfort women servicing the South Korean military had no schooling at all. The US-military comfort women had worked in that trade longer than their South Korean-military counterparts, and the US-military comfort women also had higher average incomes and more savings than the comfort women who serviced the South Korean military. Prof. Lee provided exact numbers for these assertions from the dissertation.


One survey item of particular interest was the frequency with which each comfort woman engaged in sexual intercourse in a given day. For comfort women servicing South Korean military clients, the average was 5.5 times per day, while for comfort women servicing American servicemen the average was 1.7 times per day.


Prof. Lee next reminded his listeners that he had earlier calculated, from South Korean military documents, that the average comfort woman servicing South Korean clients had intercourse with an average of 6 men per day. This comports well, he pointed out, with the average of 5 clients a woman in a Japanese brothel serviced per day in 1945. These averages, confirmed from multiple sources, would be used later in Prof. Lee’s lecture to estimate the total number of comfort women.


Prof. Lee next turned from a discussion of Korea under Japanese rule to Korea up to the 17th century, when it was governed by the Chosun Dynasty. In 1996, Wu Ing Su, a professor of historical education at Gyeongbuk University, published a work titled The Life of a 17th-Century Military Official Posted to the Northern Territories as seen in ‘The Diary of a Northern Posting’”. A military officer named Park Ji-mun kept a diary of his experiences when he was sent to the northern territories from the dynastic court to defend the border with China. In his diary, Park writes of the women who shared his bed as he journeyed north—it was on these passages that Prof. Lee focused in the next part of his lecture.


According to Park’s diary, over an eleven-month period from December 11, 1644 to October 25, 1645, he slept with 23 different women: kisaeng who serviced government officials, maidservants, and barmaids. After he arrived at his post, he was provided with a kisaeng who was to be his local wife while in the area.


Park Ji-mun’s father had also been sent to the same region, and Park had an affair with the daughter of the kisaeng who had been Park’s father’s local wife while he was in country. Prof. Lee gave detailed evidence, quoting from written sources, of the repeated sexually-driven abductions carried out by the yangban—the group of literary and military officials who ruled South Korea—against official kisaeng, servants, and other women.


Prof. Lee then turned to research conducted of Gangwon Province on the marital relationships of the Nobi (奴婢・lowest social class) owned by yangban from 1678 to 1885. It found that just 107 households (58%) comprised a normal pairing of one husband and one wife. Fifteen households (8%) consisted of one wife and two or more husbands. Thirty-seven households (20%) were made up of one wife and her children of unknown paternity. Twenty-five households (14%) were formed by a father and his children of unknown maternity. In other words, 40% of all Nobi households were broken homes.


Based upon this, Prof. Lee argues that “the yangban used violence to control the Nobi,” and that “there was a breakdown in ethical household life due to the poverty. It was not until the modern period that a stable family system became fixed among the middle class. There were many cases in which common people sold their daughters off as prostitutes. There were crammers for prostitutes in Andong, in Gyeongsangbuk Province, and crammers for kisaeng in Pyongyang. The common people sold their daughters in droves wherever there were many yangban.”


Of the 170 women who came forward to the South Korean government as having been abducted by the Japanese military and made to work as comfort women, 57% claimed to have been abducted in Gyeongsangbuk Province. Prof. Lee points out that the reason for this was “not that Gyeongsangbuk Province is close to Pusan, but, rather, that there were many yangban in that area where the heavy human trafficking took place during the Chosun Dynasty. The use of violence to control the common people and the Nobi, as well as poverty among the Nobi and commoners, was the worst wherever the yangban were the most numerous. As a result, it became virtually impossible for the Nobi to set up normal, ethical households, and many were forced to sell their daughters into prostitution.”


Prof. Lee then moved ahead in time to the debate over the Japanese control of the Korean Peninsula. He quoted from an essay written by famous author Lee Kwang-Su in 1934 titled, “The Daughters Who Are Sold Off,” which holds that there were many parents in Korea who sold their daughters—at a time before the comfort woman system even existed.


