FEATURE: The Struggle Against Fiction
A Harvard professor denied a widely accepted historical atrocity. Students and professors at Yale push back.
Editors’ Note: This article contains discussion of sexual violence.
“Pure fiction… that is the nature of the comfort-women-sex-slave story.” —J. Mark Ramseyer, Japan Forward, January 2021.
On December 1, 2020, Harvard Law professor J. Mark Ramseyer sparked a global controversy when he published an article in the International Review of Law and Economics (IRLE) about “comfort women” in Imperial Japan. In the article, he rejected the historical understanding that “comfort women,” many of whom were of Korean origin, were violently coerced into a system of sexual servitude — arguing that these women “voluntarily participated” in contracts for sex work.
The article incited a firestorm. It triggered a letter demanding retraction with over 3,600 signatories — including 44 members of the Yale community ranging from undergraduate students to esteemed professors — inspired Japanese right-wing denialists, and drew sharp condemnation from both North and South Korea. In a New Yorker article, fellow Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen wondered at the article’s impact in worsening the fraught relationship between Japan and Korea, and in challenging the U.S.’ role as their mutual ally — several members of Congress have spoken out against Ramseyer’s article.
The history of “comfort women” has often been obscured by active silencing and denial. In 2015, the Japanese foreign ministry asked American publisher McGraw Hill to remove a reference to “comfort women” from a textbook they distributed to Californian high schools, ambiguously claiming the text included “grave errors and descriptions that conflict with [their] nation’s stance.” Former prime minister Shinzo Abe also “openly flirted” with the idea of retracting the 1993 government apology to “comfort women.”
Nonetheless, students and faculty at Yale stand in unity to bring light to the issue. Hailing from various backgrounds, they have the common hope of preserving integrity and truth in academia, and giving voice to the long-silenced survivors of sexual violence.
REFUTING RAMSEYER’S “SCHOLARSHIP”
In his article, Ramseyer argues that “comfort women” voluntarily participated in indentured contracts. These arrangements, he writes, provided sufficient incentives for women to work because they would receive large upfront payments and were only bound for a short duration. Ramseyer also claims that these contracts were organized by private entrepreneurs unaffiliated with the Imperial Japanese military or government, and the women were fully aware of what the contracts entailed.
At one point, Ramseyer uses an example involving a 10-year-old girl named Osaki to assert that contracting was consensual. He wrote, “The recruiter did not try to trick her; even at age 10, she knew what the job entailed.” This statement is not only false — Osaki was lied to about the work she would have to do — but also poses a more severe problem: proposing that a 10-year-old child is capable of giving consent.
Thousands of scholars, activists and students have condemned Ramseyer’s work for its disturbing assertions, poor methodology and unsupported claims. In a statement, Yale professor of economics and former chief economist of the World Bank Pinelopi Goldberg called Ramseyer’s passage about Osaki a “blatant endorsement of child sex trafficking.” She added, “The issue here is not just about fact versus fiction or academic freedom. It is about justifying acts (i.e., child rape and human trafficking) that are not only morally repugnant, but also strictly illegal in civilized society.”
In general, Ramseyer’s article contains a myriad of inaccurate and unsupported historical claims. According to Tessa Morris-Suzuki, professor emerita in Japanese history at the Australian National University, “Professor Ramseyer provides no reference to a single contract actually signed between a ‘comfort woman’ and her employers, and cites no oral testimony from any former ‘comfort woman’ who recalls signing a contract of the type he describes.” Scholars have also identified misapplication of data from different time periods and problems of misquotation and misinterpretation. Additionally, while Ramseyer contends that the Japanese government and military were not involved in the coercion of women to work in military brothels, the Japanese government itself has admitted to and apologized for its involvement multiple times.
Ramseyer mainly frames his argument through economic theory, claiming that the contracts between “comfort women” and their recruiters “followed basic game-theoretic principles of credible commitments.” But economists have called the paper an abuse of economic theory. As the economists who drafted the letter demanding the article’s retraction write, “Game-theoretic principles can be used to interpret many coercive situations, from crime and punishment to nuclear warfare. But invoking game theory does not establish the absence of violent exploitation or predation.”
Ramseyer uses a framework that presupposes “comfort women” could contract freely and without coercion. But his appeals to game theory do not prove that such interactions were consensual. Economic principles cannot discount history as it happened, as recounted by “comfort women” and documented by academics worldwide — women throughout Imperial Japan faced violent exploitation and coercion.
THE UNKNOWN STORY OF “COMFORT WOMEN”
In 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Imperial Japanese troops destroyed the Chinese city of Nanking. In an event called the Rape of Nanking, soldiers raped between 20,000 and 80,000 Chinese women.
