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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Han

Comfort Women “Forced Recruitment” - Only Testimonies, No Evidence

Professor Ramseyer wrote in his thesis that the comfort women and comfort stations had a contractual relationship. The core of the criticism against him raised by Korean and American researchers, which is still active today, is the fact that he was not able to produce a single physical copy of such a contract or some sheets of paper (!) that describes the content of the contract. This criticism is rooted in a fundamental lack of understanding of the difference between Western contract culture, where the content of agreements are always documented, and Korean culture at the time, which was largely dependent on oral agreements.

The criticism that Ramseyer was not able to present a paper contract as evidence is based on the assumption and conviction that the contract did not exist in the first place. It is basically saying that, since the existence of any sort of contractual relationship is not possible, there can’t be a physical contract document. There are several reasons why people came to think this way. The critics of Ramseyer mostly share a conviction that the process through which Korean women became comfort women was not through a contract they entered into with the comfort stations, but they were forcibly taken by former Japanese military personnel, police or officials. Their standpoint is, since this was “forced recruitment”, what sense is there in talking about contracts and documents?

These critics claim to have mountains of evidence on which they base their “conviction”. These include the “testimonies” of the former comfort women “victims”; the “confession” of Seiji Yoshida, an “assailant”; the document discovered by Yoshiaki Yoshimi in 1992 that shows Japanese military’s instruction to execute “forced recruitment”; the Kono Statement, published in 1993 by the Japanese government including “apologies”; and research results from international organizations, like the Coomaraswamy Report from the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1996, Amnesty International, and the International Commission of Jurists. However, unlike the conviction of the critics, of all the “evidence” laid out here, the only ones that still remain today are the “testimonies” of the former comfort women. All of the other have either been proven to be fiction or simply based on these “testimonies”.

The reports issued by the international organizations were all based on the testimonies of the former comfort women and Seiji Yoshida, the document from the Japanese military, and the Kono Statement. Also, the Kono Statement was created by the Japanese government, which at the time was pressed into a corner where it seemed like almost every person was convinced that “testimonies from both the victims and the assailants indicate that Japanese military documents which objectively back them up must exist”.

However, after 1993, it was proven that those Japanese military documents were proven to have nothing to do with “forced recruitment”, and no other documents were found. Also, Seiji Yoshida’s “confession” turned out to be “fiction”. Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s most prolific newspaper that spent the most effort reporting on his “confession”, had to retract everything it reported on Seiji Yoshida. Even though at first glance, it looks like there is a mountain of evidence supporting the aforementioned critics, in reality, the only remaining evidence is the testimonies of the former comfort women. That is the objective truth.

So, are the former comfort women’s testimonies of “forced recruitment” trustworthy? In the beginning of the 1990s, when they first came out, their testimonies had nothing to do with “forced recruitment”. They described how they became comfort women through Koreans’ “employment fraud” or their parents’ “human trafficking”. However, after that, when the comfort women issue became a public socio-political issue in Korea and blew up into a diplomatic conflict between Korea and Japan, their words changed. They began saying that they were “forcibly recruited”. Their “testimonies” were tainted by politics. Let’s introduce one example of this.

Lee Yong-soo, a former comfort woman who is currently being treated in Korea like an elder authority and regards herself as a leader of an independence movement, appeared on KBS television on August 15th, 1992. When the interviewer asked her how she became a comfort woman, her response was as follows:

“I was 16 years old at the time, and was so poor that I had barely any clothes to wear nor any food to eat. One day, a person came to me and gave me a one-piece dress and a pair of shoes. The person gave me those and asked me to follow him, so I did, not knowing anything.”

This testimony clearly describes an incident in which a typical form of kidnapping committed by Koreans at the time. However, the same Lee Yong-soo, on February 16th, 2007, attended the United States House of Representatives’ hearing of comfort women victims as a witness. There, she made the following “testimony”, which contributed greatly to the US House’s resolution to censure Japan.

“A soldier and that girl came in, held my shoulder in one hand, covered my mouth with the other, and with the soldier poking me in the back with something, I was taken away, at night. I am the living evidence of history.”

The first problem of the “testimonies” of the former comfort women is that they are inconsistent, as shown above.

An even more important problem is that there is not a single shred of objective proof to back up any of their claims. There have been no public documents proving “forced recruitment” by Japanese officials, no records or testimonies of third-party witness as of such incidents. Those who assert that forced recruitment took place claim that an astounding 200,000 people were forcibly taken in that way, but over the past 30 years, they have not been able to produce a single piece of evidence to prove that claim. This is why we have no choice but to say that we can no longer trust these “testimonies” from the former comfort women.

Alexis Bray Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, who gained fame in Korea through television by standing on the forefront of the criticism against Ramseyer, stated that “if there are no documents to prove the claims or evidence, that claim is not true.” Additionally, she mentioned “deplorable”, “typical”, and “fraud”. Do the testimonies of the former comfort women clear the bar set by Professor Dudden?

