Issues: Comfort Women 

The term "comfort women" was used during WWII to refer to women who were conscripted to provide sexual service to the Japanese Imperial Army at comfort stations throughout East Asia. Japanese, Korean, Chinese made up most of the comfort women, but they also included other Asians as well as the Dutch. Estimates of their total number vary greatly, ranging from under 20,000 to around 200,000.

Though known to many during or after the war, the comfort women issue bursted into international attention in 1991, when Kim Hak-soon of South Korea became the first former comfort woman to testify publicly. This event quickly led to an international movement that demanded the Japanese government to apologize and compensate for what it considered to be sexual slavery. In 1996, the U.N. Human Rights Commission issued a report on the matter, based largely on testimony from witnesses and victimized comfort women themselves. The report has been criticized by some historians in Japan who dismiss the relevant testimony as unreliable and insist that the comfort women were not forcibly recruited or abducted.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed since 1991 by former comfort women in Japanese courts, as well as one in the United States, demanding compensation and an official apology from the government of Japan.

All lawsuits are filed on the basis that the Japanese government violated numerous international treaties which protect civilians in military-occupied territories and prohibit trafficking in persons (i.e. The Hague Convention). The lawsuits state that the women had been either abducted from their hometowns or tricked into serving in 'comfort stations.' They emphasize extremely poor living conditions and sexual, as well as psychological, abuse suffered by the women, which had a lasting impact.

The Japan side argues: 1) Japan is subject to sovereign immunity; 2) Japan had already settled its war crime compensation issues by signing the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951 and other bilateral treaties with the countries involved; 3) individual victims' claims for damages are not acceptable under international law, since such compensation can only be, and was, carried out on a government-to-government basis; and 4) Japan has no legal obligation to compensate the victims due to the expiration of the 20-year statute of limitations.

Some cases have been dismissed while others are still pending. So far, there has been one ruling by a Japanese court which stipulated that compensation be awarded to the women. It was overturned in March 2001.

The Japanese government initially denied any involvement in setting up and operating “comfort stations” in Asia. In 1992 it admitted its official involvement and offered an apology after evidence was unearthed by Japanese historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki. In 1995, the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) was established in Japan, based on a decision by the Japanese government, to raise money from individuals to compensate former comfort women. The Japanese government provided part of the funds. As of June 2002, 285 women had accepted the compensation of around 4 million yen together with a letter from the Japanese Prime Minister. Many declined, however, since the money came from private individuals and not from the Japanese government. In addition, 79 women in Holland received medical and welfare assistance from the Japanese government.  AWF will be disbanded in 2007, after the completion of its project in Indonesia.

Below are presented both sides of the issue, including summaries of cases being filed by the former comfort women, and where available, official court documents. Otherwise, newspaper reports and scholarly works are relied on to gather the facts presented. As with all aspects of this website, any recent information or corrections concerning the data listed are welcome.

United States