By Susan Brownmiller
In December 1991, three Korean women who had been abducted into Japanese military brothels during World War II filed a dramatic class-action lawsuit in a Tokyo court. After a half-century of shame, anonymity, and hardship, the aged survivors were ready to tell their personal stories, and to demand an apology and reparations from the Japanese government on behalf of an estimated 100,000 victims.
The women's campaign had begun in Seoul with a call for a public memorial and had escalated into impromptu confrontations with Japanese diplomats. Their tactical leader, an active feminist, was Professor Yun Chung Ok of Ehwa Women's University. As a young schoolgirl, Professor Yun herself had narrowly escaped abduction and conscription into the brothels. Aided by church women and a sisterly coalition of Japanese feminists who were equally intent on righting an historic wrong, the Koreans' demand for belated justice was covered widely by the foreign media, putting the term “comfort woman” into the international lexicon.
Thus, the world learned of a highly organized trafficking system during the Pacific War run by the Japanese Imperial Army, secret police, and local “labor recruitors” using the ruse of legitimate jobs for good pay. Girls and women taken from country villages, or hijacked in broad daylight on city streets, became a human cargo that was transported to barracks on frontline posts, jungle airstrips, and base camps, where the captives remained in sexual servitude until the war's end.
Japan's military brothels were not exactly an undocumented story when the Korean comfort women launched their international campaign. Two books on the subject published in the 1970s had assumed a modest place in Japan's growing literature of conscience, but the research of Kim Il Myon, a Korean, and Senda Kako, a Japanese, had produced little interest and only scant indignation. It took the rise of an indigenous feminist movement in Asia to supply the moral outrage and place the dormant issue in a modern context.
Yuki Tanaka, the son of a Japanese military man, is the latest historian, and certainly the most meticulous, exhaustive scholar, to explore the dimensions of the comfort women story. In addition to ferreting out fresh documentation from buried and forgotten sources, he creates an original overview by moving