Following the Rape of Nanking, military brothels were expanded across Imperial Japan. “Comfort stations” were designed to reduce the incidence of wartime rape — a rising cause of anti-Japanese sentiment in occupied territories — and to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among Japanese military forces. The isolation of women in military brothels, the Japanese believed, would also ensure that women could not communicate any military secrets.
Rules for the recruitment of “comfort women” differed across regions. In Japan, kidnapping was illegal and recruitment was limited to professional prostitutes. But in colonies like Korea and Taiwan, mass deception and abductions were rampant. According to testimonies, middlemen hired by the Japanese military lured women through promises of work in factories, restaurants, and medical facilities.
Primary accounts from “comfort women” tell of being forced to have sex under brutal and inhumane conditions, sometimes with upwards of 20 soldiers daily. Survivors describe no access to medical care, forced sterilization and abortions, sexually transmitted diseases and physical torture for women who resisted. While Japan destroyed most of its wartime documents after its surrender in World War II, most historians believe there were between 50,000 and 200,000 “comfort women.” Roughly 75 percent are estimated to have died from this experience.
In 1991, Kim Hak-sun broke over 50 years of silence when she became the first “comfort woman” to testify about her experiences. She and others filed a suit in Tokyo District Court demanding the Japanese government take responsibility for its human rights violations during World War II. This opened the door for hundreds of women — not only from South Korea but also China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries — to come forward and share their accounts. Today, remaining survivors continue to share their stories, and translators work to make more testimony available in English.
BEHIND THE VEIL: HOW ACADEMIC JOURNALS WORK
Ramseyer’s article denies a grave historical atrocity and silences the voices of “comfort women” in Imperial Japan. But his work was only able to gain widespread attention through the peer-reviewed International Review of Law and Economics (IRLE).
The journal publishing process is a foreign concept to many people. Yale professor of economics Larry Samuelson explained to the News that the process begins when an author submits a paper to a journal. The editors select referees who read the paper and write reports, typically recommending a decision, explaining their reasoning and offering comments on the paper. Referees may come from different fields to ensure that different viewpoints engage with the article. The editors then decide whether to reject the paper, invite revisions or accept the paper for publication.
Michael Chwe, professor of political science at University of California, Los Angeles, was part of the initial organizing efforts for the letter by concerned economists demanding the article’s retraction. He speculates that Ramseyer understood that the IRLE journal editors, and their referee connections, were not as familiar with history as they were with law and economics.
“[Ramseyer] is purposefully not submitting these papers in the journals where that expertise would be strongest,” Chwe said. “It’s very, very difficult in the best circumstances to judge an article to the highest accuracy. But it is particularly difficult when you can’t trust the author to tell the truth. It is particularly difficult when the author doesn’t seem to actually care.”
Postdoctoral associate at the Yale Economics Department Sun Kyoung Lee also noted to the News that a lack of anonymity in the publishing process may create problems. Authors may target journals whose editors they believe will receive their article favorably. Likewise, she said, “There may be a bias among editors in selecting referees, sometimes leaning towards people they know. That can be very dangerous.”
Lee also pointed out that the peer-reviewed status of the IRLE provides undeserved legitimacy to Ramseyer’s claims. “It gives extra validity to his argument by having this whole system and infrastructure approve his work,” she says.
Universities are not insulated from the failures of journals to uphold scholarly standards. Professor Goldberg mentioned that Yale decides to pay for journal subscriptions, including the IRLE. “Why are we supporting this kind of lousy research?” she asked. Goldberg added that if Yale wanted to respond appropriately, the University should cancel its subscription to the IRLE.
STANDING FOR TRUTH AND INTEGRITY AT YALE
Members of the Yale community have taken a stand against Ramseyer’s attempt to rewrite history and the IRLE’s failure to reject and retract his article.
Hannah Shepherd, an incoming assistant professor of Japanese history at Yale, sent calls for retraction to the IRLE editorial board, citing the article’s lack of academic integrity. “The response from the editorial board of IRLE has been slow and often difficult to understand,” she said. “We are still waiting to hear whether the article will be retracted.”
These efforts have not been without pushback, Shepherd noted. She said, “We have also been subject to quite aggressive harassment on Twitter by right-wing Japanese trolls, who support Ramseyer and consider any criticism of his work ‘anti-Japanese.’”
Still, Shepherd and fellow academics have worked on documenting issues in the IRLE article to prove it was a case of academic misconduct. They published a 28-page fact-checking document online and sent it to the IRLE editors in February.
