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[Tokyo Outlook] A Major Turning Point in the Comfort Women 'History War'

The comfort women myth has already deeply wounded Japan-South Korea relations. Is the latest breakthrough enough to promote a resolution in this history war?



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

The comfort women issue has entered a new phase. The contentious debate over wartime history has long complicated relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea.

In late 2020, Harvard Law School professor J Mark Ramseyer published a paper at the International Review of Law and Economics (IRLE) about the comfort women. The paper directly countered the popular narrative that the wartime comfort women had been "sex slaves." Instead, Professor Ramseyer argued, the comfort women had mainly been contract laborers, prostitutes working at military brothels for pay.

Then, in January 2021, Professor Ramseyer published a summary of his IRLE paper at JAPAN Forward. He declared that the evidence suggests the "sex slaves" narrative was fiction.

Shortly thereafter, activists in and outside of academia on the Korean Peninsula, in North America, in Japan, at a university in Singapore, and elsewhere erupted in fury. They harassed the IRLE editorial board. And they attacked Professor Ramseyer online, calling for him to be fired. Professor Ramseyer and his family became the target of dozens of hate mail and even death threats. 

comfort women
Wednesday protesters rally against Japan at the comfort women statue placed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea in 2021. (© Sankei)

Baseless Accusations and Abuse

Professors, mainly writing in English and appearing to forget their sense of professorial decorum, called Professor Ramseyer a "white supremacist." They even accused him of propagating "hate speech." Other such baseless accusations and insults abounded from professors' social media accounts.

But in January 2023, the IRLE board decided that Professor Ramseyer's paper would stand. It was more than two years after the furor first exploded. A stringent review process led the editors to determine that Professor Ramseyer's paper was sound scholarship. 

However, in the wake of this development, some of Professor Ramseyer's most obsessive attackers continued their defamation campaign.

Despite the clear announcement by the IRLE board, one American professor wrote on her Twitter page that some members of the IRLE board had accepted that Professor Ramseyer committed fraud. In response, Dr Ramseyer explained in a follow-up JAPAN Forward interview that the American professor had twisted the truth. Called out, the professor hastily apologized and deleted the mendacious tweets.

Excising History

Other professors who spent more than two years attacking Professor Ramseyer have deleted their tweets or their entire Twitter accounts. In this way, they apparently hope to erase the evidence of their harassment campaigns.

Professor Ramseyer, for his part, has not yielded to the online threats and harassment. Instead, he has dug deeper into his original research, making new discoveries along the way.

For example, Professor Ramseyer worked with Waseda University professor Tetsuo Arima to track down the origins of the comfort women issue. They found that North Korea and those working on the communist regime's behalf are deeply entrenched in the ongoing dispute. Professors Arima and Ramseyer published their findings in August 2022, in a paper titled "Comfort Women: The North Korean Connection."

Jung-Hwa Han, president of Korea Verband, speaks at a rally to support the statue (© Sankei by Kenji Yoshida)

An Exhaustive Research

In a January 2023 interview with JAPAN Forward editor and Reitaku University Faculty of Global Studies associate professor Jason Morgan, Professor Ramseyer acknowledged that the past two-plus years of attacks over his 2020 comfort women article had left him exhausted. However, he noted,

The result of their attacks was that I wrote a sixty-plus-page response to their attacks. And then I wrote a separate sixty-page article with Professor Arima on the connection between the comfort women dispute and North Korea. Before the attacks, the only sustained discussion of the real history of the comfort women in English was Professor Ikuhiko Hata's masterful book. Now the real history is all over the internet. And there are two long articles in addition to Professor Hata's book. That's thanks to my attackers.

Indeed, as of this writing, the Arima-Ramseyer "Comfort Women: The North Korean Connection" paper has been downloaded from the SSRN website more than 7,200 times. Its abstract has been viewed an astonishing 26,000 times.

Professor Ramseyer's 2020 IRLE article remains, more than two years later, in the very top ranks of the most cited, most popular, and most downloaded listings on the IRLE website.

The above quotes are from part three of a three-part, interview article at JAPAN Forward. The author subsequently condensed the series into a Japanese essay for JAPAN Forward's Japanese language page

comfort women
Screenshot of IRLE website on February 11, 2023.

A Major Turning Point

In the Japanese language article, Associate Professor Morgan writes that "Professor Ramseyer's victory may well mark a major turning point in the 'history war' which has unfolded surrounding the comfort women issue."

Professor Ramseyer's IRLE paper withstood the worst. However, the fact remains that comfort women statues carrying the false "sex slaves" narrative continue to be erected in places like the Mitte District of Berlin and elsewhere around the world. Also, a group of Korean Americans suddenly began challenging Professor Ramseyer's paper at IRLE, two years after it came out. 

Will those who have long supported the comfort women myth, which has already deeply insulted the Korean people and wounded Japan-South Korea relations, finally bring these history wars to a resolution?

Although I'm not ready to offer predictions on this yet, the history wars have certainly entered a new phase. Therefore, JAPAN Forward will be monitoring this issue more vigilantly than ever to bring the real truth behind this victory to the world. 

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

Watch for the next issue of "Tokyo Outlook" in March. 

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(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Yasuo Naito, Editor in Chief, JAPAN Forward


Stay up to date with the latest from our JAPAN Forward team and the projects we are engaged in. Explore topics we find important and discover the news we are prioritizing, penned by our Editor in Chief, Yasuo Naito.


Stay up to date with the latest from our JAPAN Forward team and the projects we are engaged in. Explore topics we find important and discover the news we are prioritizing, penned by our Editor in Chief, Yasuo Naito.

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