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Harvard Professor's New Comfort Women Book Brings Historical Perspective to Japan, South Korea

In an interview, Nobukatsu Fujioka and Yumiko Yamamoto discuss J Mark Ramseyer’s new book on comfort women, recently translated into Japanese and Korean.



Nobukatsu Fujioka (left) and Yumiko Yamamoto, representative of Nadeshiko Action, talk about Professor J Mark Ramseyer's book. At the JAPAN Forward newsroom on December 11, 2023. (©JAPAN Forward)

The year 2023 marks the 58th anniversary of Japan and South Korea's normalization of relations. But it's also a noteworthy year for an issue that has persistently tainted Tokyo and Seoul's normalization efforts. That is the "comfort women."

It has been 40 years since Seiji Yoshida published his infamous book detailing his fictitious saga of "slave hunting" Korean women on Jeju Island. For yet another anniversary, it has been 30 years since the issuance of the deeply contested [Yohei] Kono Statement. That document tacitly admitted Japan's involvement in the forced recruitment of Korean women into wartime brothels. 

On this meaningful convergence of anniversaries, two important guests visited the JAPAN Forward newsroom in Tokyo. One was Nobukatsu Fujioka. The best-selling author is also the vice-president of Tsukuru Kai, the Japan Society for History Textbook Reform. With him was Yumiko Yamamoto. She is a prolific social activist and founder of the civic group Nadeshiko Action. Both have dedicated years to exposing misinformation surrounding the comfort women issue. 

Fujioka and Yamamoto brought along a newly released book as a gift. It was the Japanese translation of Harvard professor J Mark Ramseyer's four journal articles bound into one volume. Three articles are on comfort women and one is on Japan's pre-war licensed prostitution. Fujioka and Yamamoto spearheaded the translation and book publishing project.

Cover image of the "Complete Refutation by Professor Ramseyer." 

Professor Ramseyer is one of the few mainstream academics in the United States who openly and actively countered the popular comfort women narratives. In that regard, I was delighted to see his work translated and disseminated in Japan. Not wanting to let this pivotal moment slip away, I requested an interview. Fujioka and Yamamoto generously agreed. 

Excerpts of the interview follow.

On the South Korean Court's Comfort Women Ruling

Interviewer: On November 24, the Seoul High Court overturned a lower court's decision rejecting a damages lawsuit. It had been filed by former comfort women against the Japanese government in 2016. The High Court rejected the sovereign immunity claim by the defense. Instead, it ordered the Japanese government to pay ₩200 million KRW (approximately $154,000 USD) to each of the 16 ex-comfort women. 

Fujioka: This is fundamentally a matter of South Korea's judiciary. But I also think it illustrates the fact that uncorroborated, and even debunked facts concerning the comfort women issue are still widely adhered to by the South Korean public. 


Yamamoto: This "judiciary problem" you pointed out is not only confined to the comfort women issue but other cases involving Japan. For instance, the series of trials pertaining to wartime labor mobilization.     

Interviewer: Yes, that's true. In 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled in favor of Korean forced laborers. A group of them had filed damage suits against Japanese corporations. But in January 2021, presiding over another labor mobilization case, a district court sided with the Japanese defendant. That court contended that the labor mobilization question had been settled under the 1965 Agreement.

comfort women
A comfort women activist tries to rally a crowd at the Wednesday demonstration in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea on February 3, 2021. (© Kyodo)

Which 'Comfort Women'?

Fujioka: It looks like the courts aren't following basic legal principles and are being swayed by something else. 

Yamamoto: With the comfort women trials, do courts verify or cross-examine the plaintiffs' claims that the Japanese military forcibly abducted them?

Interviewer: No, the courts don’t conduct separate investigations into their testimonies.  

Unsubstantiated 'Evidence'

Yamamoto: So, in that case, the courts accept plaintiffs' words at face value. For instance, if a plaintiff claims she was a former military comfort woman, there's no need to prove this under the court of law. 

