Comfort Women and Cancel Culture

It is not often that the publication of obscure academic articles becomes the subject of global media attention, but that’s what has happened with J. Mark Ramseyer, a professor at Harvard Law School.

In recent weeks, thousands of activists, academics, and prominent politicians have condemned a paper Ramseyer published in the International Journal of Law and Economics that dealt with the politically charged issue of wartime brothels used by the Japanese military. Now the activists want the journal to retract the paper as well as his other scholarship, and for Harvard to fire the professor or otherwise end his career.

This has been a scorched earth campaign by any measure. Members of Congress such as Rep. Michelle Steel have condemned the paper. A resolution was passed by the Philadelphia City Council calling for its censorship. Major media outlets have covered the petitions, and The New Yorker dedicated a 5,000-word longform article to the affair.

Whether or not the arguments in Ramseyer’s paper have merit -- indeed probably there are flaws, especially with this level of scrutiny -- it is extraordinarily worrying to see such a ferocious, unchecked attack on academic freedom, one that makes it all but impossible for any future scholar to ever bring any criticism to bear on the subject of “comfort women.”

The outsized reaction to the article is indicative of much broader problems concerning what happens when we have highly inflexible, intolerant versions of historical memory.

The comfort women activists calling for Ramseyer’s cancellation say that ultimately their goal is to make Japan apologize. And why shouldn’t they? After all, this is a deeply unpleasant, uniquely dark period from the most catastrophic war to have taken place in the history of our civilization. Nobody in their right mind, Ramseyer included, would deny that immense suffering took place.

The problem is that Japan has already apologized, many times. As far back as 1994, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama expressed Japan’s “profound remorse” for the “unbearable suffering and sorrow” and specifically for everything which “stained the honor and dignity” of comfort women. More than a dozen similar apologies were issued in following years, capped off by the 2015 “final and irreversible” agreement brokered by the Obama administration to settle the issue.

But the activists, for various reasons, say that they were never satisfied with apologies and have rejected reconciliation efforts, going so far as to dissolve the $9.3 million fund which had already paid reparations to 35 out of 47 surviving comfort women and relatives of 64 out of 199 former comfort women. Instead, a relentless campaign against Japan has continued, with activists seeking to build statues abroad -- an action that has been perceived as highly offensive to Japanese who feel they have already expressed regret and offered settlements.

The Harvard episode helps to explain this impasse. Ramseyer’s paper may be offensive, but it is hardly a threat to South Korea, Korean American identity, or even the interests of surviving comfort women. Based on the extraordinary reach of the attack against Ramseyer, it is clear that the activists wield an immensely powerful cultural influence machine. But what the paper did do was point attention to areas of ambiguity around this period and unsettled questions which, for Korean nationalists, are deemed as strictly taboo and absolutely unacceptable for debate.

The South Korean version of this period of history is neat and tidy. They say there were some 200,000 women who were taken against their will, forcefully mobilized and coerced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. Any deviation from this victim narrative is subject to public condemnation, and in some cases, criminal prosecution in South Korea, such as the case of Sejong University Professor Park Yu-ha.

But the reality was likely more nuanced than that. Japan and Korea never fought in a war. During the 1910-1945 annexation of Korea, despite grievances related to the occupation, the two countries were effectively governed as a single nation. Korean soldiers fought alongside Japanese soldiers, and some 148 were similarly convicted of war crimes by the Allies in postwar tribunals. As some historians have pointed out, it is implausible that Korean men in these communities would allow 200,000 abductions of their women to take place without resistance, without some sort of major incident.

Ikuhiko Hata, a highly respected professor emeritus at Nihon University in Tokyo and a former researcher at Harvard and Princeton in the United States, traveled to the island of Jeju to investigate claims of these comfort women abductions and discovered these accounts to have been fabricated. As he told the Asia Times upon publishing his findings, “the truth is complicated.”

The term “slavery” to describe comfort women was a relatively recent innovation -- allegedly introduced against the wishes of some surviving comfort women because activists believed stronger language would gain more traction with public. Activists point to a 1996 United Nations report authored by special rapporteur Radhika Coomaraswamy, which has come under criticism for relying on the debunked, retracted testimony of self-proclaimed “former soldier” Seiji Yoshida.

Part of the problem is that the brothels used by the Japanese military were privately managed by contractors, many of them being Korean, who may have been involved in exploitation of comfort women. For Japanese critics of the comfort women activists, they feel subjected to double standards. They question why these organizations appear concerned about the plight of Korean comfort women, not Japanese comfort women, who made up the vast majority, or why they aren’t building statues acknowledging all incidents of sexual abuse allegations related to military deployments, such as the well-known cases of the Lai Dai Han victims of Korean soldiers in Vietnam.

The reason why Ramseyer’s paper has touched a third rail is because there are aspects of this history which go against a fundamental value of Korean nationalist identity, one that absolves any and all responsibility under the vast umbrella of being “victims of Japanese colonialism.” To oppose that narrative is unthinkable and terrifying -- even though it is clear from the evidence that there is nothing absolutist about this period in history.

According to George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley, the purpose of this attack on Ramseyer’s economic freedom is to “not only silence opposing views but also to intimidate others in supporting or publishing such views in the future.”

“As a history nut, I would like to read both sides of this issue, including the views of Professor Ramseyer,” Turley argues. “However, many are seeking to prevent me and others from having access to those views.”

Professor Robert Carmona-Borjas has taught at both George Washington University and American University and serves as the CEO and Founder of the Arcadia Foundation, a 501©3 not for profit organization that seeks to curb corruption in developing governments. The views expressed are his own.

Image: National Archives