“The classmates of a girl of fifteen living in Daegu who was sold by her thirty-seven-year-old father for 160 yen were raising money for the mom-kkap (money to buy someone into or out of prostitution) in order to get her back. Throughout the Orient, it is in no way a rare thing for parents to sell their daughters. […] It is also not unheard of for men to deceive other families’ wives and daughters and sell them into prostitution, or for a husband to sell his own wife into prostitution. […] It is a profitable business for both sides—the ones who sell the women, and the ones who buy them. These women go on to be what are known as geisha, licensed prostitutes, drink-pouring girls, and concubines.”


The First Restrictions on Prostitution


In the Maeil Sinmun newspaper published in Korea at the time, the following article appeared on March 28, 1939.


“A weeping daughter told her story to the police of her parents, blinded by greed, trying to sell her. It was worse than death, she said.


“The daughter, who had been working as a kisaeng, was almost sold by her parents after they accepted 1300 yen from a Shin Hum Bom, who ran a brothel in Tumen, Manchuria. But she fled to the police, saying that she was unable to work as a prostitute selling her own flesh. The police have summoned the parents and are now investigating the situation.”


Prof. Lee then pointed out the differences between the Chosun Period and the period of Japanese rule of the Korean peninsula.


“Until the 19th century, it was rare for parents to sell their daughters. Repression based on status was very strong. Human trafficking became much more common once the age of industrialization began. The legal proof of this is the licensed prostitution system.”


Prof. Lee’s operating assumption in debating the comfort women system under the Japanese military is that in order to understand the Japanese military comfort women one must first understand the licensed prostitution system which Japan brought to Korea. He explains this point in more detail below.


“In 1916, the governor-general of Korea instituted regulations governing prostitutes operating out of rented premises. There were already regulations in place for drink-pouring girls and geisha, but the 1916 regulations were the first for prostitutes. This became the legal grounds for parents’ selling their daughters.


“The parents received an advance payment. If the daughter refused to accompany [the buyer], then the brothel owner forcibly abducted her. There were 34 of these brothels throughout Korea. The regulations in question were extremely strict in their regulation of these brothels.


-A number or code is to be displayed at the entrance to each customer room.


-Prostitutes may not be forced into revising their contracts or changing their madams (their geisha houses) against their will.


-No prostitute may be prevented, without the proper authority, from entering into a contract, leaving prostitution work, or communicating or meeting with others.


-Those running rental properties are to keep a supplemental record showing the names of all customers. The police chief is to inspect prior to use, and a record is to be kept of each customer visit.


-The rental property managers are to keep two rental calculation books for each prostitute. One book is to be given to the prostitute. The previous month’s rentals are to be recorded in detail by the third of each month, and these tallies are to be affirmed by the manager and the prostitute both affixing their seal to the books.


-A woman who wishes to begin working as a prostitute must first submit a request form, stamped by both herself and the rental property manager, on which is listed her family registry, address, name, the name she will use as a prostitute, birthdate, and place of business. She must present this form, along with the following documents, in person to the chief of police in order to obtain his permission to begin work.


1/ A letter of consent from her father, mother, or head of household

2/ A certificate of authenticity for the seal used by the signer of the letter of consent

3/ A certified true copy of her family registry

4/ The contracts relating to her prostitution business and advance money

5/ A document explaining the woman’s reasons for becoming a prostitute

6/ A medical examination form signed by a designated physician


-No prostitution work may be engaged in outside of the rental property.


-The prostitute may not work outside of the designated area without the permission of the chief of police.


-Prostitutes must undergo regular or ad hoc medical examinations.


-After receiving permission to begin working as a prostitute, a woman must inform the chief of police before actually engaging in prostitution for the first time.


-When ceasing work as a prostitute, a woman must appear in person before the chief of police in order to present a notification form to which has been attached a letter of permission.


