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Great Minds Don't Always Think Alike: What Happens When a Harvard Professor Challenges the Status Quo

A new series "Great Minds Don't Always Think Alike" looks at the furious attacks on a Harvard professor who published an academic report on the comfort women.



Professor J. Mark Ramseyer in a virtual interview with JAPAN Forward (©JAPAN Forward by Kenji Yoshida)

Starting in August, JAPAN Forward begins a new interview series, "Great Minds Don't Always Think Alike." We focus on academics who have faced backlash for holding heterodox views and dissenting against conventional wisdom. To align with our readers' interests, the primary spotlight will be on scholars researching contemporary issues in Northeast Asia.

Our first interviewee, Harvard Law Professor J Mark Ramseyer graciously agreed to help kick off our project. Of particular interest among the many topics he raised was the controversy surrounding his 2020 academic analysis of an aspect of the comfort women issue. In that context, we discussed the limitations of his critics and the presence of anti-Japan biases on American college campuses. 

Excerpts from our interview follow.  

First in a series

When All Hell Broke Loose

On the morning of February 1, 2021, a flood of unsolicited emails awaited Professor Ramseyer. To his surprise, these emails were fueled by animosity and vitriolic attacks against him for publishing a purportedly contentious paper several months earlier.

His paper, Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War (2020), analyzed Japan's comfort women system in WWII from an economic framework. It argued that comfort women from the Korean Peninsula largely worked under indentured contracts whose terms were dictated by the unique circumstances of war. The contracts were characterized by their higher advanced payments, shorter terms, and the right to exit once the debtor paid off their debt. 

While the paper received positive reviews in Japan, it sparked controversy in South Korea. There, many believe these women were dragooned and sexually enslaved by the Japanese military. Beginning in February 2021, mainstream media in South Korea began denouncing him as a historical denialist. A public uproar soon ensued. It was around this time that unpleasant emails filled the Harvard Law School professor's inbox. 

He describes those days as "when all hell broke loose."

"The swarm of personal attacks continued for several months. One day, I received more than 77 emails, some of which included death threats. Above all, I was completely thrown off by American academics demanding a retraction of my paper," he recalls.  


Retraction Campaigns by 'Non-Experts'

Several university professors in the United States, including practitioners of East Asian History, dispatched letters to the publisher seeking a withdrawal. In one instance, Michael Chwe, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who presumably had no knowledge of comfort women history, circulated a petition calling on other scholars to join the retraction campaign. 

UCLA Professor Michael Chwe interviews with mainstream South Korean media, SBS. (©SBS News Youtube Screenshot)

"If you don't like what's in the article, you write a rebuttal," Professor Ramseyer explains. "Calling for a retraction is simply not standard practice, especially in the social science disciplines. Retractions are sometimes seen in medical or statistical journals where major statistical errors have been detected. Even then, it seems less likely to be a retraction than a counter-article," he contends.  

In the end, numerous attempts to bring down Professor Ramseyer's publication were unsuccessful. After a two-year investigation, the Dutch academic publishing house, Elsevier, declined to pull his paper as it found no violations of the journal's code of ethics or regulations. The publisher did, however, decide to maintain an "expression of concern" notice. 

On this, Professor Ramseyer says: "I originally submitted a longer paper that outlined evidence for disputing the 'forced abduction' narrative. That version included things like debunking Seiji Yoshida's fallacious stories. But because the journal, International Review of Law and Economics, specializes in law and economics, the editors were uninterested in historical debate and asked to drop them. Things might have been different had those parts survived." 

The Debate Over the Actual Contract 

Many of Ramseyer's critics assert that the paper failed to present an actual contract, and therefore, his core argument does not hold. 

But Professor Ramseyer believes otherwise. "There is sufficient historical evidence to reasonably infer that a contractual relationship existed between Korean comfort women and the comfort station owners," he says. He then cites several references to such contracts, where in one instance women like Hyun Byung-sook explicitly negotiated her conditions. 

