The extent to which Japan violated conventions of international humanitarian law regarding Korean military comfort women has undergone large-scale debate. Although its treatment of these women goes against the principles of such laws, Japan found multiple loop-holes regarding these conventions, blurring the lines concerning its violations. Moreover, the prosecution of Japan under military tribunals lacked crimes concerning Korean populations in its entirety. This investigation will apply analysis of testimonies from Korean comfort women to different conventions on international humanitarian law. Furthermore, legal analysis by authors, academics, and lawyers will be applied. Ultimately, this investigation argues that although Imperial Japan’s ownership of Korean military comfort women avoided prosecution under military tribunals, and exempted its colonies from specific clauses in international law, the extent to which Japan violated conventions on international humanitarian law remains great due to the nature and foundations of such agreements.
With Korea and Taiwan as its colonies,1 and multiple territories as protectorates by 1942, Japan had large-scale influence over East-Asia. Throughout its expansion to mainland territories, Japan established military comfort stations, where women from its overseas expansions would be imprisoned as prostitutes to serve military personnel. Although a majority, around 80-90% of these women,2 came from Korea3, the exact number of the comfort women mobilized to these brothels is unknown. This limitation is because of Japan’s destroying of military documents following its defeat in 1945.4 However, according to remaining documents, the number of comfort women ranged between 100,000-200,000.5 Moreover, the majority of Korean comfort women were from impoverished, rural backgrounds, regarded as young and optimistic. Although the women were initially lured by human-traffickers, government officials and Japanese police joined in recruitments for comfort stations.6 Furthermore, a majority of these women were under 20 years-old,2 laying way for the debates that surfaced regarding Japan’s contested violations against established conventions.
Recollections from Howard’s book indicate multiple violations of humanitarian law, such as sexual slavery, whose injunction Japan ratified through the 1907 Hague Convention IV. The convention prohibits enslaving prisoners of war and occupied civilians as customary international law. The recollection of Kim T’aesõn and Ha Sunnyõ, one of many Korean comfort women sent to comfort stations, such as in Burma and Shanghai, showcase the way these women were subjected to sexual slavery.7 Although the Hague Convention does make an exception in forced labor, saying people enslaved for “the needs of the army occupation” are in fact allowed,8 sex work does not fall under military needs for occupation, and is therefore exempt from this exception. Moreover, the convention prohibits rape (emphasized in Article 46), demanding “respect for family honor”.9 Ultimately, clauses in the Hague Convention IV of 1907 indicate the ways in which sexual slavery was criminalized; Howard’s collection of testimonies consequently shows the way in which the Japanese military personnel violated such regulations.
The second convention analyzed is the International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic of 1910, which prohibits human trafficking, prostitution and rape. These prohibitions are exemplified in Article 1 of the convention, regulating provisions of criminal punishment for its offenders.10 Although Japan ratified the convention, its Article 11 discusses the exemption of colonies in the treaty. The article dictates that a country’s will to apply these laws on colonies must be submitted by declaration to the Government of the French Republic.11 As Japan did not perform such measures, it ultimately exempted its colonies – Korea and Taiwan – from international humanitarian law.
However, loopholes that existed in conventions often fell in Japan’s favor, such as in the 1921 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic of Women and Children. According to a report by Amnesty International, Japan consistently defended itself against condemnation through discrepancies between the issue of comfort women, and international conventions.12 Such an example arises in Article 14 of the convention, which exempts countries from applying the agreement’s regulations on its colonies.13 Thus, the government and military considered the rounding up of Korean and Taiwanese women exempt from international humanitarian law, and “turned Korea and Taiwan into supply depots for military comfort women.”14 Therefore, it can be reasonably inferred, that although Japan found exemptions under the peculiarities of articles in different conventions, the nature of its treatment of Korean comfort women still deeply violated the nature and foundation of such agreements.
The extent to which Japan faced consequences over its treatment of the Korean comfort women was determined in the processes executed in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. The international court defined in its charter the aspects of crimes against humanity, first put into practice in the Charter of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal established after WWII. The definition of crimes against humanity in the charter includes not only usual war crimes but also inhumane acts, and is therefore not limited to crimes committed in wartimes or war zones.15 Therefore, the definition opens the scope under which Japan could’ve been tried to the extent of Korean comfort women, as the charter made no exemptions in terms of colonial land.
However, instead of Japan finding loopholes in former conventions, the Tribunal didn’t try the country for any such crime. The only suspects tried in the Court were under criminal classification “A”, the suspicion of committing crimes against peace. All crimes classified “B” (war crimes) or “C” (crimes against humanity) were to be tried under national and other courts. Therefore, all such crimes concerning Korea were left without trial, as the colony had no working government at the time. This allocation of crime classifications was ultimately due to the lack of attempts made by American and European prosecutors and judges to confront the issue of comfort women, moreover any crimes committed against other Asian peoples, emphasizing the racial bias that was prevalent at the time.14 Therefore, it can be reasonably inferred, that besides from Japan finding loopholes in different conventions, the way in which the prosecution of Japan lacked of indictments regarding crimes against Korean comfort women was also due to western bias perpetrated by European and American jurists; their concentration was instead concluded under violations against western militaries and populations.
In conclusion, although Imperial Japan avoided prosecution in tribunals following its defeat in 1945, it largely violated the nature of conventions on international humanitarian law. This legal deterrence was not only due to peculiarities in the agreements, but also the racism and lack of prosecution by western judges, leaving crimes against Korean civilians without trial. Testimonies by Korean comfort women of 1930-1945 act as primary proof of the atrocities Japan committed in violation of the nature of the treaties it ratified. The case of Korean comfort women therefore acts as another example of the corrupt nature of international courts and conventions during the 20th century.