The ICAS Lectures

No. 2000-0501-CSS

Human Dignity and Sexual Culture:
A Reflection on the 'Comfort Women' Issues

Chunghee Sarah Soh

ICAS Spring Symposium
Humanity, Economy, Science and Technology
University of Pennsylvania
May 1, 2000

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch: Chunghee Sarah Soh

Human Dignity and Sexual Culture:
A Reflection on the 'Comfort Women' Issues

Chunghee Sarah Soh, Ph.D.
San Francisco State University


The purpose of this paper is to reflect on a particular dimension of the complex issues involving the Comfort Women movement for redress by focusing on what I call 'masculinist sexual culture'. For the purpose of this paper I use the term 'masculinist' to refer to those men and women who believe not only in the Confucian principle of male superiority but also in male 'sex-rights'(1) to have access to the female body both inside and outside marriage. Masculinists believe that men, in contrast to women, have biologically rooted sexual needs, and consequently, concede to men their 'natural' right to seek sexual comfort, both premaritally and extramaritally. Masculinist sexism permeated the traditional cultures of Japan, Korea and other patriarchal societies and is still prevalent today.

The androcentric euphemism 'comfort women' (ianfu) is an official coinage of imperial Japan, and was used to categorically refer to young females of various ethnic and national backgrounds and social circumstances who became sexual laborers for the Japanese troops before and during the Second World War. In contrast, the soldiers came to refer to these women as the 'pi' (pronounced as 'pea'), a Chinese term meaning goods or articles, which, as a slang term, stood for female genitals.(2) The estimates of the number of women used as comfort women range between 50,000 and 200,000.(3) It is believed that about 80% of them were Korean.(4) There is no documentary evidence to determine either how many women were used or how many were forced to serve as military comfort women, except for the Dutch case.(5)

Seen from an anti-Japan, nationalist perspective prevalent among activists especially in South Korea, the comfort women issue is simple and clear: Japan as a colonial power exploited Korea's human resources by rounding up tens of thousands of young unmarried girls and women to be used as military sex slaves. Seen from a more global perspective, however, the issues involved in the comfort women case are complex, running the gamut from the problem of 'militarized prostitution' to that of sexual slavery based on gender, age, social class, and ethnicity. Coerced sexual labor, i.e., sexual slavery, was inflicted primarily upon lower class young females of colonial Korea by imperial Japan during the Asia-Pacific War,(6) but not every former comfort woman had been forcibly drafted by the state power. In addition, while teenage Korean maidens from impoverished families constituted the overwhelming majority, relatively older Japanese prostitutes, and primarily lower-class women of colonized Taiwan and other occupied territories were also used as comfort women during the "Fifteen Year War" of aggression pursued by imperial Japan, starting from the Manchurian invasion in 1931 to its unconditional surrender in 1945.

At the core of the contestation over the representation of the military comfort women as sex slaves versus licensed prostitutes(7) lies the issue of state responsibility in forced recruitment of comfort women and the maintenance of the comfort system. On a deeper level, however, many of the central issues around sexual violence in warfare and its relationship to the cultural constructions of gender and human sexuality--more specifically heterosexuality--in patriarchal societies, are being called into question, including the masculinist sexual culture and the perennial question concerning the proper relationship between prostitution and the state. The Rest & Recuperation program for the U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War was a recent example of a state institution looking after the physical needs of military men.(8) In fact, there still exist thousands of prostitutes in the kijich'on, the U.S. military camptowns in South Korea, and the Korean media used to refer to them as wianbu ("comfort women" in Korean).(9)

The comfort women movement formally began in South Korea in November 1990. The Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (hereafter, the Korean Council), a non-governmental organization (NGO), is responsible for internationalizing the comfort women issue as a war crime and violations of women's human rights in situations of armed conflict. With a series of hearings by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) beginning in 1992, the comfort women issue leaped to the attention of the world community nearly half a century after the end of the War. The Korean Council as a newly formed NGO has accomplished in less than a decade a level of success that went beyond the wildest dreams of the leadership in bringing the attention and support of the international community for their reparation demands against the Japanese government.(10)

As a sociocultural anthropologist specializing in gender issues, social inequality and the processes of culture change, I have followed closely the developmental processes in the internationalization of the Korean comfort women movement from the start. In addition, I have conducted ethnographic field research in Korea, Japan, and the Netherlands. As an example of 'multi-sited' ethnographies George Marcus discusses in his latest work,(11) this ongoing research aims to present from the perspective of critical anthropology a multilayered analysis of the complex issues involved in the redress movement. As a Korean American interested in comparative studies of the cultures of Korea and Japan, my goal is to go beyond the national boundaries and to present a balanced and nuanced analysis of once an unproblematized and almost forgotten issue of comfort women from the perspectives of cross-cultural, critical anthropology. And in order to do that, we must delve into the intersections of sex, power, and justice, not simply in heterosexual relations between men and women but also in international relations between nation-states of unequal power.

