SEOUL, South Korea — A paper by Harvard Law School Japanese legal studies professor J. Mark Ramseyer that claims sex slaves taken by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II were actually recruited, contracted sex workers generated international controversy, academic criticism, and student petitions at Harvard this week.
The paper, “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” made headlines across South Korean media and was met with widespread public anger. Ramseyer’s work is set to be published in the March issue of the International Review of Law and Economics. Korean outlets picked up the news after Ramseyer’s paper was featured in a Jan. 28 press release in Sankei Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper.
Well-known worldwide for its conservative, nationalist bent, Sankei shared Ramseyer’s abstract with his permission, while adding that memorials to “comfort women” across Asia have spread a “false image” of Japan.
“Comfort women” — a loose translation of a Japanese euphemism for “prostitute” — refers to women and girls forced into sex slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. Comfort women were held at brothels, or “comfort stations,” adjacent to Japanese military facilities to serve soldiers. The number of women enslaved from Japan’s occupied territories is disputed, but estimates range from the tens of thousands to up to 410,000, with many being of Korean descent.
Since World War II, Japan has propped up and dissolved compensation funds, dealt with lawsuits and investigations, and issued and walked back apologies to comfort women. Of the few surviving comfort women today, many have said they are still waiting for justice.
The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, and many notable scholars in Korea, Japan, the United States, and other countries have published extensive reports documenting the explicit sexual slavery of comfort women.
Ramseyer argues in his paper that comfort women were not coerced, but voluntarily employed under the terms of a contract.
Based on the title of Ramseyer’s professorship — the Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies — many Korean media outlets and scholars suspected that he may be sponsored by the Japanese corporation.
Yuji Hosaka — a political science professor at Sejong University in Seoul often cited in Korean press — suggested in an interview the possibility that Mitsubishi donated money to the University to establish the professorship and give Ramseyer this role.
In an interview with The Crimson Friday, Ramseyer said he is not aware of the precise origin of the endowed professorship, but believes that Mitsubishi Group made an approximately $1.5 million donation to Harvard in the 1970s to back the position. He said, however, that there are “no strings” or money from Mitsubishi attached to his professorship today.
Spokespeople for the University and the Law School did not respond to a request for comment.
Hosaka also said he suspected Ramseyer’s work was influenced by his connections with the Japanese government. Ramseyer, who was raised in Japan, was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun in 2018, a Japanese government distinction for those who promote Japanese culture abroad.
Ramseyer acknowledged that he has friends who work for the Japanese government, but “absolutely” denied that those connections or the award had any influence on the paper.
Legal scholars and historians from South Korea and the United States said Ramseyer’s paper had several flaws in its reasoning and raised questions about the sources he used to back up those arguments.
Harvard Professor of Korean History Carter J. Eckert wrote in an emailed statement that Ramseyer’s article is “woefully deficient, empirically, historically, and morally.”
Eckert added that he and fellow Harvard History professor Andrew Gordon ’74 are preparing a critical response to Ramseyer’s article at the request of the journal.
University of Connecticut professor of Japanese and Korean history Alexis Dudden — who said she took a class taught by Ramseyer at the University of Chicago in the 1990s — said she was “shocked” when Ramseyer emailed her the article in December.
“It is a poorly resourced, evidentially fatuous piece of scholarly production,” she said. “It is conceptually misguided, because he’s not understanding not only the context, but what actually happened.”
Dudden said after reading the article, she wrote to Ramseyer, responding to inaccuracies she noticed in his logic.
Among the first things she noticed, she said, was that Ramseyer omitted “an intense body of scholarly archival Government of Japan evidence.”
Pyong Gap Min — a sociology professor at Queens College, City University of New York who has researched comfort women — said that Ramseyer based his claims solely off of Japanese “neo-national arguments.”
“He has the burden to refute previous studies that have demonstrated the comfort women system as sexual slavery,” he said.
Ramseyer said an early version of his paper included “disputes with historians,” but those sections were cut from the final version at the request of the journal in order to focus the article on the contracts.
The journal’s editors did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Several scholars also said they took issue with two of Ramseyer’s main arguments in the article.
The first is his claim that recruiters and brothel operators, rather than the Japanese government or military, were responsible for forcing women to work at the comfort stations.
“Ramseyer made the error of completely ignoring the fact that these recruiters were working under Japanese military or government orders,” Hosaka said in an interview conducted in Korean.
Japanese government documents provide evidence that the Japanese military secretly selected independent recruiters and forced them to operate comfort stations, Hosaka added.
Professor Seo Kyoung-duk, who teaches at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul, said he agreed with Hosaka, citing a 1938 Japanese ministry notice on recruiting women to comfort stations.
