Question: Some articles that appeared in The Asahi Shimbun in the early 1990s regarding comfort women from the Korean Peninsula said the women were mobilized under the name of "women volunteer corps." Although it is now clear that comfort women and women volunteer corps were different, why did such an error occur?

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"Women volunteer corps" refer to the "women volunteer labor corps" that were organized to mobilize women as a work force during the war in Japan proper as well as in the former colonies on the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan. With the August 1944 "women volunteer labor order," the corps became a system based on the National Mobilization Law.

Even before then, such corps were organized at schools and in local communities. On the Korean Peninsula, as many as 4,000 students at elementary schools and girls' high schools are said to have been mobilized to work at munitions factories in Japan proper until the end of the war. (Note 1) With the objective of using the women as a work force, the corps were different from comfort women who were made to serve as sexual partners for military personnel.

However, in 1991, when attention was focused on the comfort women issue, the Asahi confused the two. In the Dec. 10, 1991, morning edition, an article about comfort women from the Korean Peninsula said "they were mobilized to the front lines of combat under such names as 'women volunteer corps' from immediately before the start of World War II and were forced into prostitution at comfort stations serving Japanese military personnel."

In the Jan. 11, 1992, morning edition, an article said "with the start of the Pacific War, mainly Korean women were forcibly taken away under the name of volunteer corps. The numbers are said to be between 80,000 and 200,000."

The reason for the confusion was insufficient research. There were very few specialists researching comfort women, so there was insufficient digging up of history. While the Asahi did publish articles about former Japanese volunteer corps members who worked at factories in Japan, research on the volunteer corps on the Korean Peninsula was not at an advanced stage.

A reference material used by Asahi reporters was titled "Chosen wo Shiru Jiten" (Encyclopedia to learn about Korea) (first edition published by Heibonsha Ltd. in 1986). Regarding comfort women, the volume explained "from 1943, about 200,000 Korean women were mobilized as workers under the name of 'women volunteer corps,' and of that number between 50,000 and 70,000 young single women were made into comfort women."

The author of that entry was Setsuko Miyata, a researcher of modern Korean history. Looking back, she said, "Because I could not locate a researcher of comfort women, I could only quote from existing works."

Miyata quoted from a work by Kako Senda titled "Jugun Ianfu" (Military comfort women). That book has a passage that says "the women were gathered under the name of 'volunteer corps' … . Of the total of 200,000 gathered (estimates in South Korea), it is said 'between 50,000 and 70,000' were made into comfort women."

The term "volunteer corps" was used in the sense of "comfort women" in newspaper coverage in Korea in 1946. In explanatory documents related to the July 1944 Cabinet decision to amend the government organization of the Government General of Korea, a passage mentions the spread of "groundless rumors" that unwed women were being requisitioned to serve as comfort women.

While no example has been confirmed of volunteer corps members being made systematically into comfort women, there is the view that a distrust of Japanese colonial authority resulted in an equating of the two, fanning fear from during the war. (Note 2)

Some say one factor behind the confusion is the fact that one group supporting former comfort women has included the word for volunteer corps in its Korean name. (The group's English name is the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.)

In January 1992, shortly before Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa visited South Korea, a South Korean news agency released an article about the discovery of a school roster that showed a 12-year-old Korean girl who went to an elementary school was mobilized to join the volunteer corps. That led to the misunderstanding that "Japan had made even elementary school students into comfort women" and worsened anti-Japanese sentiment.

Since 1993, The Asahi Shimbun has made efforts to avoid confusing the two. The chief of the Seoul bureau, 72, of that time said, "That's partly because interviews by citizens groups uncovered a situation in which women who worked at munitions factories in Japan as members of the volunteer corps suffered because they were mistakenly viewed as 'having been taken advantage of for sexual comfort of the Japanese military.'"

Note 1: Soji Takasaki "'Hanto Joshi Kinro Teishintai' ni tsuite" (A Study on the "Korean Girls Volunteer Corps") on Digital Museum "The Comfort Women Issue and the Asian Women's Fund"

Note 2: Takeshi Fujinaga "Senjiki Chosen ni okeru 'Ianfu' Doin no 'Ryugen' 'Zogen' wo megutte" (Related to 'rumors' and 'made-up words' about mobilizing 'comfort women' in wartime Korea) in the volume compiled by Toshihiko Matsuda, etc. titled "Chiiki Shakai kara Miru Teikoku Nihon to Shokuminchi Chosen/Taiwan/Manshu" (Imperial Japan and the colonies Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria as viewed from local society) (Shibunkaku Co. 2013)

To our readers

Women volunteer corps refer to the "women volunteer labor corps" that were mobilized to work at munitions factories and at other locations during the war. They are completely different from comfort women. The term was used mistakenly because research on the comfort women issue was not at an advanced stage at that time and because there was confusion between comfort women and volunteer corps members even in reference materials used by reporters.