Most reporting on women used for sex by the Japanese armed forces during WWII use the euphemism "comfort women", derived from the Japanese word "ianfu", which means "comfort women". Sometimes the euphemism is put in scare quotes, and sometimes the term is defined, but it's used nonetheless.

Why is the euphemism used so heavily?

One potential explanation is that media has bias and want to soften Japan's past misdeeds, but most of the reporting I've seen it in takes it for granted that the action of using women this way was wrong.

Is it because there's no alternative which is as concise and specific to this action?

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    You may not realise it, but part of the reason for the scare quotes on "comfort women" is to convey negative associations. That's to say, referencing them that way doesn't "soften" anything - if anything, it's precisely the opposite. Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 21:52
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    What @FumbleFingers said. Use of the term is akin to talking about "Arbeit macht frei". It is hardly a euphemism in the current context, though it was no doubt a euphemism by the Japanese at the time. "Comfort women" was the term used, and it is still the term used. It was a euphemism, but it no longer is (IMO).
    – Drew
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 21:56
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    The only other term one might use would be something along the lines of "sex slaves", and that would be a bit too "rough" for many media, especially if children might read/hear it. The meaning of "comfort ladies" is well-understood, so nothing's really being swept under the carpet.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 22:18
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    The negativity that @FumbleFingers mentions arises partly from the fact that the program was so odioius that the Japanese authorities couldn't bring themselves to call what they were doing by its right name.
    – deadrat
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 2:24
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    @FumbleFingers: The scare quotes definitely convey negative connotations, but even with scare quotes, I definitely think "comfort women" is softer than "sex slaves", "forced prostitutes", or "rape victims" (let alone, say, "women who were systematically beaten and raped day and night for months on end by large numbers of foreign soldiers"). Do you really believe otherwise, or are you exaggerating for effect?
    – ruakh
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 7:22

3 Answers 3


According to Kirsten Orreill, 'Who are the Ianfu (Comfort Women)?', in New Voices in Japanese Studies, 2, the term is a calque, a literal translation of the Japanese bureaucratic term:

The term itself is translated from the Japanese abbreviation Ianfu, hereafter referred to in this paper. As the Chinese characters 慰 安 [i : an ] (comfort or solace) and 婦 [fu] (woman or wife) suggest, the women’s literal purpose was to offer solace and comfort to Japan’s Imperial Forces. However, the initiation of the Ianfu system was primarily a contiguous response to the Nanking massacre where it became evident to the Japanese authorities that future measures needed to be taken to minimise rapes of local women by Japanese soldiers in war zones. Thus, in order to minimise these rapes,the Ianfu system was used to procure women for the sexual gratification of the Japanese soldiers.

It's used, then, because it was the official name of the program. An analogy is the German euphemism Endlösung, 'final solution', the official term for the Nazi campaign of terror and genocide against the Jews, Romany, Communists and other undesirables. I don't think anybody is misled by either euphemism today (supposing anybody ever was). Indeed, their use tends to lend an extra chill to references: it reminds us of what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil".

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    I think it (and also "final solution" as you reference) also add specificity (anyone familiar with the term already knows which case precisely you are talking about). Further, the euphemism being so blatant using it brings condemnation of the euphemism itself and with it the sort of regime that would carry out atrocities under such euphemisms. If anything the terms have become dysphemism and express condemnation.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 11:32
  • @Jon: Right on! I think you've hit the nail on the head by saying that terms like "comfort women" and "final solution" are effectively dysphemisms (personally, I doubt that they were ever "euphemisms" when translated into English). Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 22:01
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    @FumbleFingers we have English-originated terms that were euphemisms (or at least jargon with euphemism as part of their mechanism, if not all) that are similarly used as dysphemisms. Some even simultaneously still being used euphemistically by some while their opponents use them dysphemistically: "Collateral damage" for example.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 0:43

As suggested in the comment, there are alternatives such as sex slaves, forced prostitutes or enforced prostitutes, etc. There has been much debate about whether to call them comfort women is appropriate and right because it doesn't have any connotation of forceful and cruel characteristics of the sex slavery.

In the linked Wikipedia article about Comfort women they were:

women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied territories before and during World War II.

The word 慰安 (comfort) was also used to describe Japanese prostitute stations set up for occupying Allied troops immediately following Word War II.

The Recreation and Amusement Association (特殊慰安施設協会 Tokushu Ian Shisetsu Kyōkai (Special Comfort Facility Association)?) (RAA) was the largest of the organizations established by the Japanese government to provide organized prostitution and other leisure facilities for occupying Allied troops immediately following World War II.

