Harvard Law School professor of Japanese Legal Studies J. Mark Ramseyer has faced an outpouring of public criticism from government officials worldwide against his upcoming paper, which claims that sex slaves, known as “comfort women,” under the Imperial Japanese military were voluntary employed.
Ramseyer’s paper stoked international controversy by disputing the historical consensus that “comfort women” — a euphemism commonly used to refer to women and girls used as sex slaves by the Imperial Japanese military before and during World War II — were compelled into sex work against their will.
Unlike many scholastic disputes, which do not stretch far outside academia, Ramseyer’s article has drawn strong responses from high-ranking government officials of several countries, including the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and even North Korea.
While most officials in the U.S. and the East Asian countries besides Japan — all of which were at least partially occupied by the Japanese military in the 20th century — have criticized Ramseyer’s paper, some political figures in Japan have expressed their support.
Ramseyer pushed back against criticism of his paper in an early February interview with The Crimson and subsequent statements, though he more recently admitted in a Feb. 26 New Yorker article that he had made “a mistake” in the paper by referring to the employer of one comfort woman as her “owner.”
In an email to Law School colleagues Feb. 25, which he provided to The Crimson, Ramseyer wrote he is working on a “memo and set of materials” responding to criticisms regarding his paper in an effort to be “transparent about what did and didn’t go into the article and why.”
Still, he noted the issue has taken on “a life of its own,” and he is cautious not to instigate more controversy.
“This is an important and sensitive issue, I do not want to escalate the dispute further,” Ramseyer continued. “I want to be transparent about what did and didn’t go into the article and why. But this is not the main focus of my work, and I leave it to others to continue this debate.”
Over the last month, several U.S. representatives — all from California — have criticized Ramseyer’s research.
“I cannot stand by while he rewrites history and misleads future generations about the truth,” Rep. Michelle E. Steel (R-Calif.) wrote in a statement sent to The Crimson Sunday. “His article only contributes to the harmful denial of the very painful and true events these women endured.”
In a mid-February tweet, Rep. Young O. Kim (R-Calif.) urged Ramseyer to apologize for his article, writing that it was “offensive to victims.”
“We must support victims of human trafficking & slavery, not tear them down,” Kim wrote on Twitter. “I urge [Ramseyer] to apologize.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has previously spoken out about the comfort women issue. Asked about Ramseyer’s paper, an aide provided a 2014 statement in which Schiff referred to the issue as a “crime against humanity” and said he stands with surviving comfort women “in recognizing the horrors” they endured.
The controversy even made its way to the White House. In a Mar. 3 press briefing, a journalist asked White House Press Secretary Jennifer R. “Jen” Psaki about Ramseyer and the comfort women issue.
Psaki responded that she was “happy to take a closer look” at the issue, but had not seen the article or its condemnations. She added that she will talk to the “national security team” and follow up.
Beyond the federal level, the dispute over Ramseyer’s paper worked itself into the legal record.
Last Thursday, the Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed a non-binding resolution condemning Ramseyer’s article and validating the legitimacy of the historical coercion of comfort women.
Councilmember David H. Oh, who introduced the resolution, told The Crimson he felt taking action at the local government level was necessary, adding that the issue was “very painful” for many Philadelphians.
“I didn’t want to just write a letter and have my colleagues sign it — I wanted to take an official action,” Oh said. “It is important for us as governmental entities to respond to this type of thing.”
Across the Pacific, Ramseyer’s article drew strong rebukes from officials and representatives of several foreign governments.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying responded to a question regarding Ramseyer at a Feb. 19 press conference by saying the history of comfort women is a “fact with iron-clad evidence.”
“China opposes all erroneous acts that whitewash the war of aggression in an attempt to deny and distort history,” she said, according to a translation on the Foreign Ministry website.
South Korean Minister of Gender Equality and Family Chung Young-ai hosted an emergency conference with Korean professors, researchers, and lawyers Tuesday to discuss Ramseyer’s article as well as future plans for comfort women memorial projects.
According to a Feb. 16 press release, the agency finds Ramseyer’s article “truly lamentable” and hopes that “tarnishing the victims’ dignity and honor will no longer be repeated.”
Members of the Seoul Metropolitan Council came together to re-establish a special committee for investigating pro-Japanese and anti-nationalist actions — this committee was initially created by the Korean National Assembly in 1948, but was dissolved within a year of its establishment.
On Friday, the special committee of the Seoul Metropolitan Council that investigates pro-Japanese and anti-nationalist actions hosted an emergency conference and decided to initiate a boycott campaign against Mitsubishi, the major Japanese corporation that endowed Ramseyer’s professorship.
Ramseyer — whose title is Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies — told The Crimson in early February that the professorship was established decades ago and there are no “strings” or money from Mitsubishi attached to it today.
Mitsubishi Group is composed of roughly 40 separate, autonomous companies; it is unclear which branch was involved in the creation of Ramseyer’s professorship. Spokesperson Jeremy J. Barnes of Mitsubishi Motors North America wrote in an emailed statement Friday that “the program at Harvard Law School is not in any way related to our company (Mitsubishi Motors North America) or our parent company (Mitsubishi Motors Corporation).”
Even North Korean state-run media outlets joined South Korean officials in condemning Ramseyer.
DPRK Today, a China-based news site sponsored by the North Korean government, called Ramseyer a “pseudo-scholar” and a “dirty money grubber” in an article in Korean last Tuesday, according to VICE. DPRK Today did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite rarely reporting on events outside the Korean peninsula, North Korean state broadcaster Korean Central Television aired a comfort women documentary with similar denouncements on Mar. 1, according to United Press International.
Japanese officials have remained largely silent on the issue, though Hiroshi Yamada — former member of the National Diet who is a member of an organization aligned with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — supported Ramseyer publicly on Twitter in late February.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is well aware of the professor’s current situation,” Yamada wrote on Twitter in Japanese. “We discussed that we will do whatever we can.”
In a follow-up tweet, Yamada clarified that he does speak for the Ministry and will not exercise influence over its decision-making. Yamada’s office and the Japanese Embassy in the U.S. did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Shigeharu Aoyama, member of the upper house of Japan’s National Diet who has previously denied the legitimacy of comfort women, wrote on his blog that he encourages sending positive messages to Ramseyer.
Tessa Morris-Suzuki — professor emerita of Japanese history at Australian National University — and David A. McNeill, professor at Sacred Heart University in Tokyo, published an article Thursday in Japan Forward, the English arm of nationalist Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun. In the article, Morris-Suzuki and McNeill wrote that Ramseyer’s article violates “basic academic standards,” and that calls for its retraction of Ramseyer’s article are “not suppression of free speech.”
Morris-Suzuki wrote in an emailed statement that she hopes the article will be read by “regular readers of Japan Forward,” for whom the article may contain information “of which many of them are probably unaware.” Sankei Shimbun’s publication of Ramseyer’s abstract in January originally sparked much of the media attention toward Ramseyer’s article.
She added that she and McNeill had reached out to a number of media outlets in Japan, including more mainstream Japanese newspapers, but that “rather disturbingly,” Japan Forward was the only outlet interested in publishing their article.
—Staff writer Alex Koller contributed translation to this story.
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—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.