Overview of Primary Sources Collection

by Jimin Kim*

The primary sources in this collection provide an essential narrative of crucial but overlooked history in the Asia Pacific prior to and during the Second World War (1930s-1945). They substantiate the historical truth about Imperial Japan’s use of systematic sexual and gender-based violence to further the goals of imperial expansion and military dominance. The Japanese military “comfort women” system is one of the largest known institutions of state-sponsored human trafficking and sexual slavery in the 20th century.

Importance of Primary Sources

Primary sources in history refer to documents and other records with first-hand accounts of events. They are raw evidence for historians to understand, analyze, and interpret the past and to provide historical context and perspective.

Together with oral testimonies of “comfort women” survivors and personal memoirs by former Japanese military personnel, the official military records are fundamental primary sources that shed light on the reality of the “comfort women” system, in which countless victims from multiple countries were taken against their will, without the capacity or resources to anticipate and fend against the unconscionable physical and psychological harm repeatedly inflicted upon them, and supervised and sanctioned by Japanese military personnel during the Asia Pacific War.

The selected primary source documents that are included in this collection fall into two categories: 1) documents created by the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces; and 2) documents, photographs, and videos produced by the Allied Forces.

Japanese Military Documents

At the end of the Second World War, as the Japanese military withdrew from Japan’s colonies and occupied territories, it systematically destroyed military records. Over a half-century later, through the efforts of historians including Japanese scholar Yoshimi Yoshiaki, a critical mass of Japanese military documents that confirms the nature of the “comfort women” system and the scope of the military’s involvement have been disclosed to the public.

These documents are among a group of records that escaped destruction by the Japanese military and were left unattended for decades. For example, some of the pre-1942 documents were stored in an underground warehouse in Hachiōji to protect them from Allied Forces’ air raids. When Allied Forces arrived, they seized those documents, brought them to the United States, and later returned them to the Self-Defense Agency’s National Institute for Defense Studies Library of Japan. However, no one recognized that this collection contained information about “comfort women,” until Yoshimi discovered them in 1991.1

This episode alone indicates that the documents produced thus far by the Japanese military – which created, oversaw, and perpetrated the comfort station system – are only a portion of all the written records that existed at one time. Further, many of the surviving documents are still classified and have not been made public by the current Japanese government.2  Because the bulk of the Japan-produced documents is not publicly available, there are aspects of this history that remain unknown.

An important point about the Japanese military documents is that these official records cannot -- and, in most cases, intentionally do not – capture the lived experiences of women and girls in comfort stations. The military was incentivized to avoid leaving a paper trail about rounding up victims in colonies and occupied territories, as well as about the actual conditions in comfort stations. Thus, the testimonies and memoirs of victims and responsible or complicit parties, such as former Japanese military personnel and medical officers, are necessary to grasp the shocking and often brutal reality of life in comfort stations, which is not apparent from the face of the “official” written texts.

Despite these limitations, the Japanese military documents that are available remain critical to grasping the scale, nature, organization, and other salient features of the “comfort women” system. Collectively, they establish that the Japanese military supervised and regulated comfort stations, including those operated by civilians. It is worth noting that the records consistently refer to “comfort women” as military supplies or objects, not human beings.

The documents in this collection are sourced from the thousands of Japanese military records that have been discovered so far. They are sub-grouped into four categories: 1) Establishment of the comfort station system; 2) Conscription and recruitment of women; 3) Transportation of women; and 4) Management of the comfort stations.

Documents in 1) the Establishment of the comfort station system reveal how the military authorities devised and developed the system. A provision in the “Revision of the Regulations on the Field Canteens” (1937) reads, “Comfort facilities may be created at the canteens if necessary, in addition to what is previously provided” (JS-1). This provision is significant because it authorized the expansion of comfort stations at field canteens as part of the military supply base.

Other documents implicate the Japanese military’s justifications for creating the “comfort women” system, such as purporting to raise troop morale and attempting to maintain discipline and prevent venereal disease. For example, in 1938, the Chief of Staff of the North China Area Army – which had command over all military units in northern China – issued a warning that the rapes that had already been committed by Japanese soldiers were causing anti-Japanese sentiment among the local population. He then ordered each unit under his command to install comfort facilities in order to prevent further problems related to local women being raped by Japanese soldiers (JS-4). Additional documents (JS-2 and JS-3) establish that the Japanese military and other government authorities worked closely together, and that they discussed their respective roles and a plan to recruit “comfort women” and to establish comfort stations for units based in China during 1937 to 1938.