In this paper I will trace the social origins of the movement and to consider the tasks that remain to be tackled at the societal level in order to help prevent gendered violence against women from occurring not only in situations of armed conflict but in everyday life in many patriarchal societies. One of these tasks, I believe, is to start serious public debate on the 'masculinist sexual culture' that is at the root of diverse forms of pervasive social oppression and sexual violence against women.

Indeed, I would argue that it is masculinist double standard for sexual conduct that has contributed to lifelong psychological sufferings for an untold number of comfort women survivors because they were socialized to regard the loss of virginity as a shameful condition deserving social ostracism. Generally speaking, these survivors were socialized from childhood to regard the preservation of sexual purity (chongjol) as important as life itself. Thus, when they returned home after the war, some women were unable to reveal their ordeals even to their mothers. They gave up any hope of finding men who would accept them as legitimate wives if/when they found out about the loss of their virginity and their past as comfort women. They carefully hid their past for fear of social stigma and ostracization its revelation would bring to them and their family. Given the sexual mores of the Korean patriarchy, it is understandable that the survivors of sexual slavery for the troops of imperial Japan during WWII kept their silence for nearly half a century until the early 1990s. Some of them still refuse to reveal their past as comfort women. Others insist on using pseudonyms.

I should point out here that until the redress movement began, the Korean society generally regarded Japan's comfort system as a military version of licensed prostitution. Koreans are justifiably angry that imperial Japan forcibly recruited young girls and women of colonial Korea for prostitution and sexual enslavement. However, they are unwilling to acknowledge the complicity on the part of some Koreans, which is amply revealed in the survivors' testimonies. Korean men--and sometimes women as well--participated in the deceptive and/or forcible recruitment and some did so with a purpose of economic gain.

Le me now provide an historical overview of the masculinist sexual culture in Korean society and the social and political economic context that contributed to the emergence of the comfort women movement. In particular, we will examine the phenomenon of kisaeng tourism and consider the plights of the kijich'on sex workers in South Korea in order to highlight the underlying, invisible threads of masculinist sexual culture combined with the political economy of global capitalism that continue to influence the patterns of unequal power relations between the sexes and nation-states in the everyday lives of women working in the sex industry.

Korean Sexual Culture: An Historical Overview

Not many people are aware of the fact that the Korean comfort women movement grew out of feminist and nationalist opposition to the phenomenon of the so-called kisaeng tourism, which is a euphemism for prostitution tourism. The term kisaeng traditionally referred to professional female entertainers. The institution of kisaeng or kinyô was firmly established in Korean society by Koryô dynasty (918-1392) and continued throughout Chosôn dynasty (1392-1910).(12) Kisaeng were chosen from among young females of the lower classes and trained in the arts of entertainment for men, such as playing musical instruments, singing and dance. By the time of King Sejong (r. 1418-50), prostitution came to dominate the life of kisaeng. There were several proposals to abolish the institution of kisaeng by high-level Confucian scholar-officials. However, the opponents to the proposal successfully defended the institution by arguing among other things the likelihood of increased sex crimes if it were to be abolished.(13)

In the masculinist sexual culture, it is not surprising that such a biological-determinist argument would win the debate with relative ease and could continue to defend masculinist interests in satisfying men's desire for sexual recreation by supporting the social institution of kisaeng and the customary practice of acquiring a chôp (concubine). The masculinists upheld the double standard for sexual behavior of men and women by classifying women into two types according to the main functions of their sexuality: women to marry for procreation and women to hire for recreation. The custom helped to further discriminate women according to their marital status. While married women as mothers and wives were accorded due respect for their contributions to the family life, unmarried women working as professional entertainers were social outcastes and were commodified as sexual playthings. Even when a kisaeng was taken as a concubine of a yangban (upper-class) man, she suffered legal and customary discrimination as a secondary wife. She could not participate in any formal events of the family. Her children were labeled as sôja (illegitimate offspring) in contrast to the chôkcha ('legitimate children' born of the lawful wife).

