US Professor Faces Criticism for ‘Comfort Women’ Claims

    08 March 2021

    An American professor is facing criticism after suggesting that Korean women kept as sex slaves in wartime Japan willingly took part in sex work.

    Harvard University professor J. Mark Ramseyer made the claims in a recently published paper. His arguments reject a wide body of research finding that so-called "comfort women" in Japan were forced to work as sex workers during World War II.

    Historians say tens of thousands of women from around Asia -- many of them Korean -- were sent to military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during the war.

    In the 1990s, women began speaking publicly about how they had been taken to "comfort stations" and forced to provide sexual services. They have shared their experiences of rape and abuse.

    Ramseyer, however, argues that the women willingly entered into contracts as sex workers. His paper has intensified a political dispute between Japan and South Korea. South Korean leaders have long urged Japan to offer apologies and damages to the victims of sex slavery.

    Both North and South Korea have spoken out against Ramseyer's paper. Hundreds of scholars have signed letters condemning the paper, which was published online in December.

    The paper was supposed to appear in the March issue of the International Review of Law and Economics. But the publication suspended the issue and released an "expression of concern," saying the piece is under investigation.

    Ramseyer is a professor of Japanese legal studies at Harvard Law School. He did not provide comments to Associated Press reporters.

    In this Aug. 14, 2019, file photo, Lee Yong-soo, who was forced to serve for the Japanese troops as a sex slave during World War II, touches the face of a statue of a girl symbolizing the issue of wartime
    In this Aug. 14, 2019, file photo, Lee Yong-soo, who was forced to serve for the Japanese troops as a sex slave during World War II, touches the face of a statue of a girl symbolizing the issue of wartime "comfort women" during its unveiling ceremony in Seoul.

    Historians have raised major concerns about Ramseyer's research. Scholars at Harvard and other universities have examined his sources and say there is no historical evidence of the sex worker contracts he describes.

    Harvard historians Andrew Gordon and Carter Eckert have called for the article to be withdrawn. "We do not see how Ramseyer can make credible claims ... about contracts he has not read," the two said in a statement.

    Alexis Dudden is a historian of modern Japan and Korea at the University of Connecticut. She said the article ignores many years of research.

    Although some have pointed to freedom of scholarship to defend Ramseyer, Dudden argued that the article "does not meet the requirements of academic integrity." She added: "It's very clear from his writing and his sources that he has never seen a contract."

    More than 1,000 economists have signed a letter condemning the paper. The letter said the article misuses economic theory "as a cover to legitimize horrific atrocities." A separate group of historians on Japan issued a 30-page paper calling for the article to be withdrawn.

    At Harvard, hundreds of students signed a letter demanding that Ramseyer apologize and calling on the university to answer the accusations against him.

    A United Nations report from 1996 found that comfort women serving as sex slaves were taken through "violence" and "coercion." A statement from Japan in 1993 admitted that women were taken "against their own will," although the nation's leaders later denied it.

    In South Korea, activists denounced Ramseyer and called for his resignation. Chung Young-ai, South Korea's minister of gender equality and family, criticized the paper last week. She called it "an attempt to distort (the facts about) the Japanese military's ‘comfort women.'"

    I'm Bryan Lynn.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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    Words in This Story

    brotheln. a place where people pay to have sex

    comfort n. a state or feeling of being less worried, upset, frightened, etc., during a time of trouble or emotional pain

    sourcen. someone or something that provides what is wanted or needed

    credible adj. able to be trusted or believed

    scholarn. someone who has studied a subject and knows a lot about it

    integrityn. honesty and the ability to do or know what is morally right

    legitimize v. to make something legal or acceptable

    atrocityn. a very cruel or terrible action

    coercev. to persuade someone forcefully to do something that they are unwilling to do

    distort v. to change something so that it is false or wrong