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Comfort Women: Professor Ramseyer's Indomitable Argument

The author explains why and how brothel owners used contracts to secure the services of comfort women in the prewar and wartime era of Japanese history.



Nobukatsu Fujioka is speaking at a conference while holding a Tsukuru Kai history textbook. (©Tsukuru Kai) 

Best-selling author Nobukatsu Fujioka introduces the recently released book on the comfort women issue by Harvard University Professor J Mark Ramseyer. The essay by Fujioka, who is also vice president of the Japan Society for History Textbook Reform, follows.

In the early Showa period, a farming village in Japan's Tohoku region was suffering from the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Around the village streets were posters that read, "Hiring prostitutes." Some readers may have seen a photo of these posters in history textbooks. 

Typically, the work into which parents or legal guardians sold their daughters was that of geisha or prostitutes. Were these unfortunate girls sold to brothel owners as slaves? Like black slaves in Africa, to become the brothel owner's property? In Europe and the United States, the resounding answer to that concept was "yes." 

Mr Nobukatsu Fujioka (© Sankei)

The Role of Indentured Contracts

Professor J Mark Ramseyer of Harvard University is an expert in Law and Economics. He has published many research papers, mainly on Japan. After obtaining a comprehensive set of documents, including court records between prostitutes and brothel owners, he began researching pre-war contracts for prostitutes. He pursued this research out of academic interest. In his studies, Professor Ramseyer used the "game theory" theoretical framework popularized in the 1980s. 

When entering these contracts, both the girl and her parents understandably had several concerns. Firstly, becoming a prostitute carried with it a certain degree of stigma and loss of social standing. This applied not only to the girl in question but also to her family. They needed a guarantee that she would receive a substantial income to compensate for this. 

Secondly, they had little reliable information about how much a girl could make in the industry. Such uncertainty would have influenced their hesitancy to sign a contract. 

On the other hand, brothel owners found that promises of high earnings in the future were not enough. Winning the trust of these girls and their families proved quite difficult. Therefore, brothel owners had to develop a negotiation strategy to convince them they would keep their word. In game theory terms, this is called "credible commitment."

Adopting the Use of Indentured Contracts

The solution to this problem was an indentured contract. These consisted of two pillars: 

  • An indenture stipulating the period of employment, and
  • Advance payment of gross wages for that period.

Many of these women did not even have to work until the end of their contract. Because they were earning so much, they could pay off their debts and leave the industry early. 

By using this contract system, the sex industry was able to secure a stable labor force. The data refutes the hypothesis that indentured contracts trapped girls in a hellish system of debt slavery. 

Comfort women statue in front of the former Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea. (©JAPAN Forward by Kenji Yoshida)

Building Up an Anti-Japan Legend 

Accordingly, pre-war prostitutes were not sold as slaves. Professor Ramseyer's research thesis was published in an academic journal in 1991. 

Coincidentally, that same year in South Korea, a former comfort woman named Kim Hak-Sun, proclaimed herself a victim before the media. She subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government, triggering the comfort women issue. 

Democrat Mike Honda brought the issue before the US House of Representatives and in 2007, the House passed a resolution criticizing Japan. This resolution determined that Japanese military comfort women constituted "one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century." 

"Human trafficking" means illegal slave trade. With this resolution, the House of Representatives defined comfort women as sex slaves. 

In 2015, a Japanese government source inquired into the description of comfort women in a McGraw-Hill high school history textbook. American historians fiercely objected and issued a statement claiming this action violated academic freedom.

Book cover of Professor J Mark Ramseyer's rebuttal to critics in English, Japanese and Korean. This volume is in Japanese. (©JAPAN Forward by Kenji Yoshida)

Persecution of the Comfort Women Paper

Professor Ramseyer, who knew the true history of the comfort women, refused to remain silent. Through his research, he found that because their contracts were the same, the Japanese military comfort women were simply war-zone prostitutes. Seeking to rectify these misconceptions, he wrote on the comfort women's contract. 

His paper, "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War," was accepted by an academic journal and published online in late 2020. In January of the following year, The Sankei Shimbun published a summary. Then JAPAN Forward, an English-language site related to Sankei, also reported the story

Following this coverage, Professor Ramseyer became the subject of intense criticism, persecution, and character assassination in both South Korea and the US. 

His critics and attackers could not comprehend that a Harvard professor would write such a paper. It proved an unexpected and fatal blow for defenders of the narrative that these prostitutes were sex slaves. 


On the first day following the paper's publication, Professor Ramseyer received 77 pieces of hate mail. He even received death threats. These attacks persisted for three months. 

Rather than write an academic rebuttal, 3,500 humanities scholars instead signed a petition calling for the paper to be retracted. Despite all of this, Professor Ramseyer did not give in. 

Published in Three Languages

In April 2021, a rally in support of Professor Ramseyer was held in Japan. In a video message, he expressed his gratitude, saying he would never have survived without his friends. "They kept telling me, 'You are not as stupid as the Internet makes you out to be,'" he said. 

Finally, in December 2023, Professor Ramseyer's comfort women research was published in book format in three languages: Japanese, Korean, and English. The "Complete Refutation by Professor Ramseyer" will be available in not only the United States but also in Japan and South Korea by the end of January 2024. 

The Japanese edition also includes a translation of Ramseyer's 1991 paper. 

It has been 40 years since the publication of Seiji Yoshida's fictional memoirs that set the stage for this international misinformation. Moreover, 30 years have passed since the (Yohei) Kono Statement, a disastrous exercise in political capitulation. Finally, information withheld during the initial years is out in public. As a result, the international historical debate over comfort women is drawing to a conclusion. 


(Read the essay in Japanese.)

Author: Nobukatsu Fujioka


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