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Court Battle Over Comfort Women Film Taints Japanese University’s Research Ethics Record




Until countries went into various levels of lockdown, a film dealing with the comfort women issue was being screened in North America and Europe.  Entitled Shusenjo — The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, it purports to delvedeep into the most contentious debates and uncovers the hidden intentions of the supporters and detractors of comfort women.” 


It promises to answer such questions as whether the comfort women were prostitutes or sex slaves, volunteers or forcibly recruited, and whether Japan has a legal responsibility to apologize to the comfort women.


These questions are indeed raised, but are not carefully investigated. Because of the way it was produced, the film has spawned litigation that raises questions about research ethics and graduate student supervision at one of Japan’s most noted private universities.




The ‘Revisionist’ Interviewees


According to their own statement issued between May 2016 and February 2017,  Norman Mikine Dezaki (Miki Dezaki) approached eight “revisionist” (his term) commentators requesting interviews for what was represented to them as a film being produced as a project in a master’s degree program in Global Studies at Jochi (Saint Sophia) University in Tokyo.


The eight were: Hideaki Kase, Kent Gilbert, Yoshiko Sakurai, Nobukatsu Fujioka, Shunichi Fujiki, Anthony Marano, Yumiko Yamamoto, and Mio Sugita.



Dezaki assured the eight that the interviews would be fair and impartial, and would be used to produce a documentary video to be submitted to the university. It would not be a slanted journalistic production. All eight accepted his assurances and agreed to be interviewed.


Contrary to what those interviewed had been led to believe, a film entitled Shusenjo ー The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue using their interviews went into commercial distribution following a screening at the 23rd Busan Film Festival in Korea on October 7, 2018. In Tokyo, it was shown to the general public at a theater in Shibuya from April 20, 2019, until January 24, 2020. Further, it was screened at some 60 venues in Japan, 50 in Korea, 15 universities in the United States during 2019, with additional showings in Germany, Britain, Austria, France, Switzerland, and Italy.



The Lawsuit


On May 5, 2019, seven of the eight interviewees requested that public showings of the film be suspended. (MP Mio Sugita did not join in this request.) Subsequently, two separate lawsuits were brought in 2019. 



On June 19, 2019, five of the interviewees brought a civil suit seeking monetary damages and a stop to screenings of the film. On October 10, two of the interviewees brought a suit claiming copyright infringement because it had used YouTube videos without permission. Related Article: YouTuber Resorts to Misrepresentation in Making Documentary on Comfort Women Issue


The appellants assert that their responses were edited in a manner that presented them as “denialists” set in opposition to a globally recognized historical view that the comfort women were “sex slaves” and “forcibly recruited.” In contrast to their brief and highly-edited statements, the film presented 19 proponents of the predominant narrative.



Research Ethics



A key issue in the first lawsuit is informed consent. For more than a decade, Japanese universities have been required to have in place guidelines for research involving human subjects. Jochi is no exception. It first issued such guidelines in March 2014, and revised them in October 2017.


There are 24 questions in the guidelines. If there is a “yes” answer to even one, the research proposal must go to a research ethics committee for vetting. Dezaki’s project would appear to have resulted in “yes” answers to nine of the 24 questions, and thus should have been vetted by the university research ethics committee.  


There is no indication that his research proposal was scrutinized.


Moreover, the Jochi guidelines say that informed consent may later be withdrawn. In October 2019, seven of the interviewees (excluding Sugita) sent Professor Koichi Nakano, Dezaki’s supervisor and now dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, a statement withdrawing their consent and asking that original and edited versions of the interviews be handed over or destroyed.  



It is the view of the appellants that their participation was gained through deception, and they continue to suffer damage as a result of this deception.



The University’s Response


After some stonewalling, starting in September 2019, Jochi began a preliminary examination as to whether there had been any irregularities with respect to Dezaki’s film and Nakano’s supervision of his project. On December 18, 2019, on the basis that there were grounds for suspicion, the university moved to initiate a formal investigation.



When I learned of the lawsuit brought by the interviewees, I immediately began searching Jochi websites for information on Dezaki and his project. I expected to find a copy of his finished project in the university library because this is required by university regulations. Nothing.


