Confinement of Women: Prostitution in Japan
Japan History

Research Report
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 Confined by culture, women in Asia are assigned a subservient role to the dominant male population. Throughout history, Asian women have been forced to satisfy the desires of men. The conceptual underpinnings of buying women and committing rape are referred to as the phallic myth, defining male lust as uncontrollable. Often times, young Asian women are forced to  serve male lust as prostitutes in Japan’s prosperous sex industry.

Historical Background

Women’s Traditional Status in Confucian Society

    Japan is a nation deeply enriched with the tradition of Confucianism and Buddhism. The foundation of these ancient values is a hierarchal system that is maintained by the promotion of community, obedience, and a system of dominant relationships. In order for the existence of a perfect society, individuals must conform and adhere to the defined societal structure of relationships.

    Throughout the history of Japanese society, Japanese men have occupied the higher ranks of the hierarchical structure of domination while women are confined to the lower rungs; therefore it is the woman’s duty to attend to the dominant relationships within the community. The Buddhist values of honor and service hold women responsible for the care of children and elderly parents. As a result of society and gender roles, women’s employment is confined to prostitution, domestic and factory work, and overseas migrant work.

“In many Southeast Asian countries, children, especially girls, are brought up to feel a sense of duty or oral obligation to earn money to repay the care and protection given them by their parents in raising them. After entering prostitution, against their will, many children felt that they had fulfilled their obligations for the care and protection given them by their parents in raising them. Their fulfillment of parental care gains them merit according to Buddhist principles” (Lin Lian Lim 12).
Research Report

The History of Child Prostitution during the “Comfort Women” System

    The Women’s role of servitude that existed in traditional Japan continues to exist in modern times. The practice of “comfort women”, by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War, emphasized the submissive role of women in Japanese society. The notion of comfort women arrived during the Japanese expansion efforts into Manchuria and China in 1932, where they encountered prostitution in Shanghai.  Upon seeing the boost in morale, the Japanese army started sending comfort women to China during the Sino-Japanese War in 1937.

   These “comfort women” were forced to serve as sexual slaves to the Japanese Imperial Army from 1932 to 1945. The adoption of the “comfort women” system was an effort by the Japanese government to control the outbursts of the Japanese soldier’s sex drive. The conviction of the “comfort women” system was that having sexual relations would arouse the soldier’s fighting spirit, provide them with an outlet for the frustration and fear fostered by hierarchy military life and allegedly prevent mass random rapes as the one that occurred in Nanjing.

    In order to attain efficiency within the system, Japanese labor brokers “recruited” 200,000 young women throughout Asia to “service” 30-40 soldiers, daily. The military believed that government supervision of these women would prevent the soldiers from contracting VD and raping civilians. The military officials required the comfort women to undergo routine gynecological examinations to prevent an outbreak of venereal disease among the Japanese Army and creating massive public health problems.

    Japanese trafficking of young Asian women for the prostitution industry began during the “comfort women” system. Poor economic conditions in Korea and other Southeast Asian countries resulted in a destitute peasantry forced to sell their daughters into prostitution due to economic necessity and survival. Japanese military subcontractors targeted young daughters of poor peasants families, knowing they were relatively easy to trick because of their uneducated state (Tanka 30). These young women were led to believe that factory work awaited them in Japan. It was not until arrival at the comfort station that these women learned the true nature of their work, sex slaves for the military officers. These young women were forced into compliance out of fear of the torture and death that resulted from refusal to adhere to the dominant system.

Trafficking of Foreign Children to the Japanese Sex Industry

    The traditional Japanese patriarchal society, that institutionalized prostitution, remains existent in modern day Japan. The objectification of women as servants to men’s sexuality is evident through the enslavement of millions of young Asian women in Japan’s prosperous sex industry.

    Beginning in the late 1970’s, rapid economic development in Asia, based on the free market system, resulted in the development of the Japanese sex industry and the international trafficking of millions of women and children.

    Historically tolerant of prostitution, Japan serves as the world’s largest market for enslaved woman. Statistics declare that an estimated 150,000 non-Japanese women are employed in the Japanese sex industry; the majority of these women are from Thailand and the Philippines.

    Similar to the recruitment of comfort women, young women from Southeast Asia are lured into Japan under false pretenses of opportunity to work in factories, restaurants and bars. These women were led to believe that within a short time of employment, they could pay off their debts and send considerable amounts of money home to their families, making their parents very happy (Ampo 111). Siriporn Skrobanek, Bangkok’s Foundation for Women, adds, “Many of these foreign women are from rural families, stripped of economic sustenance as a result of urbanization, seeking work to support their struggling families. It is not until arrival in Japan that these women learn the true nature of their new work, serving as prostitutes in Japan’s thriving sex industry” (Skrobanek).

    Persuaded by the promise of monetary gain, village chiefs, priests, teachers, parents and relatives are more than willing to recruit young girls to the sex industry. It is believed that working as a prostitute generates more money than domestic labor can ever provide. “Work in the sex industry is one of the few channels open to women with low levels of education, which permits women to make money rapidly” (Skrobanek).

