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“Concerning the Management of Women Traveling to China”

Introduction by Amy Stanley (Northwestern University).

This document, Concerning the management of women traveling to China, was issued by the head of the Home Ministry Police Affairs Bureau on February 23, 1938. The same office sent a draft of the document to prefectural governors in Japan and the heads of the Ministry of Colonial Affairs Control Bureau, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Treaties Bureau, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs America Bureau on February 18, 1938. It concerns the travel of women from Japan who went to China in order to work in brothels. The document makes clear that these women were held to advance contracts for a specified term of service and also that they were recruited by middlemen. In case materials that were compiled prior to the issuance of these regulations, local officials complained that recruiters had deceived Japanese women and that they claimed to be acting on the authority of the Army.

According to the header text of the order, the Home Ministry wanted to regulate the recruitment of Japanese women to work in Chinese brothels for three reasons: 1) the army’s involvement in trafficking women tarnished the reputation of the military, 2) soldiers and their families would be upset if soldiers’ sisters and daughters were being trafficked into military prostitution, and 3) the current recruiting practices risked contravening an international treaty.

The Home Ministry was already concerned about the trafficking of women to work in prostitution overseas, because Japan had ratified a 1921 treaty called the “International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children” in 1925. As the scholarship of Onozawa Akane has demonstrated, the Japanese asked for and received an exemption that allowed the employment of Japanese women in prostitution, domestically, at the age of 18, even though the age specified in the treaty was 21. Two years later, in 1927, responding to international criticism, the Japanese relinquished the carve-out for age, though in practice women were still being indentured domestically at the age of 18.

Meanwhile, Japan and the League of Nations were still involved in a dispute about whether the treaty applied to colonies such as Korea and Taiwan, and whether indenture contracts, which relied on cash advances to the women’s parents, were ever free of coercion. In the early 1930s, the League of Nations sent a delegation to investigate conditions in Japan and the empire, and it concluded that the Japanese were, in fact, violating the order because the women were being transported overseas to China – that is, even the transportation of Japanese women over the age of 21 with their consent constituted a violation, because they were being held to indenture contracts, and this constituted coercion. The League of Nations addressed these concerns directly to the Home Ministry in 1932. In response, the Home Ministry Police Bureau produced a document in 1935 that argued for abolition, observing that indentured prostitutes were “in more miserable conditions than slaves would be.”[1] Thus, in 1938, the Home Ministry was acutely aware of the risks Japan was running. In fact, in the 1930s the Ministry was considering abolition of domestic prostitution entirely due to pressure from the League (See Onozawa).

On the surface, this document attempts to bring Japanese practices in line with the treaty, including by raising the age of recruitment to 21. The document also states that recruiters must not deceive or kidnap women, which was obviously prohibited by the treaty – women could not be trafficked through deception even with their consent and even if they were of age. However, even this guidance was not entirely in line with the treaty, and it did little to allay the concerns the League had brought to the Home Ministry in 1932. For example, this document does nothing to modify the indenture system, and it does not address the issue of debt that was concerning to the League of Nations.

The issue of the military’s involvement in recruitment was also a focus of the Home Ministry guidance to the police. The document states that recruiters should not advertise widely, state that they are acting with the approval or in communication with the military, or make false statements about the military’s influence. Here, the Home Ministry was responding to inquiries from local officials, who pointed out that the recruiters claimed to be working for the military and promised the women military rations.[2]

The Home Ministry did not have the jurisdiction to directly regulate the army itself. It could only attempt to impose limitations on the recruiters and what they could say. The Home Ministry did not want recruiters to mention the army for one primary reason: as the header text states, the ministry was concerned about the “honor of the imperial forces” and their reputation on the home front. But it was also possible that the recruiters’ invocation of the military could constitute the kind of “abuse of authority” that the League of Nations had prohibited in the treaty on trafficking.

