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TAO-CHUAN YEH / AFP / Getty Images
31 July, 2021

ON 14 AUGUST 1992, three Taiwanese women hold a press conference to recount their experiences as “comfort women”—a euphemistic term for over a hundred thousand women forced into sex work by the Japanese army during the Second World War. The chongsindae system of brothels set up for exclusive use by Japanese soldiers, in order to prevent the spread of venereal disease among soldiers and reduce incidents of sexual assault, began during the 1932 occupation of Shanghai. Following the mass rapes during the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, all Japanese military contingents in China were directed to set up “comfort stations.”

Chongsindae recruitment followed two methods: local leaders in occupied territories were asked to supply young women, while recruiting agents—brothel owners and labour contractors—sourced women from Japan and its major colonies, Korea and Taiwan, through deception, intimidation and abduction. Although Allied forces were aware of the practice, chongsindae was not brought up at the Tokyo war-crimes tribunal after the Japanese defeat. A separate tribunal in the Dutch East Indies convicted 11 people for forcing Dutch women to work at comfort stations.

The Korean feminist scholar Yun Chung-ok brought international attention to the issue through her research on former comfort women. In 1990, she helped form the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. The council pressured the Korean government to raise the issue with Japan and persuaded Kim Hak-sun, a former comfort woman, to give public testimony a year before the Taiwanese press conference. It also organised numerous lawsuits, but the courts held that bilateral agreements with the United States and Korea indemnified Japan from further compensation claims arising from wartime events. In 1995, the Japanese government set up the Asian Women’s Fund, which compensated 285 women with 2 million yen each and an apology signed by the country’s prime minister.