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A South Korean protester holds a placard during an anti-Japanese demonstration in Seoul in 2019 supporting ‘comfort women’ who served as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Photo: AFP

Harvard professor under fire for ‘negating’ Korean ‘comfort women’ forced to work as sex slaves in Japan army’s WWII brothels

  • J. Mark Ramseyer, 66, grew up in Japan and in 2018 was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun for helping promote Japanese society and culture
  • His paper, which cited few Korean sources, claimed the ‘comfort women’ were willingly recruited. A students’ group has demanded an apology
A Harvard University professor who argued that the Japanese army did not force Korean “ comfort women” to work in brothels for the military but that they were willingly recruited as prostitutes has come under increasing fire from Koreans, with a group of Harvard students demanding he apologise and retract his paper.

“It is a wrong conclusion based on grounds very biased and lacking trustworthiness,” the statement on the website of the Harvard Korean society said of Professor J. Mark Ramseyer’s paper published in academic journal the International Review of Law and Economics.

“The issue of ‘comfort women’ is an international inhumane act and his academic view, which justifies and negates this act, is an immoral and shameless view.”

The association also pointed out that 66-year-old Ramseyer – who grew up in Japan, has taught at a number of Japanese universities, is fluent in the language and was in 2018 awarded the Order of the Rising Sun for his contributions to the promotion of Japanese society and culture – cited virtually no Korean sources for his research.

Ramseyer argued that the women were not coerced into working in the sex industry but were voluntarily employed under the terms of contracts that were sufficiently “generous” to offset the dangers and likely damage to their reputation that the job entailed.

The women “chose prostitution over those alternative opportunities because they believed prostitution offered them a better outcome,” he wrote.

Published in the March edition of the review, the academic paper – “Contracting for sex in the Pacific War” – was preceded on January 12 by an opinion article in the conservative Sankei Shimbun daily in Japan in which Ramseyer stated: “The claims about enslaved Korean comfort women are historically untrue.

“The Japanese army did not dragoon Korean women to work in its brothels,” he wrote. “It did not use Korean women as sex slaves. The claims to the contrary are simply – factually – false.”

Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s outgoing foreign minister, right, embraces Park Pil-geun, a victim of sexual enslavement by Japan during World War II, at Park's house in the southeastern city of Pohang on February 1. Photo: EPA/Yonhap
The professor’s comments have placed him at the centre of a simmering diplomatic feud between Seoul and Tokyo, where discussions of Japan’s 1910-45 colonisation of the Korean peninsula continue to be contentious.

Many surviving “comfort women” – a Japanese euphemism for the sex abuse victims – demand Tokyo’s formal apology and compensation but Japan says the issue was settled under a 1965 treaty that normalised diplomatic ties, and the two countries agreed to “irreversibly” end the dispute in a 2015 deal.

A Korean court ruling in December that ordered the Japanese government to pay compensation amounting to 100 million won (US$89,532) to each of 12 former wartime sex slaves was met with criticism from Tokyo.

An article on the controversy published on Sunday in Harvard’s student-operated newspaper The Crimson said Ramseyer’s professorship – the full title of which is the Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies – had led to suspicions that he is sponsored by the corporation.

Will more Japanese firms exit South Korea as tensions rise after ‘comfort women’ ruling?

Mitsubishi has also been the target of legal claims in South Korea, with a court in Daejon ruling in December that the sale of assets seized from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries could go ahead to compensate a group of labourers forced to work for the company during the colonial period.

Replying to questions from the South China Morning Post, Ramseyer wrote that he was not “positive” of the precise origins of the endowed professorship, but believed Mitsubishi group companies made a donation of about US$1.5 million to Harvard in the 1970s. He insisted neither the company nor the Japanese government had any influence over his research or writings and that the title “provides no benefit to the professor other than the name.

In the interview with The Crimson, he also said that although he has friends who work for the Japanese government, he denied those contacts had any influence on his academic work.

Mitsubishi’s headquarters in Tokyo did not respond to a request for comment.

He does not deal with the women who were forced to join, who may have been kidnapped, or tricked into joining
Mark Peterson, Brigham Young University

Academics specialising in Korea have also criticised the paper.

Mark Peterson, an associate professor of Korean Studies at Brigham Young University in Utah, said the article was flawed as it failed to deal with the greater issues of how women were recruited by force or trickery and only deals with the “arcane” legal perspective.

“He focuses on the legal structure of the brothel system, and makes the case that there were women who were indeed prostitutes who were recruited for the empire’s overseas, battlefront, ‘comfort stations’,” he said.

“He does not deal with the women who were forced to join, who may have been kidnapped, or tricked into joining. Without giving a balanced account of how many were involuntarily ‘dragooned’ … he only deals with the ‘legal’ structure of the government brothels.

“I don’t think the professor intended to say or even imply that it was all well and good, but the austerity of the legalese and the sterility of the law school discourse was such that the text was devoid of all emotion for the women involved in these ‘contracts’ that he was writing about.”