[Book]Interview with Dr Caroline Norma on her book The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars

We at Seoul Connect interviewed Dr. Caroline Norma about her latest book. We previously published a review and this interview in Korean. Caroline is an expert in the area of ‘comfort women’ (translated into English from the Japanese 慰安婦), a term used to describe women who were prostituted for specific use by Japanese soldiers between the years 1932 – 1945.

Her book The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars is a vital read for anyone wanting to understand the specificity of the system of sexual exploitation engineered by the Japanese military that sexually enslaved up to 200,000 women. Framed within the wider picture of prostitution the book applies Andrea Dworkin’s conceptualization of prostituted women as a ‘scapegoated’ group, a category of women who exist as the bottom social group of women, towards who sexual violence is normalised and not considered wrong, as it might be towards women outside of that group. Indeed, ‘comfort stations’ were partly created to provide soldiers with readily available prostituted women in order to reduce the incidence of wartime rape in the wider female population that had the potential to fuel anti-Japanese sentiment across the occupied territories. If one section of women could be siphoned off for organised rape, the chaos that might ensue if soldiers committed ‘disorganised’ random rape on women of the local occupied population (to the infuriation of local men, an infuriation that may lead to revolt) could be safely staved off and redirected into the comfort system.

The territory that housed Japan’s network of ‘comfort stations’ spanned Korea, China, and the Philippines, with women used in them coming from as far afield as Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar (then Burma), Indonesia (then Malaya), Taiwan, Hong Kong, and even some from Japan, almost all places subject to invasion, colonisation, and occupation by other imperial powers (the French, Spanish, British, Chinese, Dutch, amongst others) prior to and across the 1932 – 1945 timeframe.


Beyond the hundreds of thousands of ‘comfort women’, the book helps the reader, even a new reader to the issue, comprehend how prostitution is used to maintain men’s status as the dominant sexual group. The use of ‘comfort women’ by military regimes operates as a way to solidify men as a fraternity, in this case a brigade or army unit, who engage in male bonding at the cost of the women perpetrated against. How that translates more widely to men as a sex class is made clear through the book’s treatment of history. 

The horrors of what takes place to the bodies of prostituted women, horrors recounted themselves, and their tactics to cope with the damage done to them, are detailed unflinchingly and soberly. A rare example in a world where the torturous realities of prostitution are so often hidden under the ‘sex work’ rubric (the postmodern woke version of the ‘happy hooker’ trope used by the pimp lobby).

If we are to truly arm ourselves with the knowledge to battle women’s oppression, we must absorb the historical factual accounts of women who came before us. Inside the academy today there is a concerted effort by some ‘scholars’ to rewrite the ‘comfort women’ narrative, suggesting these women were willing participants in their own sexual enslavement and brutality. How that marries with those women’s campaigns to gain compensation from the Japanese government, and receive recognition as survivors, is anyone’s guess, but it must certainly harm their cause. It logically suggests an invalidity to any claims of systemic abuses and a dishonesty on their part. In a way we see here again another rendition of Dworkin’s ‘scapegoating’ (a select group of women who should not gain recognition for harms caused, or be awarded proper compensation, because they somehow have a special low status as formerly prostituted women). Aligning with the Japanese government, rather than sexually exploited women who decades later are still fighting, is a very strange thing for anyone calling themselves a feminist to do. 

These women’s histories and experiences should not be forgotten, or we do risk ceding ground to historical revisionism. That is why this book’s in-depth account is an important primer on the topic and stands as a lasting testimony to women’s history.

Purchase The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars in English here. The book is available to buy in Korean here.

Interview with Dr. Caroline Norma

Jen: In your book your use of Dworkin’s conception of ‘scapegoating’ led me as a reader to think about how ‘comfort women’ were used in war, to be raped, in a way instead perhaps of the generalised local population of women (as has happened in so many other wars) and might have wider implications / represent something bigger. Was that considered more efficient? From a ruthless calculating and cynical point of view, in a conscious way by military leaders. And maybe it was considered less threatening to men of the local population (who may have revolted had rape of local women been more widespread). That seems to be the case from the book, but how explicit do you think it was at the time? 

