Records shows American authorities permitted the "comfort women" system to continue in Japan after World War II.
TOKYO — Japan’s abhorrent practice of enslaving women to provide sex for its troops in World War II has a little-known sequel: After its surrender — with tacit approval from the U.S. occupation authorities — Japan set up a similar “comfort women” system for American troops.
A review of historical documents and records — some never before translated into English — shows U.S. authorities permitted the official brothel system to operate despite internal reports that women were being coerced into prostitution. The Americans also had full knowledge by then of Japan’s atrocious treatment of women in countries across Asia that it conquered during the war.
Tens of thousands of women were employed to provide cheap sex to U.S. troops until spring 1946, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur shut the brothels down.
The documents show the brothels were rushed into operation as U.S. forces poured into Japan beginning in August 1945.
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“Sadly, we police had to set up sexual-comfort stations for the occupation troops,” recounts the official history of the Ibaraki Prefectural Police Department, whose jurisdiction is just northeast of Tokyo. “The strategy was, through the special work of experienced women, to create a breakwater to protect regular women and girls.”
The orders from the Ministry of the Interior came Aug. 18, 1945, a day before a Japanese delegation flew to the Philippines to negotiate the terms of its country’s surrender and occupation.
The Ibaraki police immediately set to work. The only suitable facility was a dormitory for single police officers, which they quickly converted into a brothel. Bedding from the navy was brought in, along with 20 women. The brothel opened Sept. 20.
“The comfort women … had some resistance to selling themselves to men who just yesterday were the enemy, and because of differences in language and race, there were a great deal of apprehensions at first. But they were paid highly, and they gradually came to accept their work peacefully,” the history says.
Police officials and Tokyo businessmen established a network of brothels under the auspices of the Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA), which operated with government funds. On Aug. 28, 1945, an advance wave of occupation troops arrived in Atsugi, south of Tokyo. By nightfall, the troops found the RAA’s first brothel.
U.S. historian John Dower, in his book “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII,” says the charge for a short session with a prostitute was 15 yen, or about a dollar.
Seiichi Kaburagi, the chief of public relations for the RAA, wrote in a 1972 memoir that the sudden demand forced brothel operators to advertise for women who were not licensed prostitutes.
Natsue Takita, whose relatives were killed in the war, responded to an ad seeking an office worker. She was told the only positions available were for comfort women and was persuaded to accept the offer.
According to Kaburagi’s memoirs, Takita, then 19, jumped in front of a train a few days after the brothel started operations.
“The worst victims … were the women who, with no previous experience, answered the ads calling for ‘Women of the New Japan,’ ” he wrote. By the end of 1945, about 350,000 U.S. troops were occupying Japan. At its peak, Kaburagi wrote, the RAA employed 70,000 prostitutes to serve them.
Although there are suspicions, there is not clear evidence non-Japanese comfort women were imported to Japan as part of the program.
Toshiyuki Tanaka, a history professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, cautioned that Kaburagi’s number is hard to document. But he added the RAA was only part of the picture; the number of private brothels outside the official system was likely even higher.
A Dec. 6, 1945, memorandum from Lt. Col. Hugh McDonald, a senior officer with the Public Health and Welfare Division of the occupation’s General Headquarters, shows U.S. occupation forces were aware the Japanese comfort women were often coerced.
“The girl is impressed into contracting by the desperate financial straits of her parents and their urging, occasionally supplemented by her willingness to make such a sacrifice to help her family,” he wrote. “It is the belief of our informants, however, that in urban districts the practice of enslaving girls, while much less prevalent than in the past, still exists.”
Amid complaints from military chaplains and concerns that disclosure back home of the brothels would be an embarrassment, on March 25, 1946, MacArthur placed all brothels, comfort stations and other places of prostitution off-limits. The RAA soon collapsed.
MacArthur’s primary concern was not only a moral one. By that time, Tanaka says, more than a quarter of all U.S. troops in the occupation forces had a sexually transmitted disease.