This issue illuminates the limitations of the Home Ministry’s guidance. They could direct local police to “strictly crack down upon” recruiters who mentioned the military, especially if they were advertising widely, but they could not remove the military from the business, nor could they monitor private conversations between recruiters and individual women. As a result, the document was oriented toward regulating public information rather than the actual behavior of the recruiters. As historian Nagai Kazu argues, “What the notice established as a target for regulation was not the illegal recruitment methods of the traffickers (gyōsha), but their telling the truth [about their activities]. To put it another way, the target was their advertising and their telling people that the army had established the comfort stations and was doing the recruiting.”[3]

As a result, one can interpret the first article’s “for the time being, we will tacitly permit this” as an acknowledgement that the guidance itself was not going to be adequate to solve the problems mentioned in the header text. Due to the use of a debt indenture system and the continued involvement of the military, the Home Ministry likely knew that the League would still have a good case that Japan was contravening the treaty.

There is no evidence that this directive was transmitted to the colonies. Judging from the vocabulary used in the document (naichi), the institutions named at the head of the memo, and the cases preceding the order, which were all in Japan, Yoshimi Yoshiaki has concluded that the Home Ministry did not circulate this guidance to colonial officials. Nagai Kazu, who has also analyzed this document, thinks that the Home Ministry should have sent this directive to Korea and Taiwan, as the concerns raised in the header text would have applied there as well, and points out that there are other examples of similar directives being transmitted. However, he too concludes that that there is no evidence that the same directive was ever sent, much less implemented, in the colonies.

[1] Yoshimi Yoshiaki, Kaishun suru teikoku: Nihongun “ianfu” mondai no kitei (Tokyo:Iwanami shoten, 2019), 165-168.

[2] Naimushō keihokyoku, “Shina tokō fujo no toriatsukai ni kansuru ken (Chōfuken)”, 49-50.

[3] Nagai Kazu, “Rikugun ianjo no sōsetsu to ianfu boshū ni kansuru ikkōsatsu,” 26. [This article appeared in Nijusseiki kenkyū 1 (2000): 79-112. The page number here corresponds with the file available online.

Discussion questions:

  1. Before and after reading the Introduction above, does your impression of the document change? If so, how and why?

  2. What were the primary goals of the Home Ministry Police Bureau to issue this document?

  3. Why do you think deniers of “comfort women” often cite this source?

  4. What can you construe based on this document regarding how women were trafficked (or not trafficked)? What can you not tell based on this document? What other sources are necessary to supplement this document?

Source information:


Naimushō keihokyokuchō,“Shina tokō fujo no toriatsukai ni kansuru ken,” February 23rd 1938 (JACAR: A05032044800; National Archives call number: 平9警察00286100) image pages 17-20. Available also in Josei no tame no Ajia heiwa kokumin kikin. Seifu chōsa ‘jūgun ianfu’ kankei shiryō shūsei, (Tokyo: Ryūkei shosha, 1997) v.1, 69-75. PDFs are available here.


Concerning the Management of Women Traveling to China

Home Ministry Hatsu Kei 5-gō

February 23, 1938

Head of the Home Ministry Police Bureau

To [blank]

Recently, given the reestablishment of order in various parts of China, the number of emigrants to China is increasing markedly. Among them are no small number of women who are traveling to work at restaurants, bars, “cafes,” and also brothels and related establishments. Moreover, the current situation in Japan (naichi)[4] is one in which every region has recently seen an increase in cases in which recruiters of these women claim to be acting with the approval of military leadership.

Bearing in mind the situation in China, women’s emigration is surely necessary and unavoidable. The police have also given this careful consideration and recognize the need for taking steps that are based on real conditions on the ground.[5] However, without proper regulation of these women’s recruitment, it will damage the prestige of the Japanese empire and tarnish the honor of the Imperial Army, and it will also exert an undesirable influence on people on the homefront and, especially, the family members of those drafted into military service. It will also be difficult to guarantee that recruitment does not contravene international treaty agreements concerning the trafficking of women. Therefore, with these considerations in mind, and taking into account the situation on the ground, we issue the following guidance:


1) For women traveling for the purposes of work in prostitution, for the time being we will tacitly permit this only in the case of women heading to North and Central China who are currently working as licensed prostitutes or in other professions which are, in reality, prostitution; who are 21 years of age or older; and who are free of venereal and other infectious diseases. Identification documents will be issued to these women by the Foreign Ministry pursuant to Foreign Ministry Classified Instruction No. 3776, dated August 31st 1937 ["On the Restriction of Travel to China by Undesirable Elements"].