Caroline: Yes, in the rhetoric of the Japanese military at the time, the justification that the comfort stations would prevent rapes of local women, and that this would make the military’s presence/activities easier in occupied/garrisoned locations was explicit and constantly repeated. However, I think the comfort women system was provided to troops for the wholly different reason that it was a prostitution system, and prostitution in brothel-like venues was a privilege of middle/upper class men back in Japan at that time in history, and so was seen by rank-and-file troops as a real treat. It was provided to them as an exciting leisure opportunity, and they enjoyed women’s sexual slavery as such. These men did, of course, also rape local women, but most of them just enjoyed the male supremacist fun of going to a comfort station with their unit comrades and enjoying the sexual use of a woman. I think most historians overlook this aspect of the comfort women system–that it was a prostitution system, and this fact was very important to its existence and operation. 

Jen: If that extends to the wider understanding, that even in societies not at war prostituted women exist as an always sexually available, accessible sexual resource, so the rest of women have some reprieve, can we think about it in economics terms? 

Caroline: Yes, in some respects, prostitution is sexier for men than rape, and a lot less hassle. In prostitution they can experience the joy of having someone degrade themselves upon command, and knowing that the woman will do with a smile on her face. I know people see rape as somehow more ‘extreme’ or polarised as a sexual practice, but I think differently that prostitution is the pinnacle of male sexuality–it’s the practice in which men can really do with women as they’ve seen in pornography. Plus, yes, the economic element usually means they’ve got leverage in the situation that they wouldn’t necessarily have with rape, and they’ve got whole industries encouraging their practice of prostitution. Rape is surely a wasted money-making opportunity for some pimp, so why not encourage men to prostitute women in the most inhuman of ways instead, so it ends up exactly as rape anyway.

Jen: So if prostituted women are a scapegoated group alongside, say, migrants when they are blamed by racist politicians for a lack of jobs or housing (often whilst doing the worst jobs and living in the worst housing), can that particular category somehow become very helpful in abolition? Because scapegoating is often thought of as a rhetorical issue (as with migrants) only and that we simply need to see a group in a better light i.e sex positivity would lead us to view that we only need to deny prostitution is a negative thing, as if scapegoating is just an attitude. Is the way forward to understand scapegoating as structural? So, like how migrants are understood structurally as a surplus labour force (at least in Marxism), prostituted women could be seen as a reserve surplus category of women that exist for the sexual purposes of men, in part of the heterosexual exchange economy where women were historically, and in many ways today remain, a sexual resource to be bartered? And that the ‘scapegoated’ group, which is a structural category, requires the function of ideological scapegoating.

Caroline: These thoughts are excellent; I hadn’t thought of the concept in that way. I’m afraid my thoughts were limited only to the way feminists, or people supposedly sympathetic to sex crimes against women in war or peace, nearly always argue for the wrongness of rape and other crimes at the specific expense of prostituted women. Nearly all the DV/sexual assault women’s orgs in Australia are pro-sex work, and nearly all feminist writers on the topic of “sexual violence in war” either ignore prostitution completely or describe it as military “sex work”. I don’t think this scapegoating of prostituted women is an accident, they desperately rely on liberal notions of “ownership of the self” to make gains for women in relation to topics like rape and abortion, but they must therefore endorse prostitution if they’re going to promote a liberal notion of the individual.

Jen: There’s some discussion on pages 23-24 of prostitution necessarily negating women’s human rights – how do you think that understanding might be taken forward so it becomes the norm? Other than understanding prostitution as sexual violence and framing it that way, is there much space at a legislative level to understand prostitution in that way?  The UN has a stance against trafficking, but what global powers might be amenable to insert anti-prostitution into human rights law? And at the heart of that would we not have to understand – and create a societal consensus around – prostitution as rape? The book seems to have that understanding (prostitution is rape), but does the human rights case rest on it?