-Rental property managers may not make prostitutes apply makeup in an area visible from outside, or loiter or line up in front of the place of business.


“It was obligatory to keep a ledger of brothel patrons. This ledger contained information about when each patron arrived and left (down to the hour), distinguishing facial features and articles of clothing, the prostitution names of the prostitutes he requested, the amount of money he spent on entertainment, and his address, occupation, name, and age.


“Medical exams for venereal disease were also carried out with exacting rigor: 45 times per year for Korean prostitutes, and 54 times per year for Japanese prostitutes. As a result, the prevalence of venereal disease among Korean prostitutes was 6%, and 3.8% for Japanese prostitutes.”


Criticizing Yoshida Seiji by Name


There were 200,000 prostitutes in Korea working under this system of licensed prostitution, serving a total of 30 million clients each month. This works out to 150 clients per prostitute per month, or about five per day.


Following this detailed explanation, Prof. Lee did not categorically reject the licensed prostitution system.


“Licensed prostitution is legal in Europe even today,” he said. “Licensed prostitutes have formed labor unions and are the recipients of social welfare. Japanese society functions such that the emperor stands at society’s pinnacle. Prostitutes, too, had their own labor unions [in Japan]. Their interests were thus acknowledged by the rest of society. […] We must understand at least this much about the history surrounding the licensed prostitution system in order to understand the issue of comfort women working for the Japanese military.”


The comfort women system was established by the Japanese military, according to Prof. Lee, for a variety of reasons, such as to prevent venereal disease, prevent soldiers from committing the crime of rape against civilian women, and to prevent classified information leaks which could occur if soldiers patronized prostitutes working in the private sector.


Prof. Lee referred to Yun Myong-suk’s “Korean Military Comfort Women and the Japanese Military Comfort Women System (2015)” in his discourse upon the comfort women recruitment methods.


“The military sent enlistment requests to the Department of the Army, the Governor-General of Korea, the military in Korea, the Governor-General of Taiwan, and the military in Taiwan. These four entities selected and authorized recruitment brokers. These brokers used contractors who employed the methods already fully in place under the licensed prostitution system in order to recruit comfort women. These methods were to pay advance money to the parents [of the women recruited].”


Prof. Lee next introduced pre-existing research which analyzes the testimonies of former comfort women who have come forward by name. This research finds that, among these comfort women, 82 were recruited through employment fraud, 62 through threats or violence, 4 were subjected to human trafficking, and 5 were kidnapped or abducted. However, “these four [categories] are the same thing,” Prof. Lee then pointed out.


In other words, under the licensed prostitution system, the fact that parents took advance money [in exchange for their daughters] is employment fraud, while violence was used against daughters who resisted the brokers and attempted to run away.


Prof. Lee openly and plainly rejects the notion that there was any forced abduction by the military or by government authorities.


“It is not factual to say that women were set upon on the roadsides and thrown into trucks. It is not factual to say that women were abducted or that there were hunts for sex slaves.”


It was a Japanese person who caused the South Korean people to believe such things, Prof. Lee said.


“These stories were made up by a Japanese man. Yoshida Seiji, a Japanese person, wrote a book which became a bestseller. This book came to Korea, and it was from this point that South Koreans first began to believe that there had been these kinds of forced abductions [by the military]. The Jeju Sinmun newspaper reported that Yoshida’s tales were not factual.”


Prof. Lee then told his viewers that it took thirty years for the major Japanese newspapers to retract their reporting on Yoshida’s remarks. (Prof. Lee mistakenly said that it was the Mainichi Shimbun which had made these retractions, when it was actually the Asahi Shimbun.)


Prof. Lee then turned to a discussion of the testimonies of the former comfort women. These testimonies change each time they are repeated, with each listener being told what he or she wants to hear. They change in order to conceal the grudge borne against the parents who sold their daughters.


