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Seeking the True Story of the Comfort Women

In January, I was outlining an article I hoped to write about a recent judgment by a South Korean court ordering Japan to pay compensation for atrocities committed during the Second World War against “comfort women,” women and girls who were transported to war-front “comfort stations” to provide sexual services to soldiers in the Imperial Japanese Army. The women were taken by force or entrapped by deception in many countries in and beyond Asia, but a large number came from Korea, which, at the time, was a colony of Japan. Estimates of the number of victims have ranged widely, from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. On January 23rd, Japan announced that the Korean court’s judgment, which ordered a compensation of ninety-one thousand and eight hundred dollars to be paid to each of the twelve Korean comfort women who were plaintiffs in the case (seven of whom had died since it was filed, in 2013), was “extremely regrettable and absolutely unacceptable.” Japan said that it was not subject to Korea’s jurisdiction and considered the matter to have been previously settled. I was ruminating on how legal decisions relating to Second World War crimes against humanity might help resolve or aggravate historical traumas that seem impossible to leave in the past—in part, because they have been mired in waves of conflict and denial about the truth of what happened.

On January 31st, I began to receive messages from students and alumni of Harvard Law School, where I am a professor, about a longtime colleague of mine, J. Mark Ramseyer, a corporate-law specialist in Japanese legal studies. I knew him slightly, as an unassuming man in his late sixties who had ridden bikes with my husband and once advised us on what Japanese knives to buy. A child and grandchild of American Mennonite missionaries in Asia, he grew up in Japan. I knew that his scholarly contributions had included debunking conventional wisdom about the postwar Japanese economy.

The students and alumni wrote to tell me that Ramseyer had become front-page news in South Korea, owing to two recent articles he had written that challenged the historical consensus on comfort women. Ramseyer had made his views clear in “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” an article published online, in December, by the peer-reviewed journal International Review of Law and Economics (and forthcoming in print, this March), and in an op-ed published on January 12th in Japan Forward, an English-language Web site of Sankei Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper known for its conservative-nationalist bent. Read together, their message was unmistakable: the comfort-women system was not one in which Korean women were forced, coerced, and deceived into sexual servitude and confined under threat of violence. Ramseyer called that account “pure fiction.” Instead, he claimed that Korean comfort women “chose prostitution” and entered “multi-year indenture” agreements with entrepreneurs to work at war-front “brothels” in China and Southeast Asia. Purporting to use game theory, he said that the economic structure of the contracts reflected that the sex work was voluntarily chosen. “Prostitutes have followed armies everywhere, and they followed the Japanese army in Asia,” he wrote.

The news of Ramseyer’s article had been reported favorably in Japan, and then made its way to Korea and across the globe. It was a controversy that was not merely academic but that could potentially affect the troubled diplomatic relations between Japan and Korea, and also the delicate role played by the United States as their mutual ally. In the U.S., two members of Congress tweeted that Ramseyer’s claims were “disgusting,” and the State Department affirmed that “the trafficking of women for sexual purposes by the Japanese military during World War II was an egregious violation of human rights.” I understood that messages about Ramseyer were being sent to me, specifically, because I was the first Asian-American woman, and the first and only ethnic Korean, to receive tenure at Harvard Law School. I was born in Seoul, and my parents were refugees from their ancestral home, in North Korea, during the Korean War. At least one alumnus wrote to say that, because of my position, ethnicity, feminism, and writing on matters of justice, my silence was “complicity.”

After I spent time digesting my colleague’s reasoning, I spoke with him to say that we were about to have a public disagreement, but that I would not be joining or encouraging any possible calls for institutional penalty for his exercise of academic freedom to engage in scholarship or express his opinion. I posted a brief critique of Ramseyer’s arguments on social media, explaining that contract analysis assumes voluntary bargaining by free agents, and that when sex is mandatory, without the option to refuse or walk away, it cannot fairly be described as contractual. I was confident that he would not have described it as such if he believed comfort women’s accounts of having been conscripted and confined by force, threats, deception, and coercion. It seemed to me that his view reflected a prior choice not to credit those accounts because he deemed them inconsistent, or, as he wrote, “self-interested” and “uncorroborated.” I noticed, however, that he did choose to credit Japanese government denials, even where they contradicted other statements by the government. Trying to read my colleague’s work most generously, I thought his views might be a product of a skepticism of generally accepted wisdom that had informed his academic career. I approached the matter in the vein of criticism and disagreement over facts, logic, and interpretation, regarding a subject that triggered strong emotions around nationalism and human rights. I expected that scholars, by delving into Ramseyer’s research, would be able to further assess the accuracy of his claims; I could not have imagined how straightforward and yet how mystifying that work would prove to be.

Read entire article at The New Yorker