Documents in 2) Conscription and recruitment of women show how local police tried to control the activities of recruiting agents via communication with military and higher-level government offices, as well as how military authorities began to systematically implement the recruitment of “comfort women” in cooperation with local police.

One of the important documents here is JS-13, the discovery and publicization of which in the 1990s had a significant impact in causing the Japanese government to reverse its previous denials and to finally admit that the Japanese military was involved in the “comfort women” system.3  This document is a notice that confirms the Ministry of the Army’s participation in the comfort station system. According to the notice, as of 1938, government authorities had knowledge that “comfort women” recruiters, to whom field army units had delegated the task of rounding up the women, were using methods that resembled kidnapping. The Ministry ordered armies in the field to take charge of the recruitment of “comfort women” going forward.

Documents in 3) Transportation of women verify that the Japanese military oversaw the trafficking of “comfort women” across borders. When the “procured” women were sent to overseas battlefield or conflict zones, they were transported on military ships that were managed by the army, which required consent from the Army Central Command. JS-14 confirms that the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Home Affairs) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had notified the ministers of each administrative district about the transport of women to China who were intended for prostitution in Naval comfort stations. Since women travelling overseas were required to carry travel certificates issued by the regional consular police (JS-18), the military and consular officials cooperated closely in moving the women under the direction of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. When necessary, the military took expedient measures to facilitate the transportation of the women (JS-18). These records confirm that “comfort women” were not simply travelers under the purview of consular matters, but rather that they were deemed essential “supplies” under military jurisdiction (JS-19).

Documents in 4) Management of the comfort stations reveal how the military regulated, managed, and controlled the comfort stations in various regions. For example, regulations for a comfort station in Iloilo, the Philippines, stated that the Military Administration Bureau provided supervision and guidance (J-22). Military regulations for comfort stations in Malaysia and Singapore (JS-23), Indonesia (JS-26), Burma (now Myanmar) (JS-27) and China (JS-25, JS-28) specified the hours of usage, the days assigned for different units and ranks, and the corresponding rates. Comfort station operators were required to submit a monthly statement of "business" operations to the military administration (JS-23, JS-27, JS-28). Within the comfort stations, the women’s movements were confined to a restricted area (JS-22) and their bodies were controlled through mandatory gynecological exams and mandatory testing for sexually transmitted diseases (JS-27, JS-28, JS-30).

U.S. and Allied Forces documents

While the Japanese military documents tend to reveal the organized and systematic nature of the sexual slavery system from the perspective of the perpetrators, the records of U.S. and Allied Forces provide valuable insight into the perspectives of victims and witnesses through fragmentary evidence of the tragic realities in which “comfort women” lived. At a bird’s eye level, battlefield reports on Japanese troops include the number of comfort stations in particular regions, and sometimes the exact locations within army bases (US-3), as well as sketches (US-3) and the numbers and nationalities of women at comfort stations, including through information collected from witnesses and prisoners of war (US-1, US-7, US-8, US-19).

Several documents indicate that Allied Forces’ intelligence agencies knew that “comfort women” were recruited through deception and coercion. A memo written in 1945 by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a U.S. wartime intelligence agency, noted that all of the 24 Korean female prisoners of war interned in Kunming had become ‘comfort girls’ “apparently under compulsion and misrepresentation” (US-23). Other documents observed that women of various races in the occupied territories had been forcibly conscripted as “comfort women” (US-5). According to informants in Burma (now Myanmar), local women were recruited through deceptive offers to work as nurses, but were then forced to become “comfort women”; subsequently, the Japanese military began pressuring village leaders to submit a list of young girls in each town for recruitment. The informants stated that local women were also kidnapped by Japanese troops (US-12).

The interrogation reports of prisoners of war also reveal the perspectives of Allied Forces about the “comfort women.” From a military standpoint, the intelligence agencies (OSS, MIS, OWI, etc.) regarded this issue as ammunition in psychological warfare, because it was useful to degrade morale within the Japanese military, as well as to provoke anti-Japanese sentiment among local and indigenous communities in Japan’s colonies and occupied territories (US-6, US-7, US-12, US-16).

The research report created in 1945 by the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) is considered one of the most important records produced by the Allied Forces (US-2). This extensive report describes the establishment and operating rules of the “comfort stations” based on Japanese prisoner of war statements, documents seized from the Japanese military, and the interrogations of captured comfort station owners. The report clearly shows that entire echelons of Japan’s governmental authorities – not only in the military, but also senior administrators such as the Japanese Governor-General of Korea, who was directly accountable to the Japanese Emperor – were involved in the establishment and the operation of the “comfort stations.”

