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BOOK REVIEW | A Review of 'The Comfort Women Hoax': Seeking Truth in the Debate

Professors Ramseyer and Morgan's book demonstrates the elusiveness of truth and raises questions about protecting academic freedom in the comfort women debate.



Publisher's page for "The Comfort Women Hoax" by Mark Ramseyer and Jason M Morgan.

The comfort women debate remains one of the most polarizing issues hindering South Korean-Japan relations. "Comfort women" refers to the thousands of (primarily) Korean and Chinese women that some scholars maintain the Imperial Japanese government dragooned as sex slaves between 1932 and 1945. One divisive point is whether the Japanese forcibly abducted the women or if they were engaged in contractual arrangements as prostitutes.

Professors J Mark Ramseyer and Jason Morgan have co-authored a new book, provocatively titled The Comfort Women Hoax. (Encounter Books, January 2024). In it, they reject the dragooning narrative perpetuated through mainstream Western and left-leaning Korean academia. They argue that the women were involved in contractual arrangements with "comfort stations." In addition, they describe the backlash they suffered for forwarding this idea.

In this review, I focus on the complexities of truth-seeking in ideologically charged territory. I also address the academic community's inadequate response to the ensuing hysteria.

The Elusive Goal of Truth-seeking

The book illustrates two factors that muddy the search for truth. First is the fallibility of human memory, especially under traumatic circumstances. Second is different parties' investment in supporting their preferred interpretation of history.

Ramseyer and Morgan were justified in pointing out the problematic origins of the dragooning narrative. This narrative began with a fabricated confession from the Japanese Communist Seiji Yoshida. Another point they raise is the manipulation of comfort women's testimonies by the Korean Council, a comfort women lobby group. 

Cognitive psychology research highlights the fallibility and suggestibility of human memory, especially in the legal context. Furthermore, traumatic experiences (such as the comfort women's) and the natural cognitive decline with age can worsen an individual's declarative memory. 

In other words, they can affect one's capacity to recall dates, facts, and events. Therefore, the book does not necessarily lean into accusations that the women were lying about their experiences for financial gain. Instead, it creates space for the possibility that they had misremembered the particulars of their traumatic experiences.

Ex-comfort women rally in front of the former Japanese Embassy in Seoul in 2011. (©Claire Solery, public domain)

Pragmatic Assessment of Testimonies

Ramseyer and Morgan could have exercised the same level of skepticism towards comfort women anecdotes that supported their claims. For example, Ramseyer and Morgan quote accounts of comfort women seeing themselves as part of a nationalist effort to support the soldiers: 

The soldiers and we had the same thoughts, that is, we must work hard for our emperor. The soldiers gave up their wives, children and their own lives. Knowing how they felt, I did my best to solace them by having conversation with them. (p. 103)

Some women even provide evidence of missing their time with the military:

In relating their lives to [journalist] Hirota, the women described their stints in the comfort stations as the time in their lives when they had had purpose. They had served the country by providing comfort to men who were giving their lives in battle. After the war, they were simply uneducated women whom a rapidly modernizing Japan had left behind. (p. 106)

The authors use these accounts to challenge the dragooning narrative and characterization of Japan as a ruthless imperialistic aggressor. From a psychological perspective, however, these women's responses could also be part of a coping strategy. 

A deeper psychological and social analysis of comfort women's stories that supported the authors' claims would have strengthened the book. It would have benefitted the authors' attempt to frame their book as an objective collation of comfort women statistics and observations.

Conflicting Agendas 

Occasionally, both sides reach a consensus. Most scholars on the subject agree that these women suffered, for example. However, their respective interests in validating specific interpretations of history mean they divert responsibility and blame from themselves. On the Korean left and progressive majority in American academia, many support the dragooning narrative. Why? Because it aligns with their Manichean depiction of imperialistic Japanese aggressors vs victimized Koreans. 

Such a simplistic characterization forces the Japanese to take on a black armband view of history and provide further reparations. In the absence of "concrete evidence" for dragooning, South Korean leftist academics use this narrative to force national shame on Japan. They also leverage it to extract financial compensation from the Japanese public. This may lead to resentment that can develop into extreme anti-Korean sentiment. 

Laying the blame solely on the Japanese also allows Korean authorities to gloss over flaws in their society. One such example is the exploitation of so many women under its unregulated sex work industry and fraudulent employers.