Interviewer: That seems to be the case with most comfort women-related trials in South Korea. The prosecution frequently submits the Kono Statement. It also presents the [United Nations Human Rights Council] Coomaraswamy Report, and the testimonies of ex-comfort women. They even submit conflicting testimonies as evidence of the dragooning of Korean women and their sexual enslavement. This is evident in Park Yuha and Lew Seok-choon's criminal defamation trials as well. 

Yamamoto: I see. There are also some 240 "state-approved" former comfort women in South Korea. Yet according to Kim Byungheon, an expert on Korean comfort women, the government eschewed conducting a proper investigation before accepting their applications. So after all we can never be sure which women were actual Japanese military comfort women. 

Interviewer: Yes, that's true. 

Kim Byungheon, South Korean educator and expert on the comfort women issue, speaks at an anti-statue of peace rally. (© Nadeshiko Action) 

Professor Ramseyer Breaking Through the 'Taboos'

Fujioka: That makes it a highly problematic situation. Pivoting a little bit, this month and next are expected to be important months for further debunking myths surrounding comfort women and potentially breaking through the "taboo" in South Korea.

In Japan and South Korea, like-minded intellectuals and scholars came together to translate and publish Professor Ramseyer's comfort women papers. The Japanese version was published on December 13 and the Korean version is coming out in early January. 

In Japan, many are familiar with the name "Ramseyer." However, they are not necessarily familiar with the details of his work. He researched Imperial Japan's prewar state-sanctioned prostitution and comfort women system. This is an opportunity for many lay people to see how a Harvard scholar thoroughly quashes the forced abduction and sex slave theories using economic logic. 

In South Korea, two renowned scholars, Lew Seok-Choon and Lee Wooyoun, are heading the translation. I hope the publication will be a catalyst for shifting the tide there. 

More Volumes Coming Up

Yamamoto: We're also expecting a new book by Professors Ramseyer and Jason Morgan. It is titled "The Comfort Women Hoax: A Fake Memoir, North Korean Spies, and Hit Squads in the Academic Swamp." Taking another glance at the title it's very direct and powerful. It encapsulates the fact that the comfort women issue is largely a hoax propagated with the help of the North Korean regime. Likewise, there is fierce resistance to any attempts to challenge the existing narrative in academia. 

Fujioka: On the topic of the North Korea spy operation, I have a short story to share. In 1999, I first visited South Korea with Motohiko Izawa to obtain materials for our book, "Textbook That Can Say No." A native political scientist told me something very fascinating while I was there. He said those grandmas and comfort women supporters attending the "Wednesday Rally" are all working under the auspices of the North Korean regime

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

Remember, this is 1999, and it was only a few years after the comfort women became a matter of diplomatic contention between Tokyo and Seoul. Even then some South Koreans were aware of North Korea's involvement in the scheme. 

Interviewer: That is very interesting to hear. I think this is a good segue into the Japanese translation of Professor Ramseyer's Comfort Women papers. I believe you two were the lead translators and editors. How did you first encounter the comfort women issue and Professor Ramseyer's work? 

Japan's 1996 Textbooks

Fujioka: For me, it was June 1996, when Japan's Ministry of Education released the results of that year's school textbook screening. For the first time in our nation's history, every single middle school textbook incorporated a description of military comfort women (従軍慰安婦) claiming that women in Japanese colonies were abducted by the imperial army to serve as comfort women. This incident was a catalyst in forming the Tsukuru Kai, and our efforts to revise such descriptions took effect. 

Yamamoto: My run-in came slightly later in 2011. I noticed that comfort women advocacy in Japan and South Korea was led by feminists who emphasized comfort women issues as sexual violence against women. The Korean Council in South Korea and a leftist organization led by Mizuho Fukushima in Japan are a few examples. Indeed, this issue is fundamentally a women's issue. So I decided to form a group composed of women to counteract narratives that put Japan and its people in a negative light. 

Yumiko Yamamoto delivers a talk at the Second Comfort Women Symposium in Seoul, on September 5, 2023. (©Kim Byunheon)

Since then our group began working internationally. Notably, we have taken initiatives at the United Nations to change their views and attitudes on the comfort women issue. For decades, left-leaning civic groups in Japan like the WAM (Women's Active Museum on War and Peace) have been sending reports to various UN human right’s treaty bodies . They contended that comfort women were dragooned and sexually enslaved by the Imperial Japanese army.

