Japanese English-language newspaper, The Japan Times, says it has altered its definition of “comfort women” from those who were “forced to provide sex for Japanese troops” during World War II to include women who worked in brothels freely.

In an editor’s note printed on Friday, the Tokyo-based publication said that the definition was changed because the experiences of comfort women in different areas varied throughout the war.

Japan Times comfort women
An editorial note from The Japan Times. Photo: Tomohiro Osaki/Twitter.

The paper also said that it would replace the term “forced labour” with “wartime labourers,” in order to include labourers who worked freely before and during the war.

From 1939 to 1945, an estimated 20,000 to 400,000 women were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army for soldiers during the Second World War in occupied territories, including Korea and China.

‘Controversial topics’

The Japan Times said that the change arose from a demand for accurate terminology regarding “controversial topics” at a time of tense Japanese-South Korean relations: “We believe the description we had previously used (women who were forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during the World War II) would allow various interpretation,” the editorial department told HKFP, adding that pressure had come from both outside and within the company.

Sylvia Yu
Sylvia Yu. Photo: Sylvia Yu, via Facebook.

Sylvia Yu, author of the book Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women, told HKFP that although she believes The Japan Times is progressive compared to other Japanese papers, their new definition of comfort women is insensitive and ambiguous: “They should call it what it is: war crimes against humanity stemming from a sense of racial superiority. There are no exceptions,” she said.

“All of the forced labourers were in fact forced and working in slavery conditions because they couldn’t leave nor were they compensated properly or given proper food and accommodation. They should be called ‘wartime forced labourers’,” Yu added.

She said that wartime Japanese prostitutes had no other means of employment and had no choice but to enter sex work.


Peipei Qiu, Professor of Chinese and Japanese studies at Vassar College in the US, told HKFP that the move indicates that the paper is bowing to right-wing political pressure by disseminating government-sanctioned information.

comfort women protest 2011
Demonstrations demanding that Japan redress the comfort women problem are held weekly in front of the Japanese embassy in Korea in the presence of surviving comfort women. Photo: Claire Solery/Wikicommons.

“This is nothing less than outrageous,” she said. “The new terms are totally inappropriate. It is the manipulation of the language of history, whitewashing history for a political purpose. The imagery left by the change of wording is very misleading.”

“This is not a change of definition. This is an attempt to shift history for their own political gain. The Japan Times is simply aligning with the [Shinzō] Abe administration, which wants to justify their own ultranationalist policy by glorifying a sordid past,” Qiu said.

She added that comfort women – known as “ianfu” in Japanese – were drafted by the Japanese government as sex workers in order to create a separate military supply from non-trafficked prostitutes and were forced to live in slave-like conditions.

“Clearly the new terms distort historical facts. They further injure the surviving victims of these grave crimes against humanity by yet again denigrating their sufferings and collective history,” Qiu said.

The Japan Times, which is the country’s oldest and largest newspaper, marked its 120th-anniversary last year.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.