Resilience and Agency

Meanwhile, many on the left fear that rejecting the dragooning narrative will permit Japanese nationalists to downplay their country's aggression. However, Ramseyer and Morgan suggest that accepting that comfort women contracts existed honors their resilience and autonomy amid harsh circumstances. Conversely, they posit, the victim narrative does not:

The "official narrative" would rob them of that past, and of the agency they exercised… To rob these women of the choices they made is to rob them of their humanity and of the lives they ever-so-painfully carved out for themselves. (p. 13)

A rejection of the dragooning narrative is not necessarily fuel for Japanese nationalists. On the contrary, it is an acknowledgment of the comfort women's dilemmas. Therefore, researchers are better off seeking the truth rather than forcing findings to fit their preconceived notions of justice.

Protecting Academic Free Speech

The Comfort Women Hoax details Ramseyer's and Morgan's personal and professional struggles in arguing against the dragooning narrative. Among these were rejection from local religious communities, floods of threatening messages, and sabotaged job applications. Many scholars within the Japanese studies sphere have suffered over the comfort women issue. 

Despite this, I found few people in the anglophone world who knew about the intensity of this war over history. Those with a passing understanding of the comfort women issue were my peers of Asian (primarily Chinese) background. Many of them had imbibed the dragooning narrative.

I am not a specialist in comfort women studies, nor do I read/write/speak Korean or Japanese. However, I believe it is important that academics across disciplines at least agree on minimal free speech protections. Doing so ensures academics can safely challenge orthodoxies without fear of punishment. 

Scholars are understandably reluctant to comment on academic freedom issues that appear to be outside of their expertise. By engaging in such issues, they open themselves up to accusations of ignorance and illegitimacy. But as academics, we should at least agree to tolerate differing opinions. 

Academics offering different arguments should not be hounded at their residences and flooded with death threats (as Ramseyer was). We should also agree that supervisors cannot sabotage a graduate's employability due to political disagreements (as happened to Morgan). 


Losing Focus 

At points, the book engages in the same mud-slinging the authors were subjected to. The first half of the book's preoccupation with Twitter arguments and profiles of the actors involved were sometimes repetitive and trite.  Ramseyer and Morgan singled out "The Quintet" and David Ambaras, among others. 

On Professor Morris-Suzuki, the authors state, "By 'factual mistakes' she apparently refers to interpretations with which she disagrees." They emphasize "how wrong she is on so many topics." The authors could have noted specific and relevant examples of Morris-Suzuki's errors. After all, she is an esteemed scholar in the field of Japanese Studies. 

Despite occasional lapses into personal jibes, the authors successfully convey the devastating consequences of intellectual disputes exploding into headhunts. Failure to uphold even the most rudimentary rights for academics expressing unpopular opinions is dangerous. It means that academic forays can descend into physical danger and an emotional burden for those who question mainstream ideas.

Moving the Debate Forward

In my previous HxA blog post on the comfort women history war, I concluded that:

Silencing debate about both the Korean and Japanese systems' roles in history… risks muting certain aspects of the women's suppression and weaponizing their suffering to fuel nationalistic hostility.

Truth-seeking about the comfort women issue is urgent, given the salience it has in South Korean-Japan relations and the fact that surviving victims do not have long to live and share their stories. The Comfort Women Hoax highlights barriers to truth-seeking, such as flawed memory and ideological motivations for supporting different versions of history. 

Japan Studies scholars who are well-read on the comfort women research literature in English, Japanese, and/or Korean must engage in serious debate about all the available evidence. Open academic debate must continue without actors on any side fearing excessive professional and personal harm. It is up to the entire academic community to enforce this standard and expedite the quest to uncover historical reality.

Book cover (Courtesy of Encounter Books, publisher.)

About the Book:

Title: The Comfort Women Hoax

Subtitle: A Fake Memoir, North Korean Spies, and Hit Squads in the Academic Swamp


Authors: J Mark Ramseyer and Jason M Morgan  

Publisher: Encounter Books, New York (January 23, 2024)

ISBN: 978-1641773454

Formats: Hardcover and digital (Kindle) 


Author: Frances An
Frances is a final-year PhD student at the University of Western Australia. She has written and presented on issues such as the Gwangju Uprising, academic freedom in China, and the comfort women debates.