Still, scholars like Amy Stanley and David Ambaras, staunch critics of Ramseyer's work, suggest that without an actual contract in hand, no proper analysis can be made. 

"It's true that the original contract hasn't survived. But one must understand that this is an agreement between a private firm, a brothel, and a woman. After August 1945 Japanese and Korean brothel owners were trying to return home alive, so their priority wasn't to carry these worthless documents with them," argues Professor Ramseyer.     

He also points to his recent paper, Comfort Women: The North Korean Connection, co-authored with Dr Tetsuo Arima of Waseda University. That paper contains more references to the contract. "In the appendix of this paper, we list government records, military reports, old newspapers, and testimonies that detail the contractual arrangements between the women and the brothels," he says. 

Professors Ramseyer and Arima's paper on the intricate connection between the comfort women issue and North Korea is available for download on the SSRN website.

Unanswered Questions by the Critics

One must essentially deny the substance of Professor Ramseyer's contractual theory to claim it's invalid. That substance is upfront advanced payments, fixed contract terms, division of revenue between the owner and the comfort woman, and right to exit once debts are repaid. 

Moreover, if the critics propose an alternative theory,  the onus is on them to prove such an existence. For example, the United Nations McDougall Report suggested without credible evidence that Japan established and ran "rape camps." Thus far, none of the critics have adequately challenged the core premise of Ramseyer's paper nor provided a substitutable theory. 

Professor Ramseyer notes: "The critics seemed to want to prevent any discussion of the contracts from appearing in English. They apparently want to claim that there's a historical consensus that these women were sex slaves. There's certainly no such consensus among scholars in South Korea and among Japanese scholars. 


If there is such an agreement would probably be that the women were NOT sex slaves. But almost none of that discussion appears in English. And my critics seem determined to keep it that way."

Why the Obstinate Resistance? 

Professor Ramseyer's experience over the past two years is not necessarily an outlier. Rather, it is a phenomenon all too familiar in American academia. The looming presence of cancel culture, political correctness, and resistance to heterodox viewpoints are but a few of the conundrums confronting college campuses nationwide. 

In his opinion, ideological alignments, victimhood mentality, and pesky traditions within the humanities sector partly contribute to the flare-up.

"For the humanities crowd in the United States, it's about promoting a story they like about imperialism. For example, wartime violence against women. Likewise, some scholars who study East Asian history seem to possess a proclivity to put the Japanese military in a bad light," he posits.   

That said, Professor Ramseyer sees some hope in that students are generally more receptive to unconventional ideas than their instructors. 

From Zainichi Crime to the Comfort Women Issue

Indeed, there are many reasons why academics delve into comfort women history. But because of its historically and politically sensitive nature, the process often requires a strong commitment and courage. 

A question that naturally arose was why a specialist in Japanese legal studies began writing on this topic. 

Professor Ramseyer explains that he first discovered materials related to comfort women while researching Zainichi (Koreans living in Japan) crimes.

Professor Ramseyer speaks at Harvard Law School's book talk in 2015. He is the coauthor of one of the leading corporate casebooks, Business Associations: Agency, Partnerships, LLCs, and Corporation. (©Harvard Law School Youtube screenshot)

"It was around the year 2018. I was working on issues related to crime in underclass societies in the prewar and postwar eras. As I investigated Zainichi's crime, I came across resources about comfort women. 

I noticed, however, that what I found in the records had virtually no relation to what American scholars were saying. And this prompted me to conduct more serious research," he said.  

When asked if he ever regrets probing the comfort women issue, he replies, "No." He says while the experience has been painful and costly, the discoveries far outweigh the scathing reactions. 


For this article, the reporter contacted Ramseyer's critics, Northwestern University Professor Amy Stanley, and North Carolina State University Professor David Ambaras, on August 3, 2023, for comments. However, the reporter had received no responses as of the date of this publication. (For more information, please contact the author at kenjiy329@gmail.com.)

Watch for the next in the series.


(Read the article in Japanese.) 

Author: Kenji Yoshida

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