Responding to the evidence that Hosaka, Seo, and other scholars have cited in their research, Ramseyer said the notion that there are documents confirming Japanese government involvement is “just wrong.”
“I don’t see anything that indicates that the Japanese government dragooned people into doing it,” he said.
Asked why he did not cite any Korean sources in the paper, Ramseyer said he is “very upfront” about the fact that he does not read Korean.
Several academics also disputed another one of Ramseyer’s claims in the paper: that comfort women willingly entered brothel contracts, from which they financially benefited, and after which they were able to return home.
“The comfort women system that the army was using is essentially an extension of the licensed prostitution system that was in effect in Japan,” Ramseyer said in the interview.
Hosaka argued, however, that the “comfort stations” that accompanied the Japanese military during WWII and the licensed brothels in Japan are entirely different.
Harvard Law School professor Noah R. Feldman ’92, who has studied comfort women and contract theory, also said Ramseyer’s claim is incorrect.
“The economic relationship that was deployed, even according to Ramseyer’s own research, is very close to what we would ordinarily call debt slavery,” Feldman said, comparing it to sharecropping contracts in the Jim Crow American South. “Such arrangements are designed to and do exploit the vast power discrepancy between different actors and institutions.”
Katharine H.S. Moon, a professor of Asian studies and political science at Wellesley College, wrote in an emailed statement that Ramseyer’s claim ignores the context in which women entered into contracts.
“How do we explain whether a 14- or 16-year-old girl knew what she was signing even if she signed it, especially in a Korean society at the time that was not accustomed to contracts and related legalism and didn’t grant such agency to girls and women?” Moon wrote.
The Korean Association of Harvard Law School, led by law students Gabrielle J. Kim and Kikyung “Kik” Lee, released a statement Thursday condemning Ramseyer’s article as “factually inaccurate and misleading.” As of Saturday morning, the statement garnered more than 800 signatures, many from law students across the U.S.
The Harvard College Korean International Student Association also sent a press release to Korean newspapers Friday morning criticizing Ramseyer’s paper and laying out actions the organization plans to take in protest.
KISA also plans to send out a petition to Harvard affiliates, according to Yumi Lee ’21, one of its co-presidents.
Lee said the petition will contain a list of demands to Ramseyer, University administrators, and the academic journal publishing Ramseyer’s article. It will request that Ramseyer apologize “to comfort women for whom his claims may have reinforced painful trauma” and “to the Harvard University community for injuring the institution’s reputation and standards for academic soundness,” she said.
Lee also said KISA will demand that University President Lawrence S. Bacow and Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 condemn Ramseyer’s research, and that the journal apologize for not upholding a rigorous peer review process and withdraw the article from its upcoming issue.
In a separate email to members Friday, KISA wrote that the Korean Consulate General in Boston is “aware of the situation” and may use KISA’s statement in an official communication. The consulate did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Several Harvard undergraduates said they reacted with disbelief and disappointment when they first encountered news of the article in South Korean media.
“It was all over the news,” Alyssa Suh ’25, who currently resides in Seoul, said. “I was extremely angry and upset when I first saw that. We were colonized, and they don’t acknowledge that.”
“No one really knows about this piece of history in the States. The amount of Korean history that we learn is literally a paragraph,” Suh added.
Ike Jin Park ’20-’22 said if the history surrounding comfort women was more well-known in the U.S., there would be a greater outcry from students.
“As a Korean citizen myself, I was very uncomfortable,” Park said. “Imagine this was another issue that a lot of people in the West cared about. It simply wouldn’t be okay.”
Park also said he believes the University “needs to make a statement” and that he would like to see the paper taken down.
Esther E. Kim ’23 said she believes the article will damage Harvard’s reputation among Koreans.
“Especially because there is a lot of respect afforded to institutions like Harvard by the Korean community, by the Korean-American community, it is devastating to see that this could be accepted and published by a Harvard Law School professor,” she said.
Responding to student backlash, Ramseyer said he has a “responsibility to the students at the Law School” and is willing to speak with them about the paper.
Ramseyer also said he does not intend to pursue further research on this topic.
Though many scholars said they disagree with Ramseyer’s claims, several noted Ramseyer is protected by academic freedom to promote his opinions.
“His academic freedom entitles him to express whatever views he wishes without any form of university-based sanction,” Feldman said.
Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen wrote in an emailed statement that she was “proud” that HLS student organizations had released the statement “affirming the need to be historically accurate.”
“They have refrained from petitioning for measures that would impair my colleague’s academic freedom, and I would of course disapprove of any such calls,” she wrote.
“He has every right to his opinions and viewpoint, and we all equally have every right to criticize his reasoning and logic,” Gersen added.
—Staff writer Dohyun Kim contributed translation to this story.
—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.