Absent objections, the UN took these reports at face value and began issuing recommendations to the Japanese government seeking official apology and compensation. Since 2011, we have been actively countering their campaigns. 

Finding Ramseyer's Paper

Yamamoto: Our first encounter with Professor Ramseyer's paper was around the time The Sankei Shimbun published a Japanese summary of his hotly debated paper "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War." That was in early 2021. I was looking through the references and noticed that Professor Ramseyer had cited one of his works from 1991. 

It was his research on prewar Japan's licensed prostitution. We were astonished to find it. An American legal scholar, of all people, had published a very thorough analysis of Japan's prewar sex industry even before comfort women became a cross-state problem. 

Interviewer: Why did you decide to translate and publish Professor Ramseyer's papers in Japanese? 

Fujioka: As we all know, there were many crucial studies debunking the fictitious comfort women narratives published much earlier than Professor Ramseyer's papers. Notably, Tsutomu Nishioka and Ikuhiko Hata conducted meticulous research in the early 1990s puncturing forced abduction and sexual slavery theories. 

However, Professor Ramseyer was the first to apply economic logic. He used game theory, specifically, to analyze the comfort women system. As a scholar of law and economics, he was in a unique position to review legal contracts of the time and examine historical phenomena from a microeconomic framework. 

Based on such dual analysis, Professor Ramseyer contended that comfort women in the Korean Peninsula worked primarily under indentured contracts whose terms were dictated by the peculiarities of a wartime milieu. Those contracts were characterized by their higher advanced payments, shorter terms, and the right to exit once the debts were repaid. 

Nobukatsu Fujioka gives a speech at a conference debating Professor Ramseyer's Comfort Women paper. In Tokyo, on April 24, 2021. (©Nadeshiko Action)

These were remarkable findings. And it was all the more noteworthy that a renowned Ivy League academic did the research in English. 

Introducing the Papers in Japanese and Korean

Given the scarcity of such scholarly materials in English, Professor Ramseyer's work could not be more timely and much sought-after. Many intellectuals and academics here are familiar with Professor Ramseyer's work. But we wanted to share his great accomplishments with the general public. This prompted us, including Shunichi Fujiki, Hiromichi Moteki, and Yoshiaki Yano, to translate and compile his work into a book.   


Interviewer: Professor Ramseyer's writings are academic papers dealing with a specific historical event. His analysis often involves economic logic and theoretical framework, some of which are unfamiliar to lay readers. Any strategies applied during the translation? 

Yamamoto: The basic rule of thumb was if I, a non-academic, had no trouble understanding the book, it should be fine. Therefore, we tried to use simpler language as much as we could and provide explanations for any jargon.

Nobukatsu Fujioka introduces the Ramseyer translation project on December 11, 2023. (©JAPAN Forward)

Key Takeaways

Interviewer: What would be the one thing you wish the readers in Japan would take away from the new book? 

Yamamoto: I wish the readers would at least go through the prologue. It details the array of bombardments Professor Ramseyer experienced as a result of probing the contentious issue of comfort women. Even if readers don't finish the book, it would be a great scholarly addition to their shelves. We have translated all reference pages as well. That way, readers can refer to the book at any point they desire for further reading. 

Fujioka: There are three things I hope the Japanese readers will take away. First, Professor Ramseyer was intellectually curious about Japan's prewar sex industry before the politicization of the comfort women issue. Second, as the title implies, he has completely refuted all counterarguments, even the utterly unsound ones, by various academics. Basically, he argues s that indentured contracts in prewar licensed prostitution are akin to contractual relations in the comfort women system during the war. And that Korean comfort women and the station owners entered into contracts that required certain commitments on both parties and benefited both in the end. 

Finally, as Yamamoto-san has pointed out, the harsh treatment the author received as a result of publishing his work. The kind of treatment Professor Ramseyer faced was tantamount to human rights violations and infringement of his academic freedom. But readers should note that he resisted such onslaughts and ultimately prevailed. 


Interview by: Kenji Yoshida

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