One must be extremely careful when using oral testimonies as historical materials. Oral testimonies were first used in historical studies in the 1920s, when testimonies were taken from former slaves in the United States. These testimonies were useful as reference materials, but the position of the historical academy is that one must exercise great care to differentiate fact from non-fact when using these testimonies as primary-source materials. One need only look at the oral testimonies given by the former comfort women in order to appreciate the great difficulty involved in relying solely upon these sources in trying to determine what is historically factual.


Prof. Lee then used a chart to introduce a portion of the materials submitted by the surviving family members of the former comfort women to the South Korean government’s fact-finding committee on forced mobilization. Prof. Lee confirmed the family members’ understanding that what had happened was “employment fraud” and “human trafficking”. Prof. Lee then turned to research conducted by a female South Korean scholar, who tracked down the family members of former comfort women whose names and addresses she learned from a ledger of Koreans then-resident in Indonesia. Almost all of those family members also testified that those comfort women had been subjected to “employment fraud”.


Prof. Lee then cited the following passage from a document titled “Overall Status of Koreans Resident in North China” and published in 1941 by the Beijing branch office of the Government-General of Korea.


“Due to their particular language skills and tenacious lifestyles, (Korean men) have been able to keep up with the military’s advance, or even precede it […] bringng with them a certain type of women and setting up military comfort stations […] They make enormous profits in areas that are still not politically stable, and advance to the front lines.”


This same document reports that there were 732 Korean prostitutes and drink-pouring girls in north China. Prof. Lee estimates that there were, at most, 1,000 Korean comfort women in this same area. He later used this figure at the end of the lecture in estimating the total number of comfort women.


The Diary of a Comfort Woman Manager


Prof. Lee next pointed out that there are many Korean comfort station managers listed in a who’s-who volume titled “List of Koreans in China, 1942”. At a comfort station called the Asahikan in particular, there was not only a Korean manager but also nine Korean comfort women. Prof. Lee showed a photograph of this document, which lists the names and even the family registry information of each person.


Prof. Lee then pointed out that, at that time, it was not considered shameful to work as a comfort station manager or as a comfort woman. This is why these women had their names listed in the volume.


Prof. Lee’s final argument on the issue of the Japanese military comfort women concerned the comfort women’s lifestyle. While there are fewer documents on this point, in 2012 Prof. Lee found the diary of a Korean man who had worked at the reception desk of comfort stations in Burma and Singapore.


Prof. Lee teamed up with several other researchers in order to conduct a detailed analysis of this diary, which had been published in South Korea under the title, Diary of a Manager of a Japanese Comfort Station. Prof. Lee then launched into a thorough explanation of this diary. “


The diary covers the years 1943 and 1944, and details the life of a comfort station manager. The diary’s author was born in 1905 and earned a considerable sum as a notary public. He also sent his concubine to work as a prostitute at an inn.


His notary public business declined from 1940. In that same year, he also loaned 4,000 yen to a Korean human trafficking broker who ran away without repaying the money. Financially in dire straits, in July of 1942 he went with his concubine’s son to run a comfort station in Burma.


Unfortunately, the diary for 1942, during which time he carried out the recruiting of comfort women, has been lost. The diary author worked at the comfort station reception desk in a position of middle management. The following points become clear from reading the diary.


The Comfort Stations were a Licensed Prostitution System Managed by the Military


The comfort stations were, in fact, managed by the military. Each comfort woman was required to submit a report to the military at the end of every month. A ledger was kept showing the sales figures for each comfort woman in order to allow them to complete these monthly reports. The military decided on the guidelines for patrons and on the fees to be charged. The military ran a public-management system which was in effect a direct-management program carried out under very stringent rules.


The licensed prostitution system in effect in Korea was transferred as-is to military units or comfort stations operating nearby. When a woman wanted to quit the prostitution business, she brought a permission form to the unit and gave notice of her intention to quit, after which a cessation of business notification was issued.


