Japanese officials helped procure wartime sex slaves, report claims

Justin McCurry in Tokyo
Photograph: YONHAP/EPA

The Japanese imperial army asked the government to provide one wartime sex slave for every 70 soldiers serving in China in the late 1930s, according to dispatches that offer evidence of official involvement in the recruitment of women to work in military brothels.

The dispatches from Japanese diplomatic missions in China include requests to the foreign ministry in Tokyo to provide “comfort women”, Kyodo news agency reported. The term was a euphemism used to describe tens of thousands of women from Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and other countries who were forced into sexual servitude before and during the second world war.

Related: 'Comfort women': anger as Japan paper alters description of WWII terms

The dispatches appear to support claims by historians and campaigners that the Japanese government played a role in procuring the women, while challenging the narrative given by Japanese conservatives – including senior figures in the governing Liberal Democratic party – that the women did not work against their will.

Their ordeal has been a constant source of friction between Japan and South Korea since the early 1990s, when the first survivor went public with her story.

One dispatch sent to the foreign ministry from the consul general of Qingdao in China’s Shandong province cites a request from the imperial army to provide one woman for every 70 soldiers, the Kyodo report said.

The dispatch said the Japanese invasion had caused a surge in prostitution in the area, with 101 “geisha” from Japan, 110 comfort women from Japan and 228 from Korea.

Another dispatch, from the consul general of Jinan in the same province, says that “at least 500 comfort women must be concentrated here” to provide sexual services to advancing soldiers, Kyodo added. The dispatch noted that 186 women had been taken further south in military vehicles after Japanese forces occupied Xuzhou in Jiangsu province.

The materials were collected by the cabinet secretariat between April 2017 and March 2019, the news agency said. Of the 23 documents, 13 are classified dispatches to the foreign ministry from Japanese consulates dated 1938, a year after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident triggered war between the two countries.

The documents lend weight to a 1993 statement in which the then chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, acknowledged and apologised for the first time for Japan’s use of sex slaves.

“This is a clear sign that the Japanese government is accountable for forcefully recruiting Korean women for sexual enslavement,” said Yoon Mi-hyang, head of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

Under its conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, Japan has attempted to play down the government’s involvement in procuring comfort women.

In 2015 Japan and South Korea agreed to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the comfort women issue. Japan apologised to the victims and provided 1bn yen ($9m) to a fund for the surviving women, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s. But the agreement has unraveled due to strong opposition among the South Korean public.

Relations between the two east Asian neighbours have deteriorated since South Korea’s supreme court ruled in favour of South Koreans seeking compensation from Japanese firms for wartime forced labour.

Japan insists that all compensation claims related to the comfort women and forced labourers were settled by a 1965 bilateral peace treaty.

The dispute has widened in recent months to include trade, tourism and cultural exchanges.

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