Caroline: Yes, I think the concept of “paid rape” is our best possible chance at the international-human-rights-organisational level for having prostitution recognised as violence against women, and therefore a human rights issue. As you say, trafficking is recognised, but I don’t think we’ve been successful in having that vehicle lead to understanding of prostitution as a human rights issue. But “paid rape” is a simple, short-cut way for people to see the harm of prostitution, and leaves no room for acceptable types of prostitution to be conjured up. The “comfort women” concept should also be used more often by abolitionists, I think, and we should start treating current-day victims as modern-day comfort women, and brothels as peacetime comfort stations etc. The “comfort women” attract a great deal of public sympathy in Asia especially, and it would be good to overlap in the public mind prostitution victims of today, to get people to see they’re the same group of women, just at two different points in history.

Jen: I liked how on pages 129-130 you explain the entire ‘system operated as a vehicle for the international promulgation of the gender-based harms of Japan’s sex industry’. But linking this promotion of gender norms back to the local Chinese population, my question is, in the places you mention on page 102, Harbin and Port Arthur, where around 3 out of 4 women were prostituted, is the cultural impact of this known in terms of the sexual politics of those places today? Are they more gender normative and oppressive areas for women to live still? 

Caroline: No, luckily the Chinese revolution purged most of the Japanese colonial influences. It was in colonies like Hong Kong that they continued. They also continued in South Korea right up until 2004 when the country finally introduced a Nordic Model-type law and began dismantling the old Japanese colonial sex industry districts. They’ve made a big effort to now turn those districts into art precincts etc (as you will know). Japan today is most influential in terms of sex industry transmission in Taiwan where its pornographic exports are mostly found in Asia. South Korea blocked Japanese cultural imports until around 2007, and still blocks most internet pornography (at least compared to Japan’s lax environment). The Chinese revolution was a blessing for Asian women, at least in terms of creating a break with the Japanese colonialist influences and all the sex industry activity they brought.

Jen: In the end conclusion you discuss today’s sex industry in Japan’s ties to, and in a sense formative model in, the comfort women station. Is the relationship between then and now that the more recognition the comfort women system receives the easier to us to unpick apologism around the sex industry today? Or, has it been possible at times to view the comfort women as a brutal relic of the past in order to stage today’s sex industry as very different, more humane, and a better modern update, etc.?

Caroline: Great question! I think the comfort women history makes more difficult the sex industry’s legitimacy today, even if, of course, the sex industry enjoys almost unfettered operation in Japan. But this operation is under constant pressure from the history of the comfort women system–abolitionists refer to it constantly in campaigning, and of course the history influences feminist activity in South Korea to good effect. It’s unfortunately the case that abolitionism is not yet a successful movement in Japan, but I think it has lots of potential, including because of the comfort women history, which the left is very conscious of here, including the male-left. The only time I’ve seen the comfort women system being used to defend modern-day ‘sex work’ is in the scholarship of elite liberal feminist Americans. I’ve not seen it defended in Japan that way. 

Taekyung: As you may know, I share the current situation in Korea.  After a major incident of corruption by private organizations, it was decided to no longer entrust the comfort women’s support project to private companies, but to manage it through the ‘Women and Family Department’ at the national level.  In addition, in Korea, there has been a process of closing sexual exploitation centers by region, and financial support projects for sexually exploited women have begun.  However, after the emergence of the corona virus, the budget for projects supporting sexually exploited women has been reorganized to prevent coronavirus, and is currently temporarily suspended.

The sexual exploitation industry in Korea that gradually changes its shape and grows in size and is continuously derived.  I think Japan will be no different.  In this respect, your book refers to Japanese and Korean societies that have long tolerated sexual exploitation under the theme of comfort women.  So, can you share your thoughts on how the sisters who read your book could cut off the constantly transforming sex-exploitation industry in some practical ways?

