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The Comfort Women: Moving Past the Emotion to a New and Open Academic Debate

While American elites grandstand about the comfort women, free and open academic inquiry on East Asian history elsewhere is uncovering the uncomfortable truths.



comfort women
Internationalizing the issue, activists in California brought the comfort women statue to San Francisco. (© Kyodo)

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 that 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.

Last of three parts 

First part: Opening the Comfort Women Issue to Free Debate Rooted in Historical Documents

Second part: The Comfort Women Issue Tests Power and Truth in Academic Inquiry

Dr Tetsuo Arima comfort women
Comfort women activists former Korean Council leader Yoon Mee Hyang (center) with Lee Yong Soo (right) and Moon Phil Gi (left). Taken in 2002 at Pyongyang's Juche Tower, North Korea. (© Yoon Mee Hyang's Facebook post)

Self-Referential Non-Documentarianism

In 2021, Professor Amy Stanley and four friends published a cite-check of Professor Ramseyer's "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War" essay at the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus blog. It was a desperate attempt to regain control of the comfort-women narrative.

And yet, some might assume that the Stanley group must have been comfort women experts in 2021. How else could they crank out a thirty-plus-page cite-check in rapid response to Professor Ramseyer's eight-page essay?

"The Professor Stanley group was actually very forthright on Twitter," Professor Ramseyer emphasizes. "They admitted to their friends (in Japanese) that they didn't have any background in the comfort women debate when they started their project.

"Later on that year (2021), Stanley told her friends (on Twitter) that she planned to read the Yoshimi [Yoshiaki] and Hata [Ikuhiko] classics on the comfort women over the course of the summer. Believe it or not, Stanley seems to have written the cite-check without reading this material first.


"The Stanley group members simply didn't know what they were doing when they tried their cite-check trick," Professor Ramseyer emphasizes. "And anyone who looked at the cite-check closely could tell they didn't know what they were doing."

There are no historical sources discrediting Professor Ramseyer's claims in his eight-page paper. There are, in the end, only self-referential assertions on microblogging sites.

No wonder Professor Amy Stanley has confined much of her comfort women activism to Twitter. The library and the archives are much rougher territory for fake history.

A former comfort woman caresses a statue in Seoul representing the comfort women issue..

Circular Arguments Have Run Their Course

On January 19, 2023, Professor Stanley falsely accused Professor Ramseyer of "clear data falsification or fabrication."

In February of 2023, I pointed out that, no, the editorial board at the journal which published "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War" had emphatically determined that Professor Ramseyer's work was not fraudulent. Thereafter, Professor Stanley apologized and deleted the evidence online.

"They seem to be living in a bubble," Professor Ramseyer surmises. "Why do this stupid stuff in public, where everyone can see it? Stanley eventually deleted almost all of her Twitter posts from 2021 and 2022, the main years of her attacks. Some of her friends did similar tricks.

"But that's even weirder," Professor Ramseyer continues. "These are grown-ups. Didn't someone ever tell them that destroying evidence is never a good idea? I took screenshots. Others are now recovering the Stanley group's posts from the 'Wayback Machine' and re-posting them to the internet.

"They refer to themselves and the document they produced. But, as I showed in my response to their work, they found three errors, none of which goes to the substance of my argument."

The circular–by zigs and zags–argument goes on and on, because it keeps coming back around to the same place. There is no there there. There are only partisans tweeting.

Denying Platforms

Free debate about the comfort women is of vital importance. However, some academics would deny anyone with non-approved views from speaking in public.

The ground has shifted, though. Those who espouse the old comfort women narrative have lost the argument on factual grounds. The comfort women scam–the product of lying by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, a communist criminal named Seiji Yoshida, and partisan professors in the United States–is collapsing. Free speech and legitimate scholarship are winning the day.


The Fiction of 'Peer Review'

There is one final redoubt available to the Pyongyang-narrative diehards: peer review. One of Professor Ramseyer’s most strident critics says that peer review should have screened out Professor Ramseyer's comfort women article before it saw the light of day.

How reliable is peer review, however, when it is in the hands of those aligned with the North Korea-generated comfort women narrative?

"The people who keep pushing the evidence-free comfort women narrative talk about peer review," Professor Ramseyer says.

"Consider their other statements, though, about platforming. These people have already decided, on an emotional and ideological level, what they will and won't put up with. What kind of peer review can we expect from people who react so violently to issues about which they themselves claim to have known nothing?

"Take Professor Stanley, for instance. We know from her own admission that she knew nothing about the comfort women. But she reacted against my eight-page article anyway, demanding retraction. 

"She and Professor [Hannah] Shepherd each wrote to the journal demanding retraction, on the very day that they first noticed the article. They didn't know the field. They hadn't checked anything yet. But they immediately demanded retraction. Thousands of others jumped on the bandwagon.

"Some of my '‘peers' call me a 'white supremacist' for writing about contract history and blame me for racist violence in Buffalo, Atlanta, and Afghanistan. Peer review? No. It's called a pre-condition, a party line. 

"The lengths to which the Stanley group has gone to police that line, are precisely the lengths to which they and others would go to 'peer review' inconvenient truths out of the academy."

History distortion Tetsuo Arima
Kim Bungheon and other South Korean academics gather to protest against the comfort women statue erected in Seongbuk District. (© Kim Byungheon)

A Sign of Hope

A hopeful sign that scholarship is blossoming came to me as I was preparing this essay. One of the younger members of the June 2023 East Asian academic freedom event wrote to me (on condition I preserve anonymity).

"If the South Korean radical left-wing recognized me, they might try to make my life bad. I had a horrible experience before," the audience member wrote.

The hope came in the fact that someone who faced possible violence for speaking out chose to do so anyway.


"The South Korean left is emotion-oriented" on the comfort women issue, the audience member wrote.

"The comfort women issue is also highly politicized, as the South Korean left sees the comfort women issue as a tool to damage the relationship between South Korea and Japan. I sometimes feel the South Korean left wants a physical war with Japan. 

"Not only that, but the comfort women issue in South Korea is religious. If a South Korean uses critical thinking in regard to the comfort women issue, he or she has to go to court, even jail."

It took great courage for the audience member to contact me. People who speak the truth are finding their voice.

The Future Is Already Here

There are many notes of concern in the message I received from an audience member at the June 2023 academic freedom event. The bright side is that open discourse, such as the audience member is helping to advance, represents the wave of the future. The comfort women issue is breaking free of political control.

But there is still much work to do.

"I believe there is no freedom of speech for academic researchers in South Korea," the member wrote. "There is also no freedom of speech for young students. As an undergraduate in [a South Korean city], I expressed my opinion one day in political science class about the comfort women issue. I just used critical thinking. I did not force my view on anyone.

"However, leftist students called my friends and told them to stop associating with me. I was demonized by the students' association and denounced for more than one hour. My family and I had a very hard time and we were sometimes afraid."

While American elites grandstand, vulnerable parties in East Asia are in the thick of the debate, often at great risk to themselves. But the truth matters more than the danger. And so, as the audience member and East Asian academic freedom group exemplify, scholarship advances in step with the brave.


Author: Jason Morgan, PhD

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


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