A Harvard University professor has sparked outrage among fellow academics and campaigners after claiming that women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military had chosen to work in wartime brothels.
J Mark Ramseyer, a professor of Japanese legal studies at Harvard Law School, challenged the accepted narrative that as many as 200,000 “comfort women” – mostly Koreans, but also Chinese, south-east Asians and a small number of Japanese and Europeans – were coerced or tricked into working in military brothels between 1932 and Japan’s defeat in 1945.
In an academic paper published online late last year, Ramseyer claimed the women were sex workers who had voluntarily entered into contracts – a view supported by Japanese ultra-conservatives seeking to whitewash their country’s wartime atrocities.
The article, titled Contracting for sex in the Pacific War, was due to appear in this month’s issue of the International Review of Law and Economics, but the issue has been suspended as Ramseyer’s claims come under increasing scrutiny. The journal issued an “expression of concern” and said the piece was under investigation.
In a separate article for the English-website of a rightwing Japanese newspaper, Ramseyer rejected the widely accepted account of the comfort women system as “pure fiction”, claiming that the Japanese army “did not dragoon Korean women to work in its brothels”.
He added: “Expressing sympathy to elderly women who have had a rough life is fine. Paying money to an ally in order to rebuild a stable relationship is fine. But the claims about enslaved Korean comfort women are historically untrue.”
Prominent academics challenged the veracity of Ramseyer’s research, saying they had found no historical evidence of the contracts he described in his article.
Harvard historians Andrew Gordon and Carter Eckert called for the original article to be retracted. “We do not see how Ramseyer can make credible claims, in extremely emphatic wording, about contracts he has not read,” they said in a statement.
The US state department described the comfort women system as an abuse of human rights, although it did not refer to Ramseyer.
“As the United States has stated many times, the trafficking of women for sexual purposes by the Japanese military during World War II was an egregious violation of human rights,” a department spokesperson told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Hundreds of scholars have signed letters condemning Ramseyer’s article, and last week North Korea’s state-run DPRK Today published an article calling him a “repulsive money grabber” and a “pseudo scholar”.
In late 2015, Japan and South Korea said they had “finally and irreversibly” resolved the issue when Japan agreed to contribute ¥1bn (£6.7m) to a foundation to support survivors and their families.
Japan continues to insist, however, that all official compensation claims were settled when the countries normalised diplomatic ties in 1965.
In 2018, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, effectively nullified the settlement, saying it did not reflect the wishes of the women.
The issue flared up again in January this year, when a South Korean court ordered the Japanese government to pay damages of 100 million won [£64,000] each to 12 women.
Japan indicated it would ignore the “utterly unacceptable” ruling, citing the principle of sovereign immunity, which grants states immunity from the jurisdiction of foreign courts.
In response, survivors called on the South Korean government to take their case to the international court of justice.
“Japan is just ignoring the ruling, while not even appealing it,” Lee Yong-soo, a 92-year-old survivor, said last month. “I am not asking for money. We have to receive complete acknowledgement and an apology from Japan.”