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The Comfort Women: Scholars Fighting Historical Truth in East Asia

Using Twitter and other social media, emotional attackers sought to cancel a Harvard Professor's article on the comfort women issue, but documentation won out.



comfort women
Osaka City Ended its Sister City Tie with San Francisco City Over San Francisco's erection of a biased and one-sided comfort women statue. (© Sankei by Kyosuke Sumi)

In December of 2020, Harvard Law School professor and Japanese legal history expert J Mark Ramseyer published an eight-page article on the comfort women issue at the International Review of Law and Economics. It was titled, "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War."  The paper quickly became the target for an international anti-Japan attack mob. Thousands of enraged attackers pressured the IRLE editorial board to cancel Professor Ramseyer's paper.

In January of 2023, the International Review of Law and Economics editorial board announced that Professor Ramseyer's 2020 paper would stand.

Second of 3 parts

First part: Harvard Professor's Paper on the Comfort Women Issue Survives

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A frequently pictured comfort woman statue in Seoul, South Korea

Losing Control of the Narrative

Professor David Ambaras has distinguished himself these past two years by his attacks on Harvard Law School professor J Mark Ramseyer.

Dr Ramseyer published a paper in late 2020 overturning the preferred narrative in North America that the Japanese military kidnapped hundreds of thousands of sex slaves during World War II. (It is a view held mainly by those with no ability to read Japanese source documents.)

Professor Ambaras has railed often on Twitter, and now on Mastodon, that Professor Ramseyer is a comfort woman "denialist" and that denialists must be deplatformed.

What Professor Ambaras tends to leave out of his oft-repeated Twitter-tantrums is indication of knowledge of comfort women history. What "denialist" seems to mean in this context is that Professor Ambaras is frustrated by his inability to control what used to be an easily-managed narrative.

Recall that Professor Ambaras, along with his fellow Twitter enthusiasts, was able to cow Mitch Shin, an assistant editor at The Diplomat. They forced him into taking down an article by South Korean economist Lee Wooyoun in November of 2021. Professor Lee had argued that Professor Ramseyer was correct in his assessment of comfort women history. Professor Ambaras browbeat Shin until Shin caved and duly groveled.

Mitch Shin is young, and the much older David Ambaras easily intimidated him. But Professor Ambaras has now failed to cancel Mark Ramseyer. History has won out over histrionics.


Twitter meltdowns such as those in which Professor Ambaras specializes are good indications that the documents, and not the narrative-curators, are now driving the comfort women conversation forward.

No Scholars in Mobs

Professor Ambaras is not alone in his aloofness from knowledge about the history of the comfort women.

Amy Stanley is Ambaras' comrade and a professor at Northwestern University in Illinois. Like Professor Ambaras, she seemed to know very little about comfort women history. Undeterred, she took up her attacks on Mark Ramseyer two years ago.

She was doing her best to catch up, though. Professor Stanley announced on her Twitter page, some half a year after she had joined in the mob-rush against Professor Ramseyer, that she would be doing "summer reading" in a stack of the foundational texts on the history of the comfort women. (Regrettably, this was after she, Ambaras, and other newcomers to the study of the comfort women had published a cite-check of Professor Ramseyer's eight-page paper.)

Stanley is trying to learn some history, but she seems still to prefer the North American narrative. In an early November, 2022, exchange with JAPAN Forward contributor Paul de Vries, Stanley complained that pointing out errors about comfort women history in a McGraw-Hill textbook "casts doubt on the whole narrative about comfort women."

In other words, when facts and the narrative conflict, preserve the narrative.

Michael Chwe, a political scientist at the University of California-Los Angeles, circulated a petition calling for Professor Ramseyer to be fired. And he demanded that Professor Ramseyer's IRLE paper to be retracted. As evidence of Professor Ramseyer's academic misconduct, Professor Chwe offered comfort women tales of girls being rolled over boards of nails, beheaded, and generally executed en masse by the Japanese military.

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Coomaraswamy Report in 1996 has garnered myriad reviews since its publication. Left and right-wing academics alike have, for years, criticized it for major factual inaccuracies. (cover page of the report)

The UN Report

There are no historical documents to support any of these macabre fantasies. They come from a report on the comfort women submitted to the United Nations in 1996 by one Radhika Coomaraswamy.

Where did Coomaraswamy get this bizarre "information"? From an alleged comfort woman whom Coomaraswamy had never met. The alleged comfort woman was in North Korea, Coomaraswamy was told. Some comfort woman activists were happy to help, though. They went to North Korea, nominally on behalf of UN rapporteur Coomaraswamy. And they brought back the deranged "testimony" above. Coomaraswamy uncritically inserted it into her report.

These are the facts. And yet, more than three thousand people, some of them Nobel Laureates, signed off on Professor Chwe's darkly-imagined alternative universe.

The Mob Retreats

It must have been clear at some point over the past two years that the mob attacking Professor Ramseyer was fighting a losing battle with facts.


Sayaka Chatani teaches at the University of Singapore and sympathetically researches a pro-North Korea organization in Japan. Chatani has been an enthusiastic attacker against Professor Ramseyer and Professor Arima.

In late January of 2023, after the International Review of Law and Economics board announced that Professor Ramseyer's comfort woman article would stand, Professor Chatani wrote in schoolyard Japanese on Mastodon:

"The IRLE said they weren't going to retract [the Ramseyer paper], and the dumbasses in Birdworld [apparently slang for "Twitter"] are tweeting up a storm in Ramseyer's support. I, like, can't bear to watch. Somebody stop them."

In November of 2022, Professor Ambaras, was no longer comfortable on Twitter. Elon Musk had allowed dissenting viewpoints to be expressed. So professor Ambaras abandoned his once-cherished pastime and decamped to Mastodon.

When you lose the academic debate, just try to shut up those who disagree. And if that fails, retreat. The safe space is the iron adjunct to the cancel mob.

Ramseyer Isn't Sweet

The above example of the mob giving up instead of the cancel-target is very rare.

Cancel culture attacks such as the one against Mark Ramseyer usually follow a set routine. First the Twitter mob threatens and howls. Then the target crumbles and apologizes. If the target is lucky, the Twitter mob will find other targets to cancel before the first target loses his or her job, or, worse, suffers violence because of the ginned-up outrage.

In August of 2022, a University of Wisconsin history professor named Jim Sweet pointed out some facts about Atlantic history to members of the American Historical Association, of which Sweet was president at the time. Many members of the American Historical Association, however, prefer narratives to historical truth. As is now de rigueur, Sweet was viciously attacked (including by many of the same people attacking Mark Ramseyer).

Sweet, although entirely accurate in his historical analysis, folded almost instantly, issuing the usual whimpering apology just a couple of days after he inadvertently told the truth about the past.

Professor Ramseyer took a very unusual route when the Twitter mob tried to cancel him. He let the facts speak for themselves and didn't beg for mercy from the mob.


There was no safe space for him. He fought back.

Continues in: Comfort Women: Professor Mark Ramseyer Speaks Out as Truth Wins


Author: Jason Morgan, PhD

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

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