Typically, men in traditional Korea, especially those belonging to upper classes and working for the government engaged in recreational sex supported by the state-run system of kisaeng and the customary practice of concubinage. Traditionally, the masculinist sexual culture in Korean society rigidly controlled women's sexuality by means of the cult of female virginity/chastity while it condoned, if not encouraged, sexual freedom for unmarried men and generally overlooked infidelity of married men. As mentioned earlier, unmarried women were expected to maintain their virginity until marriage and widows, especially of the upper classes, were prohibited from re-marrying. Regardless of the individual circumstances, women who lost their chastity were considered sullied, made to feel ashamed, and likely to be ostracized by their own families. In this cultural context, many women committed suicide after being raped or in order to avoid being raped during the two Japanese invasions of Korea in the late 16th century. Their deaths were recognized as honorable deeds of yôllyô (virtuous women), whose families were honored by royal commendations.(14)

When some widows of lower classes remarried out of economic necessity, they usually had to leave their children of the deceased husband behind, either with the late husband's relatives or with their own natal family. In the case of Kim Hak-sun (1924-1997), who became the first Korean survivor to give a public testimony of her life as a "comfort woman" in 1991, her remarried mother left Hak-sun with a foster father. He sent Hak-sun to a training school for the kisaeng. When she finished her schooling, the foster father took her to China hoping to find her a job there since as a seventeen-year-old minor she was not allowed to work yet in Korea. It was there that she was taken by the Japanese military to a comfort station.(15) In the case of Kang Tôk-kyông (1929-1997), another former comfort woman, she lived with her maternal grandparents after her widowed mother remarried. She joined the so-called 'Women's Volunteer Corps' or Yôja Chôngsindae in Korean in defiance against her estranged mother's advice. She worked at a factory in Japan and fled from her factory dormitory to escape from hunger and hard life only to be caught by the military police and taken to a comfort station. The point here is that the tragic lives of numerous former comfort women, the great majority of whom came from poor families in rural areas, were embedded in the intersections of gendered oppression in the patriarchal marriage and family system and class inequality, as well as colonial exploitation.

Prostitution and Women's Movement in South Korea

In the twentieth century, Japan's colonization of Korea and its assimilation policies resulted among other things in the transplantation of some Japanese terminologies(16) and social institutions, such as the systems of family headship (hoju) and licensed prostitution, in Korean society. Thus, Japan's modern system of licensed prostitution was firmly grafted in the soils of colonial Korea by the mid-1910s. It was formally abolished in post-colonial Korea in 1947.(17) Nevertheless, prostitution of female sexuality as a commodity has continued in South Korea in a variety of manners and places, sometimes with semi-official support, as exemplified in the development of kisaeng tourism targeting Japanese male visitors and the kijich'on sex industry catering to the U.S. military.

Kisaeng/Prostitution Tourism

It is not clear when and how the kisaeng tourism emerged in South Korea but it came to flourish by early 1970s after Korea and Japan signed the bilateral agreement to normalize diplomatic relations in 1965. The increase in the number of Japanese visitors to South Korea after 1965 has been phenomenal. In 1965, there were 5,110 Japanese visitors and 14,152 American visitors. By 1971 the Japanese visitors (96,531) greatly outnumbered those from the United States (58,003). In 1973, nearly half of a million (436,405) Japanese tourists visited South Korea, which was more than eighty-five times increase over the figure for 1965. And the 1973 figure was more than double the previous year (217,287), which was mainly due to Japan's severing of diplomatic relations with Taiwan in September 1973. The majority of the Japanese men who visited Korea for the purpose of kisaeng party, according to a study by a Korean Christian women's organization, came from lower classes to enjoy sexual entertainment at the one-fifth of the cost required for comparable service in Japan.(18)

In the 1970s Korean women who wished to work formally for foreign tourists staying at hotels had to acquire a license that certified their health status and the completion of required orientation education. The contents of the orientation lectures given by university professors were a modern version of those for imperial Japan's Yôja Chôngsindae, the Women's Volunteer Corp, emphasizing the importance of their work in earning precious foreign currency for the nation's economic development.(19) I should mention here that in the 1970s the Korean government was also engaged in the surveillance and authoritarian control of the prostitutes servicing the US military. At the request of the latter that complained of the unhealthy conditions of the kijich'on sex industry, the Korean government started a clean-up campaign in 1971 that included infrastructural improvements and enforcement of regular medical examinations of prostitutes, detaining infected women at special centers.(20)