Caroline: This is worrying to hear of the budget cuts to services for prostitution survivors and their support centres in South Korea. Yes, the constant diversification and proliferation of the sex industry’s enterprises makes the abolitionist task difficult, and especially now with Corona and capital’s escalating shift online. But I think we are living in a small window of time in which the recorded footage of women’s sexual exploitation still has the potential to shock/outrage the public into allowing public policy measures against pornography/prostitution (mostly filmed these days). In 20 years time, footage of women’s sexual torture won’t shock anyone, so we need to hurry now to get governments to implement internet regulation measures that will impede the commercial activities of pornographers. I think we need to accept that most prostitution is now morphing into pornography, and so tackling the internet-based dissemination of pornography will be a means of suppressing the prostitution of women. The Trafficking Hub (anti-Porn Hub) campaign in the US seemed to attract support after one still-photo of a woman being tortured was disseminated on social media. I wonder if the N-room incident gained attention in a similar way? Unfortunately, it’s the case now that women’s prostitution has become visible through recorded footage, but we should use this opportunity to rally opposition among women to women’s sexual exploitation, on the basis of shocking still-photos. But this doesn’t address the problem of reduced budgets for services for survivors, which are critical to the success of abolition in any country. In Japan, one of the feminist direct-service providers who used to cater to survivors of pornography have widened their activities to survivors of “revenge pornography”, and have attracted more funding as a result. I suppose it’s the case that pornography/prostitution are becoming crimes against a wider range of women now, and so maybe we need to lobby for budgets for services that cater to victims both inside and outside the industry.

Taekyung: The proportion of foreign men among the perpetrators of sexual exploitation in Southeast Asia is high.  This means that sexual exploitation in these regions is responsible not only domestically, but also other countries.  So, what responsibilities can we have as feminists abroad? In countries where male populations often travel for sex tourism. What actions can help sexually exploited women realistically?  

Caroline: Yes, especially with the development of web-cam prostitution services, and the future development of 5G technology, this problem of foreign men sexually exploiting women and girls in South East Asia is only going to get worse. Australian men are very involved in those kinds of crimes. Surprisingly, governments like that of India and Cambodia have acted quickly to shut down surrogacy businesses catering to foreigners in their domestic jurisdictions, and I wonder why they don’t act so decisively against local sex businesses catering to foreigners. While extra-territoriality provisions in all of our anti-trafficking/prostitution/child pornography laws are important for countries like Australia and South Korea, more important, I think, are our efforts to strength abolitionism in SEAsian countries. We need feminists in those countries to be empowered to pressure their governments to shut down local businesses catering to foreign sex buyers, and to regulate internet pornography sites (like Thailand’s government recently did). Asia-wide abolitionism will be the quickest and most effective way to make South East Asia a hostile place for male tourists from abroad.

Taekyung: And is there anything you would like to tell Korean sisters about anti-sexual exploitation projects and movements occurring in Southeast Asia? 

Caroline: I recently attended a feminist abolitionist workshop held by Philippine abolitionists in Bali, which was sponsored by the Canadian government. As you will know, Canada has Nordic Model legislation, and so this sponsorship was possible for an organisation that operated on principles explicitly rejecting prostitution. Interestingly, South East Asia has its own regional anti-trafficking law (separate from the Palermo Protocol) that is administered by ASEAN. Apart from in the Philippines, there appears to be little abolitionist mobilisation in South East Asia, but it is likely that anti-prostitution ideas would gain quick acceptance in many South East Asian countries, due to cultural and religious factors, plus the history of foreign sexual exploitation in places like Thailand. As you will know, there has been some success with anti-pornography measures in Indonesia (even apart from the religion-motivated government restrictions). I do not know of any abolitionist groups in Vietnam, but that country already has restrictions on prostitution owing to socialist policies. I think South East Asia, for a variety of reasons, is a region we should focus on in attempting to spread abolitionist ideas. Sisters in the Philippines are a good starting point, because they have a history of political radicalism, and are well-connected in the region (as you will already know). Supporting them to reach out to other women’s groups in the region would be a good strategy, I think.

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