Updated: Apr 28
By: Emilie Chi
In South Korea, a Harvard professor's journal article alleging that "comfort women" were not sex slaves, but prostitutes, has sparked controversy.
According to Bonnie Oh, a former professor of Korean studies at Georgetown University, the majority of comfort women were teenagers who were tricked into Japan's military-run brothels by false promises of better-paying jobs, educational opportunities, and foreign travel. Many young Korean girls were also dragged from their schools and picked up from the streets against their will to be taken to the military brothels in the 1940s.
In a paper published in the International Review of Law and Economics, titled “Contracting For Sex In The Pacific War,” Dr. Mark Ramseyer, Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese legal studies at Harvard Law School, argued that Korean women were voluntarily serving as comfort women in Japan’s licensed prostitution system at that time. His claims contradict survivors' accounts who claimed they were either forced or manipulated into sex slavery and all the scholars that support the survivor’s campaign. Scholars estimate that between 170,000 and 200,000 women and girls were forced to act as sex slaves in Japan's military brothels before and after World War II. The United Nations has also recognized and admitted this has occurred.
Ramseyer's argument has ignited intense debate in academia, with two fellow Harvard history professors issuing a joint statement last Thursday denouncing his paper as baseless and demanding that it be retracted by the journal. Among the first groups to reject Ramseyer's claims were students at Harvard University. “Professor Ramseyer’s arguments are factually inaccurate and misleading. Without any convincing evidence, Professor Ramseyer argues that no government forced women into prostitution,” the Korean Association of Harvard Law School said in a statement. “Decades’ worth of Korean scholarship, primary sources, and third-party reports challenge this characterization. None are mentioned, cited, or considered in his arguments.”
In outrage over the university's failure to respond to a controversial professor's paper on the topic of "comfort women," the grandson of a Korean independence leader, Ahn Chang Ho, withdrew his offer to donate family historical archives to Harvard's Schlesinger Library. Ahn Chang-ho was a prominent Korean independence activist in the early twentieth century, helping to found the provisional Korean government in exile when the Japanese Empire invaded the Korean Peninsula.
After the outrage, Ramseyer declined several interview requests, but personally indicated that it was his thoughts on the basis of freedom of expression. The article's editor, the International Review of Law and Economics, published an "expression of concern" to "inform readers that concerns have been raised regarding the historical evidence" in Ramseyer's work. The publication reported that it was investigating the allegation and that it would “provide more details when it becomes available.”