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Harvard Law Prof Rejects Historical Consensus on ‘Comfort Women,' Historians Respond

A substantial body of scholarship exists exploring the ways in which the imperial Japanese military forced or coerced women and girls into an organized system of sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers before and during World War II. Control over the historical narrative regarding the euphemistically named "comfort women," most of whom were Korean, remains an issue of contention between the governments of Japan and South Korea, as conservative Japanese politicians have embarked in recent years on efforts to deny state responsibility and rewrite textbooks.

Enter into this politicized arena J. Mark Ramseyer, the Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, who wrote an op-ed in a Japanese newspaper describing the “comfort-women-sex-slave story” as “pure fiction.” He also published an article in an academic journal, the International Review of Law and Economics, characterizing the comfort women as prostitutes, in effect rational economic actors who were able to negotiate and command high wages for their sexual labors.

"Together," Ramseyer concludes the journal article, "the women and brothels concluded indenture contracts that coupled a large advance with one or two year terms. Until the last months of the war, the women served their terms or paid off their debts early, and returned home."

Ramseyer's claims, bearing as they do the Harvard imprimatur, have become the subject of an international controversy. Scholars have cried foul, accusing Ramseyer of overlooking extensive evidence that the "comfort women" system amounted to government-sponsored sexual slavery, not a contract between consenting parties.

The journal has appended an expression of concern to the online version of Ramseyer's article, which is titled “Contracting for sex in the Pacific War.” A spokesman for Elsevier, the academic publisher, said the journal is also delaying publication of the forthcoming print issue containing the article to allow for printing of responses in the same issue.


Ramseyer declined an interview request, saying he is “in the process of putting together a package of materials relevant to the controversy.”

Alexis Dudden, a history professor at the University of Connecticut who said she’d been solicited to write a rebuttal to Ramseyer’s article, described his article as "academic fraud" analogous to Holocaust denialism.

"There has been so much scholarship produced in the 30 years since the first survivor came forward and it’s almost as if Professor Ramseyer's decision is to just ignore all of the debate -- as if he’s the first person to come into this -- and give a withering condemnation of all opinions different from his as lies," said Dudden, an expert on modern Japanese and Korean history.

“To say, ‘well, the Koreans were in it for the money’ -- which for me would be the tagline for what the Ramseyer article is saying -- is just a dog whistle to a political ideology in Japan that is powerful,” Dudden added. “So many who would drag us back to the 1990s are standing up, saying a Harvard professor said, ‘This is all a lie. These are prostitutes and they made money and they could go home if they wanted to.’ That’s not scholarship.”

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed