Harvard professor criticised over ‘absurd’ claims on comfort women

Controversial journal paper stirs debate on Asian wartime slavery

February 17, 2021
Lee Yong-soo, in an address to Harvard students

Lee Yong-soo, a women’s rights activist known as “Grandma Lee”, told Harvard University students to ignore “absurd statements by a professor” who implied in a paper that wartime comfort women were contracted prostitutes.

Ms Lee, who was abducted as a 16-year-old by Japanese troops, has spent decades advocating for justice for the estimated 200,000 girls and women enslaved at military brothels in the 1930s and 1940s. She spoke from South Korea, via a translator.

During a 16 February roundtable on “Debunking Denialism on the ‘Comfort Woman’ Issue”, organised by the Harvard Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, Ms Lee countered “Contracting for sex in the Pacific War”, a paper set to be published in the March print issue of the International Review of Law and Economics, an Elsevier journal. An online version was posted in December.

The author, J. Mark Ramseyer, Mitsubishi professor of Japanese legal studies at Harvard Law School, claims that the comfort women were paid prostitutes and that current discourse obscured “contractual dynamics” and the “straightforward logic” of game theory. His view is that brothel owners and “potential prostitutes” came to financial agreements to give “the prostitute[s] an incentive to exert effort”. He writes that comfort women “demanded a large portion of their pay upfront” and claims that they could have “left early if they generated sufficient revenue”.

In January, he called the history of comfort women an “exaggeration” and “pure fiction” in an opinion article published on a website linked to the Sankei Shimbun, a conservative Japanese newspaper.

The Korean Association of Harvard Law School said in a statement that Professor Ramseyer was using “a revisionist claim that is recycled time and time again by neonationalist figures”.

“Decades’ worth of Korean scholarship, primary sources, and third-party reports challenge this characterisation. None are mentioned, cited, or considered in his arguments,” the association writes.

“We firmly believe that a sincere commitment to academic freedom is inseparable from the obligation of academic integrity as part of a genuine search for truth,” it says. “Upholding these values requires that we shed light on the failings of misleading narratives that omit important voices and obscure critical histories.”

KBS, South Korea’s public broadcaster, aired a report on 16 February about academics, including Professor Ramseyer, whom it alleged were “engaged in comfort-women denialism” and associated with the Japanese right wing.

More than 10,000 scholars and students have signed various petitions and open letters against the claims, according to The Harvard Crimson.

Professor Ramseyer told Times Higher Education that he was “putting together a package of materials relating to these questions”, which may be released in a week or two. He had no further comment.

The International Review of Law and Economics has issued an “expression of concern” about the paper, to “inform readers that concerns have been raised regarding the historical evidence in the article”, and has said it is investigating.

Ms Lee spoke at the Harvard event on the same day that she made a “last, dying wish” to the South Korean president to speak to his Japanese counterpart, and to bring the issue to the International Court of Justice.

Through tears, she told the Harvard students that Professor Ramseyer’s statement might be a “blessing in disguise” for bringing global scrutiny to the issue.

“Now there is this huge controversy,” she said. “A lot of people have become interested in this. It’s a wake-up call, and people should pay attention.”


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