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New Comfort Women Book: Why the Academic and Journalistic Silence?

A February 19 press conference underscored the recent journalistic and academic silence on the comfort women issue. We consider what has changed.



(Left to right) Yuriko Yamamoto (Nadeshiko Action), Nobukatsu Fujioka, Kunitoshi Matsuki (interpreter), Lee Wooyoun, Jason Morgan, Mark Ramseyer (video call, just out of shot) (© JAPAN Forward by Daniel Manning)

On February 19, the International Research Institute for Controversial Histories (iRICH) hosted a press conference at the Japan National Press Club (JNPC). The Japan-based organization summoned the press to promote the recent publication of Professor J Mark Ramseyer's work in three languages. These books are The Comfort Women Hoax (English), Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War (Korean), and Complete Refutation (Japanese).

Professor Ramseyer, South Korean scholar Lee Wooyoun, and Reitaku University Professor Jason Morgan delivered comments at the media event. Nobukatsu Fujioka, vice-president of the Japan Society for History Textbook Reform, also spoke. 

So how have the media and academia in Japan, the Anglosphere, and South Korea received these latest books? Above all, what is the current state of academic freedom on the topic of comfort women? The press conference highlighted some of these questions.

Book Cover image.

Censorship on the Western Front

Participating in the press conference online from Boston, Professor Ramseyer compared Japanese receptiveness to Western obstinacy in the comfort women debate. He noted, "Today, most people in Japan understand that the sex-slave argument was based on the lies of Seiji Yoshida. They know that Asahi Shimbun's decades-long irresponsible reporting helped spread his false testimony globally." 

Conversely in the United States, he pointed out, some universities and journals are trying to preserve the sex-slave narrative. "The Diplomat removed (South Korean scholar) Lee Wooyoun's comfort women article soon after uploading it," Ramseyer noted, adding: "Hawaii University's Chizuko Allen's work on the history of the Korean Peninsula was also censored." 

Ramseyer himself became interested in the subject when he discovered documents that contradicted the prevailing sex-slave theory while researching pre-war prostitution in Japan. His 2021 article "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War" was met with vicious attacks and criticism by sex-slave theory proponents. That paper and his response are incorporated into the books introduced at the press conference.

Subdued Reaction to North Korea Link

New facts about the comfort women issue continue to emerge. Ramseyer's latest book, co-authored with Morgan, is The Comfort Women Hoax (Encounter Books, 2023). In addition to a recapitulation of Ramseyer's research on the issue, the book features a chapter on North Korea's role. 

As Ramseyer emphasized during the press conference, "In South Korea, the Korean Council manipulated the sex-slave narrative for its activism. They tried to use it to steer South Korea away from the US and Japan and closer to North Korea." The book presents compelling evidence to suggest that Pyongyang may have concocted the comfort women story for its own agenda. US journalists and academics have yet to offer a counterargument to this point, the authors point out.


Morgan noted that following the book's publication, Amy Stanley, a social historian of early and modern Japan, commented obliquely on it. "Referring to an obscure, 50-year-old Holocaust denial book, she implied our book fell into the same category," Morgan explained. "Focusing on the word 'hoax,' which also appeared in this largely unknown text, she alleged that history revisionists still abound. 

"Crucially, however, she has issued no direct rebuttal," stated Morgan. In the past, Stanley was a very direct and vocal critic of Ramseyer's paper on her X (formerly Twitter) account.

While reaction in the US has been muted, Morgan said one of the book's few reviews came from The American Conservative. Senior editor Helen Andrews gave the book a positive review. 

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Fujioka reported that despite being such a heavy academic topic, the Japanese version "is selling remarkably well." (As of February 26, the book is the number one bestseller in the military affairs category on Amazon.) He said that "the speed at which it is selling indicates that Japanese people have a great interest in the subject." 

During the Q&A, JAPAN Forward asked why there were no foreign press at the conference. Fujioka explained, "We (iRICH) originally wanted to hold a press conference including foreign press. That is why we reached out to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ)." The FCCJ typically handles press conferences for academics who wish to address both domestic press and international journalists. However, the FCCJ denied the iRICH's request. 

Fujioka followed up by sending the FCCJ another email. "I asked why they did not consider this issue a topic of interest for foreign journalists in Japan," Fujioka explains. "Since then," he reveals, "I have not received a reply." 

Morgan related a similar experience. "I contacted (the peer-reviewed journal) Japan Review to ask if they would consider reviewing the book," he said. "After a week-and-a-half, they replied, saying the book fell outside the purview of what they cover. But this is the same journal that published an article Lee Wooyoun penned on comfort women in the past. How could this be outside the purview of what they cover?" After that, Morgan revealed, "I mailed them again, but they stopped replying to my emails.”

Lee Wooyoun. A poster of Mark Ramseyer stands in the background (© JAPAN Forward by Daniel Manning)

The Courage to Fight

Surprisingly, as Lee informed the press, South Korean coverage of the Korean translation of Ramseyer's book has been negligible. "There has only been one article on the book that I am aware of," he said. "South Korean media know that widespread reporting on the book will only do more damage to the sex-slave narrative. That's why they've simply chosen to ignore it," he added.

In South Korea, sex-slave theory critics face fines and prison. JAPAN Forward asked Lee where he got the courage to continue promoting his research. Laughing, he responded, "Well, I hate liars." Elaborating, he says, "As time went on, (my work) developed into a fight for (South Korean) society." 


He made another point as well. Unlike in Japan, Lee explained, the battleground of this debate extends to the streets. "From the start, 300 people were attending the Korean Council's Wednesday protests in front of the (former) Japanese embassy [in Seoul]. Our counter-protests began with a handful of individuals." Things have changed since then. "Now, depending on the day, we outnumber them." 

Seishiro Sugihara, chairman of iRICH, put the purpose of the press conference in perspective and commented on the significance of these latest publications. "Debates on history must always be predicated on facts," he said. 

"Unfortunately, eschewing facts for hate and enmity has become commonplace in 21st-century debating," he lamented. "It is my hope," he emphasized, "that these translations will lead to more civil and fact-based debate."


Author: Daniel Manning

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