While it is possible to criticize the military’s management from an ethical perspective, it should also be pointed out that the military was unstinting in its management of matters of health and hygiene, and also protected the comfort women from violence and abduction. In the two years that the diary author worked at comfort stations, there was not one incidence of violence. Part of the diary author’s job was to wire money to the hometowns of the comfort women at their request, which he did at the branch offices of the Yokohama Ginko bank in Rangoon and Singapore. After paying off their advance money, the women were able to send funds back to their families at home.


The diary author himself earned 43,000 yen in two years’ time—an enormous sum when one considers that the average monthly worker’s salary at that time was just 40 yen. The author managed an orchard after returning home, and also served on the board of a private elementary school.


Prof. Lee here argues that the comfort stations were examples of “the licensed prostitution system transferred to military units.”


“The brokers recruited women by means of employment fraud and other fraud, as well as by human trafficking,” Prof. Lee adds, “and ran what amounted to a licensed prostitution system under the powerful control of the Japanese military.


“This system shared the special characteristics of the licensed prostitution system in that the women were not imprisoned or subjected to abuse, the women had to obtain permission to work as prostitutes in accordance with the law, and also had to provide a letter of consent stamped by their mother and father, a proof of the authenticity of the seal used on the letter, as well as a certified true copy of their family registry along with other documents. All of that documentation was in place.


“After the paperwork was turned in, the women received permission to commence business. Once their contract period was up, they submitted a notification of cessation of operations and returned home. In a single year, 1944, among the 20 Korean comfort women working at the comfort station which also employed the diary author, 14 women went back to their hometowns. When women went home, others came to take their place. It is proof that these women were not being held against their will.”


As mentioned above, Prof. Lee was subjected to intense criticism as a proponent of the theory that the comfort women were licensed prostitutes after mentioning the US military comfort women during a television debate in 2004.


At that time, Prof. Lee had been an adherent of the theory that the comfort women were sex slaves, so the ensuing criticism was the result of his words being mistakenly understood. In his 2016 YouTube lecture, however, Prof. Lee openly and unequivocally stated that the comfort women were licensed prostitutes under military management. I have nothing but heartfelt admiration for the scholarly courage Prof. Lee displayed.


Having seen Prof. Lee’s lecture, I am confident to summarize as follows.


Under the Japanese governance, it was considered legal to receive advance payments and repay by engaging in the licensed prostitution business under the strict rules set by the military.

The feudalistic relationship between parents and daughters and male dominant nature of the Korean society sometimes allowed the brokers to take the daughters away by force against their will.  This was considered a crime even at that time.   To prevent this, each individual woman was questioned by police if she was applying to work at domestic brothels and by the military if she was applying to work near the frontline to ensure she was applying at her own will.  Permissions were granted only upon the confirmation of voluntary applications.   In this sense, the governor-general of Korea and the military were playing a role in prevention of crimes.   There were two types of human trafficking at that time.   One should be called “legitimate human trafficking” practiced under the licensed prostitution with strict rules set by the authorities demanding women’s consent.   Another is “criminal human trafficking” characterized by pimp’s deception and violence to force women to prostitute against their will.


Yoshimi Yoshiaki’s Book Provides Insufficient Evidence


Prof. Lee concluded his essay with a discussion of how one should understand women at comfort stations under such conditions. This part is very important. What follows is a literal translation.


“This question is an extremely difficult one. It is a political question, one that has been much debated. The most well-known Japanese researcher on this question, Yoshimi Yoshiaki, says that these women were sex slaves. Many South Korean researchers also follow [the theory] that these women were sex slaves. I, too, in my 2007 book XYZ, said that these women were sex slaves. Reading Yoshimi Yoshiaki’s books and essays I thought he was right, and I once supported the theory that [the comfort women were] sex slaves.


“If the women had had no freedom of movement, had been confined, had been beaten and subjected to violence on a daily basis, and had received almost no compensation for their work, then this would be proof that they were slaves. When Yoshimi Yoshiaki argued that they were sex slaves, he placed the greatest emphasis on their not having freedom of movement, not having personal freedom. They could not come and go as they pleased, [Yoshimi argued,] and he gave several examples of this.