Another key report is the 1944 Office of War Information (OWI) Prisoner of War Interrogation Report No. 49, which summarizes the interrogations of 20 former Korean “comfort women” who were taken through “false representations” and whose owners surrendered to Allied Forces in the Myitkyina area, northern Burma (US-11). The report includes details such as the women’s living and working conditions, the tiers of rates and pay, and a list of their names and personal information.

A number of documents contain information based on the interrogation of “comfort women” themselves, which provide a rare and precious insight into the victims’ perspectives at critical moments. The interrogation report of five Korean “comfort women” captured near Dingalan Bay, in Luzon, the Philippines, confirms that 62 Korean and Japanese women were split up into small groups and re-distributed to various Japanese army camps in 1944 (US-4). In the last stages of the war, “comfort women” were abandoned or killed by Japanese soldiers (US-9), according to the survivors who were captured as prisoners by the Allied Forces. Later, researchers confirmed the identities of certain victims, based on the list of prisoners of war attached to the interrogation reports (US-23), including a Korean survivor named Park Young-shim, who was photographed after her rescue (US-32).

The selected photographs and videos of former “comfort women,” who either surrendered or were captured as prisoners of war in the Pacific, China, and Okinawa, are further invaluable resources (US-25 through US-33). They provide a lens into the realities experienced by the women and girls in the moments during and after their rescues, as they awaited and prepared for repatriation.

Where the Official Records Lead

The Japanese imperial government, police, and military commanded over and authorized the design, development, supply, and management of comfort stations and utilized the legal and administrative bureaucracy, infrastructure, and organization of a modern state for those purposes. The official documents confirm that a broad slate of governmental actors -- including Japanese police, customs and military personnel, colonial governors, and ministers and agencies of the Japanese Empire -- had knowledge that young women were recruited by civilian procurers through deceptive practices, fear, and threats, as well as physical force.

Notwithstanding how the women and children were brought to “comfort stations,” after they arrived, the Japanese military then detained them in a range of facilities, where the women and children “lived in a state of perpetual coercion characterized by continual rape, confinement, and physical abuse.” 4  This atmosphere of bodily, psychological, and monetary control permeated all aspects of the comfort station system and pervaded its operation at all levels.

Partisans who negate or deny that the “comfort women” system was coercive, violative, and criminal in nature often assert that there is no evidence proving that the Japanese military or police personnel rounded up victims through force, and therefore that the Japanese government is not liable for war crimes or crimes against humanity. However, these documents irrefutably establish that not only was bodily force used in cases of abduction and kidnapping, but also that force was wielded, adopted, and exploited by instruments of the Empire through tactics such as fraud and misinformation, bureaucratic machinery, and pitting local recruiters and residents against disadvantaged women and children in colonized and occupied territories.

Reading these primary source documents, along with the testimonies of victims and participants, will help readers begin to discern the ensemble of actors and structures of power and authority in the Imperial Japanese government’s creation, perpetuation, justification, and attempted concealment of an institution of mass sexual violence and reproductive harm as military policy and practice, in which an estimated hundreds of thousands of women and children were forced into and held in situations where their inalienable rights as humans were dismissed and destroyed. Many did not survive.

It is through the elderly survivors’ resilience and willingness to speak out -- in the face of overwhelming political and cultural pressure to remain silent and to succumb to incessant slights and attacks on their credibility and character -- that the fullness of this history began to be realized. As the survivors have expressed, their hope is that the history will serve as a constant reminder to future generations of what they must do to ensure that these atrocities do not repeat again.


[1] Yoshimi Yoshiaki, Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II (Columbia University Press, 2000), p. 35.

[2] Suzanne O’Brien, “Translator’s Introduction,’ in Yoshimi, op. cit., p. 12.

[3] Yoshimi, pp. 58-59.

[4] O’Brien, p.11.


*Jimin Kim: Jimin Kim received her BA and MA from Yonsei University in South Korea, and her Ph.D. in Korean History from Columbia University in 2011. Dr. Kim specializes in the U.S.-Korean-Japanese relations in the 20th century.  She was one of the three authors of the "comfort women" lesson plans based on the Inquiry Design Model, included in the Teacher's Resource and Guidebook for the "comfort women" issue.  A PDF of the Guidebook can be downloaded HERE