If the “forced recruitment” by Japanese officials did not exist, how did Korean women become comfort women for the Japanese military? First, there were cases where a Korean recruiter approached the women with a nice job offer (employment fraud), and without letting them know the truth that they would be employed as comfort women, defrauded them and/or their parents to take them away or get their parents to sell them. In these cases, there is no need to create a comfort woman employment contract, and advance payments were either never paid, or paid at a smaller amount than what the women would have received if they had become a comfort woman with knowing it. However, even before the war, kidnapping involving employment fraud was a crime and was cracked down on by the police in Korea. This was because, at the time, there were thousands of such recruiters active in Korea.

Furthermore, in order to take a woman from Korea to an overseas comfort station, many official documents were required. First, those who traveled to China or South East Asia had to provide an “identification paper” that included purpose of travel and other details to be issued by the chief of police.

This was much stricter when it came to comfort women. Many documents were needed - the “temporary barmaid operating permission application” completed by both the comfort woman and the comfort station operator, ; two photographs; an agreement to accept employment, sealed by both the woman herself and the head of her family register; certificates of seal impression that proves the validity of the seals of all of the signatories above; a copy of the family register of the woman(The woman had to apply to get the agreement to accept employment, certificate of seal impression, and copy of the family register by herself in order to get these documents issued.); and the document prepared by the official of Japanese consulate after its interview with the woman and the operator including her intention to work at the comfort station. If the woman were brought in through employment fraud or abduction, it is highly unlikely that they would have been able to provide these documents.

There was also the possibility that problems could arise after the abducted woman arrived at the comfort station. The division of the military in charge of usage and management of the comfort stations made sure to confirm with the comfort woman herself if she was brought there fully knowing what kind of work she was signing up for. Because the military was in charge of confirming all of these documents and information beforehand, there were cases where the woman who was brought to the comfort station through fraud were sent back to their hometown.

Given all of the above, it makes sense to assume that there were far more cases where parents, fully aware of what their daughters would do, sold off their daughters through human trafficking, rather than cases of abduction. According to the newspapers at that time, parents who sold off their daughters were not rare, which made a widespread social issue. This was similar in mid-1920s Japan. One of the causes of the famous February 26th Incident of Japan in 1926 was the harsh situation where the soldiers were forced to sell their daughters.

These transactions stood on the border between illegal activities (human trafficking) and legal activities (execution of rights defined under the family register system, and legitimate employment intermediation). As a result, human trafficking became a societal problem referred to as “human meat market”, but majority of those who were investigated by the police and tried by the courts were found not guilty.

Given the above, it should be assumed that when the parents had their transaction with the recruiters, they knew where their daughters would go and what they would do. Even though there were no explicit written contracts, if the parents were aware, these are nothing but what we generally call contracts. The critics in Korea and the United States do not know about these realities of that time at all.

I wrote in another article, an assumption that the most typical cases between comfort women and operators are those where women who were already working as prostitutes within and outside of the Korean peninsula were recruited as comfort women. There are Korean testimonies that vividly illustrates the situation at the time. The reference material at question is the record of questioning against three Korean-born Japanese Navy civilian employees who were taken prisoner by the Americans in early 1945.

The question was, “Are regular Koreans aware that Korean women are being recruited as prostitutes for the Japanese military? What are the regular Koreans’ attitude towards this? Are you aware of any disturbances or discord created by this?”

The following was the response:

“All of the prostitutes we have seen in the Pacific are either volunteers or those who have been sold off by their parents as prostitutes. It is a Korean way of thinking that, if the Japanese had performed direct conscription of these women, all Koreans, young and old, would have risen up in indignation. The Korean men would have been driven by such rage that they would not think twice about their own safety when trying to kill every Japanese.”

This response clearly indicates first, that “forced recruitment” did not happen and was impossible. Second, it shows that human trafficking by parents, job transfers by prostitutes, and voluntary application by regular people were all very normal routes for entering into work at the comfort stations. I am not aware of any other testimony that so clearly provides an overview of how a person becomes a comfort woman.

If the main form of recruitment for the comfort women were human trafficking by their parents and job transfers from already active prostitutes, we must see this as the operators entering into a business contract with either the comfort women themselves or their parents. The comfort women were sex workers rather than sex slaves. Contracts between women and recruiters or operators for sexial work are not different from the ordinary employer-employee contracts that we see every day.

If some actors took action based on a fixed pattern, it means that a contract existed and the parties acted based on the contract. To deny this, one must first prove the non-existance of the following evidence provided by Ramseyer: the receipt of advance payments, the existence of contract periods, the split in revenue between the comfort woman and the comfort station: and so on.

However, none of the criticisms raised against the Ramseyer thesis have successfully done this, even partially. Given these points, I am strongly convinced that Professor Ramseyer’s thesis provides a great opportunity to begin seriously discussing the comfort women issue academically, in Korea and around the world..


The 3rd Way (The Korean Way) by Lee Woo-youn, March 2nd, 2021

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