Comfort women. For Caroline Berndt, the phrase evokes no comfort, only the brutality of men at war. As part of her honors thesis in Asian studies, Berndt, a recent graduate and current UNC-CH law student, translated the story of Pak Kumjoo, one of the Japanese Army’s comfort women during World War II.

The story of the army’s comfort stations begins in 1932, with Japanese Lieutenant-General Okamura Yasuji. Seeking a solution to the 223 reported rapes by Japanese troops, he asked for comfort women to be sent for his soldiers in Shanghai, China. The Japanese Army used comfort stations extensively until the war ended in the Pacific in 1945. At a typical comfort station, a soldier paid a fee, obtained a ticket and a condom, and was admitted to a woman’s space, which might have been partioned with sheets.

Pak (her surname) was about 17, living in Hamun, Korea, when local Korean officials, acting on orders from the Japanese, began recruiting women for factory work. Someone from Pak’s house had to go. In April of 1942, Korean officials turned Pak and other young women over to the Japanese, who took them into China, not into factories.

Pak’s history is not unusual. A majority of the women who provided sex for Japanese soldiers were forcibly taken from their families, or were recruited deceptively. Sometimes family members were beaten or killed if they tried to rescue the women, most in their teens. Once the women arrived at the comfort station, they were forced to have sex, typically with 20 to 30 men a day. If they resisted, they were beaten or killed.

A majority of the 80,000 to 200,000 comfort women were from Korea, though others were recruited or kidnapped from China, the Phillipines, Burma, and Indonesia. Some Japanese women who worked as prostitutes before the war also became comfort women.

With help from her advisor, Jan Bardsley, assistant professor of Asian studies, Berndt analyzed the attitude, prevalent throughout history, that rape is unavoidably a part of war. She also examined international laws intended to pro tect women from sexual violence during war. But the heart of her thesis was her translation of Pak’s narrative.

To see what happened to one woman is a way of making history concrete,” Berndt says. “I felt I was discovering her history sentence by sentence.”

Many women became sterile from the repeated rapes. Women who became pregnant or infected with a sexually transmitted disease were given a shot of the antibiotic terramycin, which the women referred to as “Number 606.” “The drug made the women’s bodies swell up and would usually induce an abortion,” Berndt says.

Nearly all of the two-and-a-half million Japanese soldiers who surrended to the Allies in 1945 would have known about the comfort system, according to George Hicks’ book The Comfort Women. However, after the war the comfort stations quickly faded from public consciousness, and for years the issue received little attention. Accounts of former comfort women reveal that many told only a few family members or no one about their experiences.

The events that led to international awareness of the issue began in 1988. In that year, Professor Yun Chung Ok of Ehwa Women’s University in Korea began to lead an activist group that conducted and presented research about the comfort women. In 1990, 37 women’s groups in Korea formed the Voluntary Service Corps Problem Resolution Council and demanded that the Japanese government admit that Korean women had been forcibly drafted to serve as comfort women, publicly apologize, fully disclose what happened, raise a memorial, compensate survivors or their families, and include the facts in historical education.

In response, the Japanese government denied that women had been forced to work at comfort stations and maintained that it was never involved in operating comfort stations. In 1991, three Korean former comfort women filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government.

In 1992, Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki of Chuo University found wartime documents in the Library of the National Institute for Defence Studies that confirmed that the Japanese Forces had operated comfort stations. On the same day that excerpts from the documents were published in Japanese newspapers, the government admitted its involvement.

Berndt says that meeting the comfort women’s demands could help Japan discourage what she calls the “commodification” of women, not only in war but in peacetime. According to Berndt’s sources, some Japanese corporations still reward hardworking businessmen by organizing “sex tours” of prostitution houses in cities across Southeast Asia.

Berndt also found reports that women from Southeast Asia are recruited by agencies for work in Japan as receptionists, host esses, and waitresses. When the women arrive, the agency takes their passports, and many become prostitutes.

The idea that these types of practices are so rampant today scares me,” Berndt says. “If Japan could address the comfort women issue, it might send a stronger message against current practices.”

In 1993, 18 Filipina former comfort women filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government. So far, neither the Korean nor the Filipina women’s lawsuits have been resolved, and the Japanese government has not proposed alternative reparations satisfactory to the former comfort women. “I’m feeling pessimistic about the government or the courts giving the women what they want,” Berndt says. “But I do think that the women have continued to bond together and affirm their own dignity through their testimonies.”


The story of Pak Kumjoo

excerpts from a translation by Caroline Berndt

— Whether it was morning or night, once one soldier left, the next soldier came. Twenty men would come in one day…
— We would try to talk each other out of committing suicide, but even with that, women still did. There were women who stole opium and took it. If they took a lot of it, they would vomit blood and die. There were people who died after gulping medicine whose name they didn’t even know. There were also people who hanged themselves with their clothing when inside the toilet. Because there were people who tried to kill themselves even if they only had some string, we tried to hide string from each other…
— Then, about six months after I was made a “military comfort woman,” I told a colonel in the army, “Do you think we are your maids and your prostitutes? How can you be a human being after making us do such things? We came because we were told we were going to a factory, and we didn’t come knowing we would be prostituted.” I spat in his face.
— From there, that soldier said, “It is the command of the army. The country’s order is the Emperor’s order. If you have something to say, you can say it to the Emperor.” Then he beat me. I was in a coma for three days. Even when I regained consciousness, I couldn’t move. Even now I feel pain from that time, and scars remain.


Dottie Horn was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.