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Bad History on the Comfort Women

The row about Professor J. Mark Ramseyer’s work on comfort women is about basic academic standards, not freedom of expression, say Professors Tessa Morris Suzuki and David McNeill.




On January 12th, JAPAN Forward published an article by J. Mark Ramseyer of Harvard University,Recovering the Truth about the Comfort Women. The article, asserting that ‘comfort women’ were licensed prostitutes freely selling their bodies, contained material culled from a much longer piece by Professor Ramseyer which appeared online in the International Review of Law and Economics in December

Professor Ramseyer has since been strongly criticized across much of the academic world and his wider work subjected to intense scrutiny.  The controversy has spilled over onto the pages of The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine, pillars of America’s publishing establishment. Given the low-key coverage in Japan, however, it is quite possible that most Japanese people are unaware of a row raging about a Japanese issue outside Japan. 

In so far as the controversy has been revisited by JAPAN Forward, it is to characterize the attacks on Professor Ramseyer’s work as a ‘witch-hunt’ dominated by ‘rabble rousers’, activists and the South Korean media. ‘Students and citizen groups, untrained as academics, are not fit to demand a withdrawal and an apology,’ argues Ruriko Kubota in this piece: https://japan-forward.com/rabble-rousers-go-on-witch-hunt-vs-harvard-professor-who-challenges-sex-slaves-theory/ 

It seems only fair to point out, therefore, that hundreds of scholars, including Harvard academics, have joined the public criticism of Professor Ramseyer. A team of professional historians have published an open letter highlighting deep flaws in his paper.  https://sites.google.com/view/concernedhistorians/home 

Over 1000 professors of economics (including many internationally renowned figures like the former Chief Economist of the World Bank Group), along with many others, have published a letter expressing the same criticisms and concerns about Ramseyer’s article - http://chwe.net/irle/letter/ 

The International Review of Law and Economics has delayed publication of his paper.  A raft of articles systematically dismantling his work has been published and more is on the way.  The Korean Association of Harvard Law School, by the way, has slammed the article but defended Professor’s Ramseyer's right to publish it.  Journal Delays Print Publication of Harvard Law Professor’s Controversial ‘Comfort Women’ Article Amid Outcry

Academics who have taken issue with Professor Ramseyer’s research (some of whom have spent their whole professional lives studying Japanese history) have been trolled with relentless abuse and have suspended their Twitter accounts – a sad feature of discussion about this issue. Journalists we have contacted in Japan have told us they are reluctant to cover this issue for fear of professional retribution, so it’s somewhat ironic in this context to talk about threats to Professor’s Ramseyer’s right to publish what he likes. 


Nevertheless, it needs to be strongly stated that the issue here is not suppression of free speech but basic academic standards – or lack of them. Professional polemicists can get away with all sort of unsubstantiated claims but journalists and academics are under obligation to treat sources and their readers with honesty and respect. Here are just a few of the problems with Professor Ramseyer’s research methods which have been highlighted by his fellow scholars.

Professor Ramseyer’s conclusions are based on a detailed discussion about the content of contracts which, he says, ‘comfort women’ signed with their ‘employers’ - but he clearly has not seen a single surviving example such of a signed contract. He doesn’t provide evidence that any such signed contracts exist, and cites no testimony from anyone who signed such a contract, or witnessed one being signed. There are also many concerns about the way he cites his sources.

In one case, Professor Ramseyer writes that, in 1938, 90 Korean women ‘petitioned’ the colonial government for permission to go to the Chinese city of Jinan ‘to work as unlicensed prostitutes’. But the document he cites is a letter from the colonial government of Korea reporting that 907 people (including 115 Korean women) had been issued with official documents for a journey to Jinan. 

In other words, Professor Ramseyer converts a government document about the mass transportation of women to sexual service in Jinan into a ‘petition’ from women pleading to be ‘permitted’ to be unlicensed prostitutes. There is no mention in the document of any request or petition from the women themselves.

Professor Ramseyer also cites a U.S. interrogation report to support his claims about the ‘comfort women’, but fails to mention the fact that this document specifically states that Japanese recruiters deceived about 800 young Korean women into thinking their work would be ‘visiting the wounded in hospitals, rolling bandages, and generally making the soldiers happy’, directly contradicting Professor Ramseyer’s conclusions. 

Professor Ramseyer’s article also claims to be about the ‘comfort women’ system in general, but then focuses only on Japanese and Korean women, when in fact the system ensnared women from more than 10 countries in Asia: see, for example, https://berthafoundation.org/malaya-lolas-road-justice/ Are we expected to believe that Filipina village girls barely into their teens in the middle of a war zone really negotiated employment contracts to become ‘comfort women’? With whom? In what language?

What has shocked many scholars internationally is the fact that Professor Ramseyer’s articles on the ‘comfort women’ issue have appeared at almost the same time as at least six other articles by him on controversial issues in Japanese history, all showing the same fundamental flaws of scholarship. These papers cover issues like Hisabetsu Buraku, Okinawans, and Zainichi Koreans. One chapter on these topics was scheduled to appear in a book being published by Cambridge University Press, but publication has been delayed pending further review after scholars noted serious problems of mis-referencing and other issues in the chapter (https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210220002400325).

In a third case, The European Journal of Law and Economics has also issued a ‘statement of concern’ about an article by Professor Ramseyer which it had just published online, and is re-examining it (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10657-020-09682-2). This is one of several papers which Professor Ramseyer has published about the Korean community in Japan in the past year, despite having no background in researching this issue. As readers have noted, Professor Ramseyer (for example), writes that the population of Jeju island fell from 290,000 in the late 1940s to 30,000 in 1957, implying that as many as 200,000 Jeju islanders might have fled to Japan as refugees in that period. This is a glaring mistake – a misinterpretation of documents that talk about the island’s population falling by about 30,000. The article’s references show that his source for this information was an anonymous blog, which in turn sourced its information from Wikipedia.

Does all this suggest someone who is treating his readers with respect? 

Perhaps Sankei readers might consider a basic question not asked by Professor Ramseyer.  How did comfort women alone manage to have free agency in a time when virtually everyone, including school children, was mobilized to national war aims? 


As Jeannie Suk Gersen, the first Asian woman to teach at Harvard Law School, said of Professor Ramseyer's arguments: No legal system would recognize such a contract. ‘Even supporters of legalizing sex work would firmly reject the idea that contract law extends where people must have sex with thousands in order to become “free” of their “obligation,” as he puts it.’

We live in an age when ‘fake news’ and misleading information circulates everywhere in the media, creating social conflict in many parts of the world. This makes it all the more important that scholars, journalists and others uphold proper research practices, by looking carefully at the sources they use and checking their facts as best they can. People in all walks of life need to learn the skills of recognizing reliable sources of information, checking facts and comparing works which express diverse opinions. The strong critical response to Professor Ramseyer’s work has emerged, not because he is expressing controversial views, but because so many of his recent articles fail to uphold those standards.

Perhaps this controversy will encourage us all to look more closely at ways to protect free speech while also learning to identify knowledge claims that lack proper foundations. This is not about Japan versus Korea, or about activist students versus embattled professors. It is about the difficult and challenging search for historical truth.  

Author: David McNeill and Tessa Morris Suzuki

Tessa Morris Suzuki is Professor Emerita of Japanese History, School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University.  Her research interests include the Korean War, grassroots movements in Northeast Asia; national identity and ethnic minorities in Japan and modern Japanese historiography.

David McNeill is professor of communications and English at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, and co-chair of the FCCJ’s events committee.  He was previously a correspondent for The Independent, The Economist and The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

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