2) When issuing the identification documents mentioned in the previous article, women should be instructed in advance to return to Japan (kikoku) quickly when the time period of the provisional contract for labor has expired or when their work is no longer necessary.

3) Women traveling with the intention of working in prostitution should appear at the police station in person and request the issuance of identification documents.

4) When women who intend to work in prostitution apply for the issuance of identification documents in order to travel, they should always have the consent of the same person who is listed on their family registration (koseki) as their parent (saikin sonzoku), or, if there is no parent, then the consent of the head of household, and if there is no one to issue consent, then that should also be made clear.

5) When women who intend to work in prostitution are issued identification documents in order to travel, their contracts for work as well as other facts should be investigated, expressly paying attention to the fact that they have not been trafficked or kidnapped.

6) When women are recruited to travel with the intention of working in prostitution, or generally working in businesses related to the sex industry, if people state that they are acting with army’s understanding or in communication with the army, or otherwise make false statements that the army has influenced them, then these people should be strictly cracked down upon.

7) When women are recruited to travel for the aforementioned purpose, then if the recruiters advertise widely, or they exaggerate or conceal the truth of the work, this should be strictly cracked down upon. The people involved in recruiting should be subject to a strict investigation, and if they have no proper permit for their business or a permit from a diplomatic entity overseas and so on, and if their background cannot be ascertained, they should not be permitted.

[4] Naichi is a term used to differentiate the Japanese metropole (home islands, including Okinawa, Hokkaido, and later Karafuto) as opposed to the colonized territories such as Taiwan, Korea, and the Nanyo islands.

[5] Nagai Kazu considers that “real conditions on the ground” referred to the Japanese army’s setting up of comfort stations in China after it occupied Shanghai and Nanjing in late 1937. Nagai, 26.

(Translated by Amy Stanley)

Original text:




[空欄] 殿


最近支那各地に於ける秩序の恢復に伴ひ渡航者著しく増加しつつあるも是等の中には同地に於ける料理店、飲食店、「カフエー」又は貸座敷類似の営業者と聨繋を有し是等の営業に従事することを目的とする婦女寡なからざるものあり更に亦内地に於て是等婦女の募集周旋を為す者にして恰も軍当局の諒解あるかの如き言辞を弄する者も最近各地に頻出しつつある状況に在り婦女の渡航は現地に於ける実情に鑑みるときは蓋し必要已むを得ざるものあり警察当局に於ても特殊の考慮を払ひ実情に即する措置を講ずるの要ありと認めらるるも是等婦女の募集周旋等の取締にして適正を欠かんか帝国の威信を毀け皇軍の名誉を害ふのみに止まらず銃後国民特に出征兵 士遺家族に好ましからざる影響を与ふると共に婦女売買に関する国際条約の趣旨にも悖ること無きを保し難きを以て旁ゝ現地の実情其の他各般の事情を考慮し爾今之が取扱に関しては左記各号に準拠することと致度依命此段及通牒候








[Supplementary Readings]

Onozawa Akane with an introduction by Nishino Rumiko, Kim Puja, Onozawa Akane. Translation by Robert Ricketts, “The Comfort Women and State Prostitution,” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 16, 10, no.1 (May 2018).

Amy Stanley, Hannah Shepherd, Sayaka Chatani, David Ambaras and Chelsea Szendi Schieder, “‘Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War’: The Case for Retraction on Grounds of Academic Misconduct,”Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 16, 10, no.1 (May 2018).


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