I looked for his name in the lists of those finishing projects or dissertations and thus receiving their graduate degrees. Nothing.


I searched for his name and project in the lists of proposals that had been vetted by the university research ethics committee. Nothing.


I searched in English and Japanese using a number of variations on his name and keywords that might trigger hits. Nothing.



A colleague called Jochi. The university would not even verify that he had been a student, citing privacy regulations. 


Universities are under considerable pressure from the Ministry of Education (MEXT) and review agencies (Japan University Accreditation Association for private universities) to codify everything, document everything, vet any research involving human subjects, and put everything online for public access.


That there is nothing for Dezaki is highly suspicious, unless all records have been taken offline because of the pending litigation.



I have found only one instance in his press conferences and interviews where Dezaki has addressed this issue. In the last minutes of a press conference on June 3, 2019, he was asked about the research ethics issue by a reporter from Shukan Kinyobi, who noted that the release form Dezaki had interviewees sign would not seem to meet Jochi requirements for informed consent. 


Dezaki’s answer was that, while some fields such as anthropology have ethics guidelines for ethnographic research that involves interviews, Global Studies had none. The best he could do, he said, was to not “take anybody out of context because I knew that if I did there would be an easy way to criticize the work and I wanted to avoid that situation.”





Shortly after the film’s commercial release in Japan, I attended a showing of the film at a theater in Shibuya, paying ¥1800 JPY to do so. I spent several weeks researching all individuals appearing or mentioned in the film. I hoped then, and still hope, to write an extended review from the perspective of an historian specializing in 1930s-1940s Japanese social history. Therefore I will limit myself to a few observations here.



Aside from the overall issue of balance raised by the appellants, I would describe the film as overly long and very amateurish. It gives an inordinate amount of time to people of no consequence whatsoever. Yet he did not even reference major academics who had done in-depth research on the comfort women, most notably C. Sara Soh, author of The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, and Ikuhiko Hata. author of Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone.


In interviews and press conferences, Dezaki has repeatedly stated that he used the making of the film to learn about the issue.


Had I been in charge of his project, I would have told him to write a conventional dissertation reviewing the historical development of the comfort women issue from its first appearance in English language texts until the present. Once he knew the historiography and politics of this highly-complex and controversial issue, he could make a film if he wished, but without using the university name or facilities.



After listening to his June 3, 2019, press conference, I was left feeling that even after making his film he has only superficial knowledge of the comfort women issue. He repeatedly cited the claim there were 200,000 women, saying this figure is part of the globally-recognized historical narrative. Although the number is common in journalistic writing, historians who have actually researched the issue disagree, instead giving estimates based on explicitly stated assumptions about the ratio of comfort women to the number of military men with access to them. They give a range, not a single figure.





The appellants were forced to go through a legal discovery process just to find out who had been Dezaki’s graduate advisor, the person responsible for his compliance with university research ethics guidelines. That person was Koichi Nakano.

He is now a dean at Jochi. That puts him well up in the university power structure. Unless it is proven that there was misuse of research money from an outside agency, or plagiarism, the university is unlikely to do anything of real consequence, even if there is a finding that procedures pertaining to research ethics were not honored.



That would be unfortunate for the research reputation of both Jochi and Japan at large.  


While there is no shortage of breaches at U.S., U.K., or European universities, any kind of failure in Japan is almost invariably portrayed by the English language press as originating in Japanese culture and institutional structure.


If any university in Japan should be on guard against feeding a foreign perception of Japanese research as lacking ethics, it should be Jochi, one of Japan’s most internationalized universities.


[JAPAN Forward contacted Jochi (Sophia University) for comment during business hours on June 3. On Friday June 5 the university responded that it was unable to comment at this time. ]



Author: Earl H. Kinmonth



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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. aw_jpusa

    June 4, 2020 at 10:32 pm

    Maybe wait until the case is finished before condemning Mr. Dezaki. At least regarding Yumiko Yamamoto, the woman is a former leader of the murderous hate group Zaitokukai (she led the group in multiple protests aimed at violently intimidating children) and literally leads a group dedicated to revising pre-existing historical statements. In what sense is "revisionist" inaccurate. Why not proudly own the term "revisionist?"

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