Women's Activism: Linking Kisaeng Tourism to Wartime Comfort System

The first organized protest by women in Korea and Japan against kisaeng tourism took place in December 1973, both in Seoul and Tokyo.(21) Ewha Womans University students staged a demonstration at Kimpo Airport confronting Japanese tour groups with a placard reading, "Stop Sex Tourism". Representatives of women's organizations in Japan demonstrated at Haneda Airport in Tokyo in front of Japan Air Lines office aiming at Japanese tour groups and carrying placards reading, "Don't go to Korea for sex tourism." As of 1979, an estimated 100,000 women worked as tourism kisaeng.(22) In some cases, tourists at kisaeng houses/restaurants could choose their partners among those gathered in the waiting lounge. A Japanese tourist who contributed an essay to a magazine published in Japan compared figuratively his experience of kisaeng party to that of going to a slave market.(23) By late 1970s sex tourism spread to Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines and Thailand. By early 1980s Japanese businessmen started running kisaeng houses in Japan by importing Korean women. In 1988 the Korean Church Women United sponsored the International Conference on Women and Tourism in South Korea. It was there that Professor Yun Chông-ok of Ewha Womans University first presented her research on Korean comfort women issue, which helped the participants from Korea and Japan see the underlying linkage between the issues of the comfort women in colonial Korea and kisaeng tourism in contemporary Korea. (24)

In January 1989 when the Korean government sent an emissary to the funeral of Emperor Hirohito, women's organizations in South Korea protested to the government for not taking up against the Japanese government the unresolved issues of the latter's postwar responsibilities including the comfort women issue. Feminist activists raised the same issues during the state visit of President Roh Tae Woo to Japan in May 1990. The comfort women issue was first raised in Japan's Diet in June 1990 when a government official flatly denied any involvement of the state in the recruitment of comfort women. This denial angered women activists in Korea to an action that resulted in the formation of the Korean Council in November 1990. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I should also mention here that until the 1980s, when the Korean and U.S. troops regularly conducted the joint military exercises called "Team Spirit," the kijich'on sex workers became camp followers.(25) Calling themselves "the blanket brigade," they would follow the soldiers' move during the exercise and each would offer sexual service to twenty to thirty soldiers a day. In the 1990s, the joint military exercises were curtailed but the camp following prostitution for the U.S. military continues, generating the coinage of the 'second generation of military comfort women'. The activists working for the kijich'on sex workers point out that the historical legacy of Japan's comfort women continues in Korea's kijich'on serving this time the U.S. military. The atrocities of Japan's imperial army in violating women's human rights have been revealed in recent years, but few people in the United States are aware of heinous sexual crimes committed by American military men, most of whom go unpunished due to the unequal Status of the Forces Agreement (SOFA) contracted between the superpower United States and the newly industrializing Republic of Korea in 1967.

Let me mention one murder case that prompted an unprecedented mass demonstration of 3,000 people in a kijich'on called Tongduch'ôn in 1992.(26) Kenneth Markle (twenty years old at the time of the crime), a private of the U.S. Army stationed in South Korea, murdered Yoon Keum-I, a twenty-six-years-old sex worker, by battering her with a Coke bottle and stuffing it into her womb. He also shoved an umbrella into the anus of the bleeding, dying woman and stuffed matches into her mouth. He then sprinkled soap powder over her body, apparently to eliminate evidence of the murder. The cruelty of the crime enraged the residents of the kijich'on to stage a series of mass demonstrations, and eventually contributed to the formation of an NGO, "The National Campaign for Eradication of Crime by U.S. Troops in Korea," in 1993. According to them, an average of two crimes were committed daily by U.S. troops from January 1993 to June 1996 and that on average the Korean government exercises jurisdiction in 0.7 percent of cases. The above-mentioned murder case is one of the very few cases in which the criminal is serving his sentence in a prison in South Korea.

Concluding Remarks

In the Korean media and official discourse, prostitutes are referred to as yullak yôsông, literally 'ethically fallen women'. Yet men who purchase sexual service from these 'fallen women' are not called 'ethically fallen men', reflecting the fundamental bias against women sex workers in masculinist sexual culture. It is in this social and cultural context that some survivors have chosen not to reveal their past, and I am sorry to report that some of those who did had to suffer ostracism from their relatives and friends after their coming out. The survivor I interviewed in April 2000 was most bitter about it.

If we are serious about our commitment to the enhancement of life conditions of humanity, we must confront the global realities of predominance of men's sex-rights over women's human rights,(27) be they sex workers, single or married women. Many women and children who work in the sex industry whether willingly or forcibly are predominantly from poor families in search of livelihood. Prostitution is regarded as the world's oldest profession and no society has gotten rid of it. If this new century is to be a century of human rights, we cannot avoid the issue of human dignity of sex workers in the booming international sex industry in which consumers of sexual service belong to richer classes and/or more powerful nation-states that not only exploit providers of sexual service economically but also demean them socially and psychologically.

