A Harvard professor is at the center of a global firestorm for claiming Korean women who were held as sex slaves in Japanese occupation during wartime had actually made the choice to be sex workers themselves.
In a recently released academic paper, J. Mark Ramseyer dismissed the well-documented research showing Japan’s designated “comfort women” were compelled to work for military-run brothels during World War II. Ramseyer’s alternative take is that the women entered into occupations as prostitutes under their own free will.
His paper has stirred up a political controversy between Japan, whose leaders deny that the women were forced into sex work, and South Korea, which has long argued that Japan should issue an apology and give reparations to women who have told stories of brutal rape and abuse.
Over a half-century of research and documentation has revealed the maltreatment endured by comfort women from Korea and other countries that were under Japanese occupation. In the 1990s, the women of the era started telling stories of how they were relocated to comfort stations and forced to become sex slaves for the Japanese military.
Hundreds of academics have signed letters denouncing Ramseyer’s paper, which resulted in a rare unification of North and South Korea in mutual indignation. Early last week, North Korea’s state-run DPRK Today released an article labeling Ramseyer a “repulsive money grubber” and a “pseudo scholar.”
Ramseyer, a professor of Japanese legal studies at Harvard Law School, has not yet made comments or clarification.
Ramseyer’s article, named “Contracting for sex in the Pacific War,” was posted online in December and was slated to run in the March issue of the International Review of Law and Economics. The issue is currently suspended, before the journal put out an “expression of concern” stating that the paper is now under investigation.
Many historians and scholars found the alleged absence of hard evidence in the paper troubling. Scholars at Harvard and other institutions have now gone over Ramseyer’s sources and claim there is no historical evidence of the supposed contracts his argument centers around.
In a statement calling for a retraction of the article, Harvard historians Andrew Gordon and Carter Eckert explained that Ramseyer “has not consulted a single actual contract” regarding comfort women.
“We do not see how Ramseyer can make credible claims, in extremely emphatic wording, about contracts he has not read,” they stated.
Alexis Dudden, a historian of modern Japan and Korea at the University of Connecticut, said that the article is a “total fabrication” that pushes aside years of research. While some people have pointed to academic freedom to stick up for Ramseyer, Dudden argues that the article “does not meet the requirements of academic integrity.”
“These are assertions out of thin air,” she stressed. “It’s very clear from his writing and his sources that he has never seen a contract.”
Over 1,000 economists have signed a separate letter totally denouncing the article, suggesting it perverts economic theory “as a cover to legitimize horrific atrocities.” Another group of historians in Japan released a 30-page article outlining why the article should be retracted “on grounds of academic misconduct.”
At the Ivy League university, hundreds of students put their names on a petition asking for an apology from Ramseyer and a statement from Harvard about the complaints against him. Harvard Law School has not yet commented.
A report from the United Nations in 1996 found that the comfort women were in fact sex slaves taken with “violence and outright coercion.” A 1993 statement from Japan admitted that women were taken “against their own will,” but the country’s leaders denied it later.
In South Korea, activists have condemned Ramseyer and demanded his resignation from Harvard. Chung Young-ai, South Korea’s minister of gender equality and family, was troubled about the article last week.
“There is an attempt to distort (the facts about) the Japanese military’s ‘comfort women’ issue and tarnish the honors and dignity of victims,” Chung stated, according to comments from her ministry.
The uproar, compounded by coming out of a university with Harvard’s reputation, has resulted in new examinations of Ramseyer’s other work.
In January, Ramseyer reinforced his claims about comfort women in a piece for a Japanese news site. In the submission he said the women entered into contracts not unlike those designed under a separate, licensed system of prostitution in Japan. He called accounts of forced labor “pure fiction,” contending that the Japanese military “did not dragoon Korean women to work in its brothels.”
“Expressing sympathy to elderly women who have had a rough life is fine,” he wrote. “Paying money to an ally in order to rebuild a stable relationship is fine. But the claims about enslaved Korean comfort women are historically untrue.”
His detractors argue that many of the women were so young they wouldn’t have been able to consent to sex even if there was proof of these contracts.
“We’re really talking about 15-year-olds,” explained Dudden at the University of Connecticut. “This article further victimizes the very few number of survivors by asserting claims that even the author knows cannot be substantiated.”