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The Comfort Women Issue Tests Power and Truth in Academic Inquiry

The facts of the comfort women history are sometimes uncomfortable, which makes the issue all the more deserving of free and open academic inquiry.



A protester points a finger opposing the efforts of the South Korean group, End Comfort Women Fraud, in Berlin.

In early June of 2023, an academic freedom group in East Asia held an open debate about the history of the comfort women. Unfortunately, many would-be debaters refused to attend. Instead, they repeated unsubstantiated assertions – and sometimes outright falsehoods – about the event online.

A contrast emerges. On the one hand, open debate and free academic inquiry are carrying scholarship about East Asian history forward. On the other hand, some people in America and South Korea continue to try to rule some academic conclusions out of order in advance. American academics try to "deplatform" views which do not subscribe to their preferred line.

This three-part series examines the ongoing comfort women debate. And it shows that the future of South Korea - Japan relations depends on the free and open exchange of ideas.

Second of three parts

First part: Opening the Comfort Women Issue to Free Debate Rooted in Historical Documents

South Koreans protest in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul with a comfort woman statue.

The Value of Free Exchange

The environment around the comfort women issue has changed dramatically over the past ten years or so. There can be no better illustration of this than the open debate about the subject in the East Asian academic freedom event in early June of 2023.

Consider the lineup at the East Asian academic freedom debate. The event featured notable legal scholar Professor Marie Seong-Hak Kim, former San Francisco judge Julie Tang, and Professor J Mark Ramseyer. Professor Kim and Tang gave their (very different) perspectives on the comfort women debate. Dr Ramseyer spoke only briefly and focused on the need for academic freedom.

Julie Tang brings ties to the People's Republic of China. She has worked with PRC spy Russell Lowe to help bring a comfort women statue to San Francisco. Tang, under her Chinese name, is also quoted in the China Daily, a propaganda vehicle for the Chinese Communist Party. For example, in an August 2022 article, Tang denounced Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi's (CA) visit to Taiwan. On issue after issue, Tang's message, like her comfort women work with Lowe, seems aligned with the Beijing party line.

Questions for Judge Tang

But even Tang was "platformed" during the discussion. Hearing all views is the very essence of scholarly inquiry.

I wanted to ask Tang questions during the Q&A period at the end of the session. However, Tang left the meeting shortly after her remarks.


So, I sent Tang the following questions in lieu of asking her directly during the discussion.

Judge Tang, I am writing an article for JAPAN Forward about your participation in the recent [East Asian academic freedom talk] on the subject of the comfort women. I would very much like to include follow-up quotes from you.

For the record, then:

1/ You mentioned during your talk that the facts of the comfort women issue had been established by scholars, and that Professor Mark Ramseyer's views had been debunked. To which scholars were you referring? And to which of Professor Ramseyer's views?

2/ You emphasized during your talk the importance of testimonials to the comfort women issue. As a former judge, do you find changing testimonials to be acceptable in establishing facts? What standard of evidence do you use when evaluating the testimonials of people claiming to have been comfort women?

More Questions for Judge Tang

My questions for Judge Tang were four in number. The last two were as follows.

3/ You spoke during your talk of the popularity of the comfort women statue in San Francisco, a statue which you helped bring to the city. Can you comment on any PRC [People's Republic of China] and/or CCP [Chinese Communist Party] influence on bringing the comfort women statue to San Francisco? Have you been in touch with any CCP and/or PRC entities regarding the comfort women statue? Was the comfort women statue in San Francisco strictly a local initiative, or was there any help from outside groups?

4/ The People's Republic of China is pressuring San Francisco to remove a statue commemorating the Tiananmen Square atrocity of 1989. Do you agree that the Tiananmen Square statue in San Francisco should be removed? Why or why not?

Please of course add any other commentary, Judge Tang. I am looking forward to hearing from you about your views.

Judge Tang never responded to me and never, as far as I can tell, answered my questions in any other forum. (I would still welcome her answers, in private or publicly.)

Comfort Women Statue in San Francisco.

Free Speech Is How Fallible Humans Find Truth

In a June 9, 2023 tweet, Professor Amy Stanley, mocked the intellectual basis of the East Asian academic freedom talk. (She did not attend.) "Maybe a more through [sic] reading of John Stuart Mill would cure me of these concerns [i.e., about gender bias in comfort women historiography]," Professor Stanley smirked.

Professor Stanley then boasted about how she worked with students at "Northwestern University, Harvard, and Yale" in studying comfort women history. She boasted about presenting comfort women work at Harvard and Columbia. In other words, Professor Stanley doesn't get it. More power plays.

Mill's point is that we are fallible human beings. Therefore, to find truth, we must admit our fallibility and test our ideas against the truth claims of others.

Professor Stanley does not understand, however, that the problem in the comfort women debate is epistemological.

Truth does not care about Harvard, Columbia, and Yale. Truth does not change just because well-paid professors say it should. To find truth, we must stop standing on CVs and pedigree.

Self-Reference Is No Substitute for Scholarship

In a June 3 tweet, though, Professor Stanley sneers at epistemology again. She retreats, again, to her reputation instead of turning her focus to the historical questions at hand.

"I do not think you have produced any work on [the comfort women] issue *as history*," Professor Stanley says, belittling an audience member at the free speech event. "And from what I've seen of your historical interpretations, I'm not optimistic. You may be a very good philosopher or intellectual historian, neither of which I can do. But you can't do this."

If only the size of the ego equaled the truth of the historical claim.

The Tendentious Cite-Check

Professor Amy Stanley has lost control of the comfort women narrative. But she and her dwindling band of former narrative curators continue to act as though historical truth is determined by partisan fiat.

Recall the work of Professor Stanley and her friends Professor David Ambaras, Professor Sayaka Chatani, Professor Chelsea Szendi Scheider, and the youngish academic Hannah Shepherd. (The latter two call Professor Ramseyer a "white supremacist".)

In 2021, the five published a cite-check of Professor Ramseyer's "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War" essay at the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus blog.


Professor Ramseyer later detailed the mendacity of the cite-check.

Fraudulent 'Fraud' Claims

I asked Professor Ramseyer about the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus blog post.

"Professor Amy Stanley and her co-authors produced a thirty-plus-page, really tendentious cite check," Professor Ramseyer tells me.

"They actually found only three mistakes of substance, and none of them went to my argument. But they declared that it showed that I was a fraud. They didn't just declare it once. They repeated it back and forth to each other endlessly."

The Stanley group weren't the only ones to repeat the debunked "fraud" charge.

"Do they believe it?" Ramseyer wonders. "It's weird, but if this group of five keeps repeating something to each other over and over, and if their fans compliment them on Twitter, maybe they really do believe it."

Continues in part 3


Author: Jason Morgan, PhD

Jason Morgan is an associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.


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