“However, I have studied a wide variety of materials. As a result, I have come to doubt that [the comfort women] had a daily level of personal restriction any different than under the licensed prostitution system.


“As I said earlier, prostitutes were not able to live outside of the rental property, and were not free to leave the region. I doubt that [the comfort women] had more than that level, whether their restrictions exceeded those particular to that occupation.


“Even in Mun Ok-ju’s memorandum we read that twice a month, and in the diary of the comfort station manager which I introduced we read that twice a month, there were days off. On days off, there was freedom to come and go. Mun Ok-ju says that even now when she closes her eyes she can recall being on the city streets of Rangoon. She enjoyed a wide variety of shopping experiences in a foreign country. It was not possible to leave [the comfort station] while working, but on days off it was possible to leave.


“It was not possible to leave freely before the contract period was up. This was the extent of their personal restriction. And, once the contract period was up, then, having fulfilled certain conditions, many people filed notifications of cessation of operations, which were accepted.


“Yoshimi seems not to have been aware of this. I just went back and looked at Yoshimi’s book again. His evidence is extremely fragmented and incomplete. In this sense, I wish to say that the evidence is badly lacking that [the comfort women were] sex slaves under personal imprisonment.”


Rethinking the Sex-Slave Theory


“Next is the question of whether [the comfort women] received payment or not. On this point, there is not a basic overlap with the principles of the licensed prostitution system.


“Because of the question of military morale and related issues, the military was not in a position to tolerate the use of personal violence inside the comfort stations. In wartime conditions, it is not possible to allow the use of personal violence—this is what I want to say. Look at any comfort station diary—there is no personal violence. In Mun Ok-ju’s autobiography, as well, there is no mention whatsoever of her having been beaten by her employer or bullied for her advance money.


“It was an extremely labor-intensive, high-paying occupation. So, advance-money payments of 200 yen, 300, 1000 yen or so would not have been enough to act as a yoke binding one’s person. It was easy to repay such amounts. In the wire-transfer sums recorded in the diary I mentioned earlier, one woman sent 12,000 yen home, and Mun Ok-ju says she sent 5,000 yen home and had 25,000 yen in military savings.


“In this kind of highly labor-intensive, high-paying occupation, there was no way to make the women into debt slaves. Of course, some individual women might have been in such a situation. But it was impossible to make this the common lot.


“Also, in a certain sense I am an expert on slavery. Because I have researched Korean Nobi the lowest social class. I have read many books on slaves. The essence of a slave is that they have no legal abilities. Their humanity is denied in law—they are not human beings [in the eyes of the law]. If you beat them, they cannot sue you. If their mother or father is beaten to death, they cannot press charges against you in court.


“During the slavery period in the United States, a slave could not be a witness in court even if he or she had witnessed the scene of a murder. Because the slave was not a human being. Even if they said they had seen a certain white person in the act of committing a crime, they could not be called as a witness in court. Thus, slaves have no legal standing at all, and they are also denied the social status that would allow them to exercise any legal rights. This is what a slave is.


“It is difficult to say that the comfort women were the same as slaves. They were in a very weak position, to be sure. But it cannot be said that they had been stripped of their legal rights, that they had no rights whatsoever.


“For example, in Mun Ok-ju’s case, I recently read and was shocked to learn that a Japanese soldier who came to the comfort station was acting like a hooligan. He was a bad man, and he took out his sword and threatened [Mun] with it. And she stood up to him. Mun Ok-ju is an astounding person. She stood up to him, took his sword away from him, and stabbed the soldier with his own sword. The soldier was stabbed in the chest and he died. When this happened, Mun was court-martialed.


“Mun had argued that she was a military personnel, so she was tried as such. Mun Ok-ju told the court that that man had first been acting like a hooligan, had come to the comfort station brandishing his sword—was that a good thing? she asked. She argued that she acted in self-defense, and she was found not guilty.