    The young girls are continuously sold to labor agents throughout the sex trade; the result of these numerous transactions is a dramatic increase in the woman’s debt. The brokers involved in recruiting foreign women into Japan derive enormous profits from their earnings. The freedom of these women is very limited; their passports are confiscated and they are closely guarded by the Yakuza and cannot operate freely until their highly inflated “debt” is repaid. Upon arrival in Japan, most trafficked Thai women have accumulated, on average, a debt of around 4 million Japanese yen, approximately $25,000” (Facts). It is not until repayment of their debt that these women are allowed to collect profit from their work as prostitutes. These young women must serve as captured sex slaves. Human-rights activist, Yayori Matsui, describes Japan’s sex slaves as contemporary comfort women to Japan’s corporate soldiers.

Child Prostitution in Japan’s Modern Sex Industry

    Currently, the popularity of the sex industry generates 4 trillion yen annually ($33.6 billion), 1% of Japan’s GNP and equals the country’s defense budget. Despite the current struggling national economy, Japan’s underground economy, consisting of cheap drugs and sex, flourishes due to the market’s low price that attracts many customers (Taipei Times). The popular establishments include cheap massage parlors and low-budget prostitution services that charge 10,000-yen in comparison the 60,000-yen charge at traditional establishments. The result of these low prices is an increase in the sex services prostitutes must provide in order to maintain economic efficiency.

    Children are at the center of this prosperous underground economy. The number of teenage prostitutes began to incline around 1974. According to a 1996 UN report, over one million children in Asia are forced into participation in the sex trade. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that one-third of all sex workers in Southeast Asia are between the ages of 12-17.  Child prostitution in Asia continues to increase at 20% annually. Japan has the worst record of child prostitution among Asian nation, due to the society’s observance of very relaxed laws against sex with minors and prostitution. Under Japanese criminal code, sex with those less than 13 years of age is prohibited but consensual sex with those ages 13 and older is not prosecutable.

    Japan’s market economy and tourism resulted in an influx of foreigners seeking cheap and safe tours that will present little danger of AIDS and other venereal diseases, particularly in sexual intercourse with children. Child prostitutes are more economically efficient, in that the child’s virginity is bought at a significantly higher price. Child prostitution is promoted by an Asian myth that having sex with a young virgin will help them succeed in business, increase their longevity, fuel their strength and restore their youth.

Historical Significance

Response of the Japanese Government

    Prostitution in Japan is officially prohibited, yet the Japanese government acknowledged and legitimized its existence.  Prostitution and trafficking continued to exist due to the fact that Japanese government officials and police officers are among the cliental.

    In an effort to cast its image as one of Asia’s largest sex capitals, the Japanese government passed legislation to limit pornography and child prostitution. In 1999, Japan adopted a law prohibiting the payment for sex with anyone under the age of 18, as well as trafficking minors for sex, and to produce, distribute or sell child pornography. Prior to the passage of this law, Japan was the major source of child pornography.  December 2001, Japan hosted the second World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, a conference aiming to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy regarding child prostitution.

    As a result of their foreign nationality and sexual promiscuity, trafficked women are confined to the bottom of Japan’s social hierarchical structure. Prostitutes are stigmatized as immoral and evil by society. They are not protected by Japanese law, nor are their existence acknowledge by society. Their vulnerability to abusive situations is overlooked because these women occupy the lowest status of Japanese culture.  Due to the underground nature and corruption of the sex industry, these women live in isolation, malnourishment and abuse.

    The popularity of the prostitution industry, especially among children, has created an AIDS epidemic in Asia. According to Japan’s Health and Welfare Ministry, HIV awareness in Japan ranks among the lowest of any developed nation. One-third of the trafficked women contracted AIDS through serving as a prostitute to hundreds of men and the failure to consistently practice safe sex.


Ampo. Voices from the Japanese Women’s Movement. New York: M.E. Sharpe Inc, 1996.

“Asia Pacific Women’s Meeting Declares: Recognize the Work, Dignity, and Human Rights of Women in Prostitution.” Asian Pacific Women’s Consultation on Prostitution press release. 24, Feb. 1997.

Boer, John de. “Japan Leading the Fight Against Child Exploitation.” Global Communications Platform 17, Dec. 2001: 27

Hicks, George. The Comfort Women. Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.

Kattoulas, Velisarios. “Bright Lights, Brutal Life.” Far Eastern Economic Review 3, Aug. 2000: 163.

Kuo, Michelle. “Asia’s Dirty Secret.” Harvard International Review 22 (2000): 42-45.

Lim, Lin Lean. The Sex Sector. The economic and social bases of prostitution in Southeast Asia. Geneva: International Labour Organization, 1998.

Matsui, Yayori. Women in the New Asia. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Schellstede, Sangmie Choi. Comfort Women Speak. Testimony by Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military. New York: Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, Inc., 2000.

“Sex Industry in Japan Lubricated by the Recession.” Taipei Times  8 April, 2002.

Skrobanek, Siriporn, Nattaya Boonpakidi, and Chutima Janthakeero. The Traffic In Women: Human Realities of the International Sex Trade. New York: Zed Books Ltd., 1997.

Struck, Doug. “Japan tries to squash child-sex industry.” Washington Post Online 11, February 2000.

Tanaka, Yuki. Japan’s Comfort Women. Sexual Slavery and prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation.         New York: Routledge, 2002.

Web Resources This page offers information regarding HIV in East Asia. This page offers regional AIDS information. This page reports on human rights abuses of women.  Site offers information regarding women's and children's rights. Site defines the Phallic Myth in regards to Asia.

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