The RAA established its first brothel on 28 August: the Komachien in Ōmori. By December 1945, the RAA owned 34 facilities, 16 of which were "comfort stations". The total number of prostitutes employed by the RAA amounted to 55,000 at its peak.

You could notice how inappropriate (or weird) the Recreation and Amusement Association sounds.

The same Chinese characters 慰安 [i : an ] (comfort or solace) were translated into Recreation and Amusement in the name RAA. The name 特殊慰安施設協会 should be translated word-for-word into Special (特殊), Comfort or Comfort Station (慰安), Facility or Establishment (施設), Association (協会).

It would be far mare inappropriate to call them Recreation Women or Amusement Women. Comfort women became an appellative or quasi-proper noun to describe those women forced to work as sex slaves in Asia during World War II.

The Ngram Viewer for comfort woman and comfort women shows that both terms are (relatively) new from around 1990s and this Ngram Viewer shows that the word sex slave and sex slaves are also relatively new.

  • I think "Special Comfort Facility Association" is Wikipedia providing a literal translation of a Japanese term, rather than indicating "comfort" was used in that context at that time.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 7:47
  • @AndrewGrimm Facility might be the better choice (I edited the answer) than establishment in word-for-word translation. Anyway, I wanted to emphasize the fact that the Chinese character 慰安 was not only translated to comfort.
    – user140086
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 7:50
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    I'm referring to the sentence "The word comfort was also used to describe Japanese prostitute stations set up for occupying Allied troops immediately following Word War II.". I don't doubt that terms in Japanese were used post-war that, if translated to English, could potentially contain the word "comfort", but I'm doubtful as to whether the word "comfort" was used in English at that time to describe post-WWII facilities.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 8:41
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    @AndrewGrimm Based on your comment, I edited to replace comfort with 慰安 (comfort) and included two Ngram Viewers. Sex slave and sex slaves seem to be also relatively new.
    – user140086
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 9:20

Japanese government and Korean government recently reached an agreement on the settlement of a long-lasting issue of Comfort Women, which has been a persistent stinging thorn to our heart.

“Comfort Women” is a direct and literal translation of Japanese words, 慰安婦. But many people forget that it is always preceded with the word, 従軍 meaning ‘in, or serving for military service.” The “formal” description of “comfort women” is 従軍慰安婦, and its verbatim translation is “comfort women serving for the armed-forces.

The original intention of military-ruled Japanese government before and during WW II was, as I understand, (1) to provide solutions to soldier’s instinctive sexual desire, and (2) to protect soldier’s doing barbarous acts such as raping of local women by venting their sexual instinct through “Comfort-Women-in-military-service system.”

It is well-known fact that Japanese authority offered to set up R&R (Rest and Recreation) Center for Allied Occupation army to then GHQ in fear of massive outbreak of violent activities caused by oppressed sexual instinct among stationed occupation forces, and put into practice immediate after the WW II. Please note that I have no intention to argue wrongness or righteousness of such practice here in this site.

Now, why is the euphemism used so heavily? It’s not euphemism. It’s a part of 従軍慰安婦 which was used publicly – I’m not saying officially – in Japan during the war time.

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    Seriously, it's not a euphemism just because it's in a different language? Are there no euphemisms in your language? What do you call soldiers who kidnap and repeatedly rape innocent women? If you call them "soldiers with instinctive sexual desire", that's euphemism, I think. If you call them "rapists who happen to be soldiers", or "soldier-rapists", or just "rapists", that's not euphemism. You use euphemism in your very answer. It may be ingrained, but it doesn't make it less of a euphemism. (I would be no less direct with euphemism in any other language.) Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 2:38
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    Please don't get me wrong, the service industry can include prostitutes, and if there were a group of such women following the military, comfort women could well be their name. But the "comfort women" were not voluntarily selling their services. They were forced into sexual servitude after being either abducted or lured with false promises of employment. Columbia University offers a course on "Comfort Women" in it's Asia studies, and even they say it is a Japanese euphemism. Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 2:48
  • "The so‐called “comfort women” (the term is a translation of a Japanese/Korean euphemism) were sexual slaves..." Why would they - a prestigious University - say this if it was untrue? Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 2:50
  • @Medica. I said I don’t want to get involved with the argument of “Comfort women” issue except linguistic aspect. I didn’t invent this word, nor was involved with enforcement of this system personally as well as you were not involved with the dropping A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki civilians. Let’s stop arguing its moralistic contexture. About the issue of whether “Comfort women” is a euphemism or not, it is a fact that there were many or some Japanese women who volunteered to do that business for the sake of much higher remuneration than millions of women laborers of sweat shops Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 4:01
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    At the back of my mind, I was wondering whether "comfort women" is a euphemism. I'm not sure whether I agree with this logic, but it's given me pause for thought.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 1:51

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