“What I want to say is that, if Mun had truly been a slave, then she would not have had any right to a trial. However, she had a trial, and her self-defense argument was accepted, and the court-martial handed down a verdict of not guilty. Again, then, I say, that, on many different points, we must rethink the theory that the comfort women were sex slaves.


“The word ‘slave’ very easily causes misunderstandings. So, I argue that when American scholars use the word ‘slave’ to describe Chosen Period servants, they must use abundant caution.


“The term ‘sex slave’ is an extremely inflammatory expression. In the strict sense, I am very dubious whether it meets academic requirements or not.”


Prof. Lee’s Estimate of the Total Number of Comfort Women


Let us now discuss the total number of Korean comfort women. According to textbooks and scholars in South Korea, the number is 200,000, but Prof. Lee rejects this figure.


“If there were 200,000 Korean comfort women, then this number would become much larger once one factored in the Japanese and Chinese comfort women. It goes without saying that a Japanese military having 2.5 million troops could not have taken 500,000 comfort women.”


Prof. Lee then used three different estimates to arrive at a figure of around 5,000 Korean comfort women. First, he estimated using the number of comfort stations. Prof. Lee used the regional comfort station distribution found in the diary of military physician Col. Kinbara Setsuzo, as well as the Korean comfort stations in north China as found in the documents introduced earlier from the governor-general’s branch office.


There were five hundred comfort stations. In northern China, there were 100 comfort stations and 1,000 comfort women. So, there would have been around 5,000 comfort women in total across 500 comfort stations, or around 5,500 comfort women when Japanese and Korean women were added together.


Second, Prof. Lee calculated based upon the number of condoms that the military provided to troops. In 1942, the Japanese military provided a total of 32.1 million condoms to its troops, or 88,000 per day. As seen above, each comfort woman serviced five soldiers per day. If we accept this, then there would have been a total of 17,600 comfort women—if 20% of these were Koreans, then there would have been 3,520 Korean comfort women, and if 30% were Koreans, then there would have been 5,280 Korean comfort women.


Third, Prof. Lee calculated based upon the ratio of comfort women to soldiers. Standard notifications put the ratio of soldiers to comfort women at 150 to 1. There were 2.5 million Japanese troops, so there would have been 16,000 comfort women. Prof. Lee hypothesized the turnover rate for comfort women at 1.5 in Manchuria and China, and 0 in the southern area. If this is true, then the total number of comfort women would have been 20,000. If 20% of this number was Korean, then there would have been 4,000 Korean comfort women. If 30% were Korean, then there would have been 6,000 Korean comfort women.


After outlining these three estimation methods, Prof. Lee advanced his theory that there would have been 4,000 to, at most, 6,000 Korean comfort women.


“It is completely incorrect to say that there were tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands [of Korean comfort women],” Prof. Lee said.


Pointing Out the Trouble with NGO Activities


At the very end of his lecture, Prof. Lee said in summary:


“There would be no end to talking about how this issue has developed over the past 25 years from 1991 until today. I will end my discussion here. I will not discuss the reality of what kinds of results, and what kinds of problems, NGO activities, and in particular those of Chongdaehyup, have brought about.


“I have spoken here about how this issue has developed against the historical background and within the environment of the system [of licensed prostitution]. I have also shown that, objectively speaking, there are many problems with the numerical estimates and with the extremist view that the comfort women were sex slaves.”


Prof. Lee thus said that there were also problems with the NGO activities.


The extremist arguments Prof. Lee criticized in his lecture are those of the Japanese and South Korean activists who have made political use of the comfort women issue and badly damaged South Korean-Japanese relations. This is as I have been saying all along. I was hoping that Prof. Lee would touch in more detail on this issue, as well.


I was deeply moved, listening to Prof. Lee’s lecture, by his intellectual honesty and integrity and his academic courage. I fervently hope that his lectures will be collated into book form and released in Japanese as well.

Tsutomu Nishioka, Visiting Professor, Reitaku University