Although there are various signs of significant change in the patterns of gender power relations, masculinist sexism that permeated the traditional sexual cultures of Korea, Japan and other patriarchal societies is still prevalent today. More than a quarter of a century after women began fighting against sex tourism, Japanese men's sex tours flourish discreetly in South Korea. In December 1998, the police in Seoul arrested fifteen people including the bosses and employees of five sex trade organizations. What shocked the public was that the women involved in the sex tours included not only professional women working in the entertainment industry but also television and theater actresses, fashion models, foreign flight attendants, department store employees, and graduate school students.

The sex crimes of the U.S. servicemen in South Korea continue. The latest murder of a Korean woman working at a bar for foreigners in Itaewon by an American soldier that came to my attention was first reported in a newspaper on March 29, 2000. The soldier, a twenty-two-year-old corporal, fled from the 8th U.S. Army compound after a consultation session with a lawyer in the morning of April 28, 2000, when the first hearing on his murder charge was scheduled at Seoul District Court.(28) The Korean police arrested him several hours later but had to hand him over to the U.S. authority due to the SOFA terms.(29)

To conclude, human rights activists for the comfort women issue in Korea and elsewhere, whose representation of comfort women as military sex slaves has focused on Japan's postwar responsibilities, must acknowledge that masculinist sexual culture was at the root of the comfort system, and address a fundamental social and political reality that the gross violations of human rights of comfort women originated from power inequity between the sexes, classes, and nation-states. One of the social implications of personal ordeals former comfort women had suffered both during and after the war is that similar tragedies will befall many more women unless patriarchal societies change their sexual culture. Prostitution is conventionally defined in terms of unethical behaviors of 'fallen women' while many men commonly depend on the sexual labor of socially despised women. We must move away from the mentality of blaming the victims to that of according full humanity to the downtrodden and search new ways to deal with old problems in order to help improve life conditions for all humankind. The masculinist sexual culture must give way to a humanist sexual culture in which each person's humanity is respected regardless of sex, race, and social status.

Acknowledgements: I acknowledge with gratitude the financial support from the Northeast Asia Council for the Association for Asian Studies, San Francisco State University, the Japan Foundation, and the International Institute for Asian Studies of the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, which funded field research in Korea, Japan, and the Netherlands. The research time to write this paper was supported by a grant from the Research and Writing Initiative of the Global Security and Sustainability Program of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, for which I am thankful.


1. See Pateman 1988.
2. Nishino 1992:46.
3. See Yoshimi 1995:79-80.
4. Hata (1998) asserts that Japanese women, not Koreans, constituted the majority ethnic group at comfort stations set up for exclusive use of the military.
5. See Soh 2000a for a further discussion of the Dutch case.
6. In this article I add Asia to the term "Pacific War" (which Ienaga [1978:xiii] uses to cover the "Fifteen Year War," from the Manchurian Incident in 1931 to Japan's defeat in 1945) with a purpose to highlight human sufferings experienced by the peoples in Asia during that war.
7. See Soh 2000a.
8. For more details see Enloe 1990, 1993; Sturdevant and Stoltzfus 1992.
9. See Soh 1996.
10. Interview with Yun Chông-ok, a co-representative of the Korean Council, January 7, 1995.
11. Marcus 1999.
12. Kwon 1999.
13. Ibid., pp. 215-217; Chang 1986.
14. See Kim et al. 1972.
15. For Kim's testimony, see Chôngsindae Yôn'guhoe and Chôngsindae Munje Taechaek Hyôpûihoe 1993.
16. Korean automobile mechanics and many drivers use the Japanese term, jôshi, to talk about the condition of the engine. For example, engine jôshi ga chotta (The engine is in good condition) uses the Japanese term, jôshi, as well as the English term engine.
17. Licensed prostitution was abolished in postwar Japan in 1946 (see Garon 1997).
18. For more details, see Korean Church Women United (KCWU) 1983.
19. Ibid., p. 24.
20. See Moon 1997.
21. See KCWU 1983: 55-56.
22. Han'guk Kyohoe Yôsông Yônhaphoe 1983:23.
23. Ibid., p. 16.
24. For more details, see Soh 1996.
25. See H. S. Kim 1997.
26. The National Campaign for Eradication of Crime by U.S. Troops in Korea, n.d.
27. See Soh 2000b for a discussion of the meaning of women's human rights for the survivors.
28. Han'guk Ilbo (April 29, 2000, B11).
29. KBS TV evening news, April 28, 2000.


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