The structure of journals also allows academics to protest. Journals rely on authors to submit publishable content and volunteers to referee. Researchers can boycott journals to send a message. Indeed, Chwe noted, “We already have some very well-known people, including pioneering figures in law and economics, saying that they regret having published in the journal and that they don’t plan to submit in the future. If enough people do that, then the journal cannot live.”
Students at Yale have also helped bring light to the true history of “comfort women.”
Stand with “Comfort Women” (STAND) is a student-led task force at Yale that aims to foster productive conversations on the “comfort women” issue through educational projects. Kimberly Cruz ’22 and Sharmaine Koh ’22 are board members of STAND. Last summer, they helped organize a remote series attracting hundreds of attendees who listened to women survivors, photographers, musicians and scholars share their experiences and perspectives on the atrocity.
Cruz first learned of the topic through a documentary in a high school history class. “Our teacher showed us a documentary on the Rape of Nanking, and I started crying. It was showing how women were brutally abused and how people were running away from the Imperial Army,” she said. That moment impacted Cruz so deeply that in the summer after her sophomore year, she conducted independent research on the “comfort women” issue in Japan through a grant from Yale’s Council on East Asian Studies. There, she interviewed Japanese citizens and people of Korean descent on the topic.
For Koh, who grew up and lives in Singapore, Japanese occupation was a frequent topic in school because of Singapore’s status as an occupied territory during World War II. Yet “comfort women” were only brought up in passing. “It wasn’t until college, when I stumbled across Chinese historical archives on ‘comfort women’ for a class, that I really began learning about the issue,” Koh said. She wrote her final paper on the topic, and her professor subsequently connected her to some STAND alumni.
When Cruz and Koh first heard of the Ramseyer article, they were surprised to see the denialist claims coming from a Harvard professor. They each quickly took to social media to share links and spread awareness of the true history.
Cruz expressed some disappointment with how few of her friends were aware of the controversy or knew about “comfort women.” For STAND, engaging Yale students has been challenging. Koh said, “A lot of our audience consists of members from partner organizations or people outside of Yale who have long been engaged with this issue.”
The two STAND members traced the difficulty of engaging students to the historical removal of World War II’s atrocities and the perceived lack of contemporary relevance. “People seem less interested in activism that doesn’t bring immediate change because WWII seems very distant to them,” Cruz said. During the group’s events, Koh said, “People always ask what they can do, and we say we want them to learn about this history. But then they ask again, ‘No, what do you want us to do?’”
Postdoctoral associate Lee, a native Korean, cites a different kind of problem in South Korea. She thinks that younger generations are more reluctant to revisit this history, saying, “People generally don’t like seeing themselves as victims. They are almost like, ‘Why are we talking about this over and over again?’”
STAND’s current efforts include sharing a petition about the Imperial Army flag that Japan is trying to display at the 2021 Olympics. They are also coordinating with New Haven public schools to educate students about “comfort women.” While the Holocaust is taught across American public schools, this aspect of the war is often uncovered. “When people learn about ‘comfort women,’” Cruz said, “They’re kind of shocked. They ask, why don’t we talk about it?”
Many have found hope in the responses to Ramseyer’s article, as people from diverse communities, both academic and not, have banded together to condemn its falsehoods. As the efforts of STAND and numerous academics show, people rapidly mobilize in response to injustice and controversy.
Many are now thinking about the next steps forward. Yale postdoctoral associate in East Asian studies Russell Burge, who supported efforts to retract Ramseyer’s article, said his next step is “really rethinking [his] teaching.” As a historian of Japan and its colonial empire, incoming Yale assistant professor of Japanese history Shepherd wants students in her future classes to see the topic “not just as a discrete issue of ‘war memory’ or present day denialism, but in terms of how the histories of mobilization, colonial rule, sex trafficking and economic deprivation intersected to produce this system.”
As STAND continues with its educational efforts, the group is thinking about reframing the “comfort women” issue around human rights and current events. Cruz spoke of the persistence of institutionalized sexual violence against women. “There are paramilitary groups out there that torment women and do not give them autonomy over their bodies,” she said. “That is something we’ll focus more on — the connection of ‘comfort women’ to the present.”
The “comfort women” experience is an intergenerational source of trauma. Today, there are few survivors left to share their stories. Without continued efforts to spread awareness — and a willingness to learn — the story of this historical atrocity may very well lay buried in the unread footnotes of history books. The pain of these women and their families may be denied.
Educating ourselves and standing with “comfort women” has been and remains an essential obligation. Only by doing so can we prevent claims of “pure fiction” from tearing out pages from history.