I have an issue with the English translation of this word. Translations always seem to have an effect on the original word when changed from the mother tongue to a foreign language. Sometimes meanings are the same, but more times than a translator needs to summarizes the idea of the word and not perform a literal translation of it. This is why I prefer to use the Japanese word, ianfu.
According to C. Sarah Soh in her book “The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan”, in 1978 the original term for ianfu was the term “comfort girl” (and later changed to “comfort women”
Soh’s book also states that the Japanese also rarely used the term “従軍慰安婦“(juugun ian-fu) until the 1970s. Juugun ianfu has been commonly translated as “Military Comfort Women”.
So what does “慰安婦” (ianfu) mean? I consider myself fluent in conversational Japanese, can read articles, interpret and translate… but am by no means a linguistic expert; however, I like challenges and I like pointing out different possibilities. So here is my breakdown of the word, “ianfu“:
婦, or “fu” means Woman, Lady, or Married Woman. For example, 夫婦 (fuufu) literally means “man & wife”. So obviously I’m okay with the translation to “Woman”.
Now, 慰安 or “ian” is comprised of the letters:
“慰む” (nagusamu, meaning to be diverted; to forget one’s worries; to comfort), and
“安い” (yasui, meaning “Cheap”) but also has
“安まる” (yasumaru, meaning “to be rested; to feel at ease; to repose; to be relieved”) or
“安全” (anzen, meaning “perfectly safe”…remove the “zen” and you have just “safe”)
…so from this description you might be thinking, “okay comfort and cheap or comfort and easy feeling” and think “Comfort” may be a good enough word.
Let me break this train of thought and introduce another Japanese word:
手紙 (tegami): This word stands for written correspondence, i.e. a Letter.
Made of up 手 (te) for “Hand” and 紙 (kami) for “paper”.
“Paper hand”? “Hand Paper”? The point I’m trying to make here is, the meaning of the combined Kanji (Chinese letters) doesn’t always make a nice composite if you were to breakdown the two letters. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. In tegami’s case, it doesn’t.
So, to 慰安 (ian), which means “Solace” or “Relaxation”.
…right now you may still want to side with “Relaxation Women”, but just contemplate if you would, as to why the word “Solace” could possibly be a definition.
Solace has many definitions, as it is both a verb and a noun (using Merriam Webster.com). To me, the noun makes more sense.
Webster defines it as: “someone or something that gives a feeling of comfort to a person who is sad, depressed, etc. : a source of comfort”
Further defined as:
1) comfort in grief : alleviation of grief or anxiety
2) a source of relief or consolation
I have an argument for an op-ed that I’m drafting; so I won’t go into details explaining why I feel a certain way (and ask you bear with me until I complete it); however, I am more inclined to believe “Solace” is the proper translation because of the ianfu‘s ability to “[alleviate] distress or discomfort”. I just won’t say why…. Yet.
So, (to me) “Women who provide Solace” is a more accurate meaning… though, I will admit it’s not nearly as catchy as “Comfort Women”.