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The Importance of Truth and Only Truth: a Harvard Paper Which Sparked Worldwide Controversy

By Danielle Bae

Age Group: High School

Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 was a traumatic past for many. John M. Ramseyer, a professor at Harvard Law School, seems to think otherwise. Here, we’ll be talking about the paper which sparked international controversy, academic criticism, and student petitions, as well as the painful history of hundreds of thousands that is seldom told. 

In January of 2021, an international outcry ensued. The cause was none other than John Mark Ramseyer’s paper, Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War, which claims that “comfort women… voluntarily entered into ‘contracts’ with Japanese brothels…” 

To understand the fury of the Korean community, one must understand the history between Korea and Japan. In 1910 to 1945, Japan occupied Korea by using brutal, illegal practices to purge their way into the country. They denied Korean citizens the right to learn their own language and history, and instead constrained them to speak the Japanese language. Hundreds of thousands of Korean civilians were coerced to work in Japanese mines, factories, and military bases, which were known to have cruel, inhumane working conditions. After the Pacific war began, “the Japanese forced thousands of Korean women to provide sexual services as “comfort women” for the military.” During this period of time, many Koreans were killed, tortured, assaulted, raped, and executed. 

Comfort women refers to the hundreds of thousands of women and children who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. “Promises” were made to draw in more women into Japan’s military-run brothels, including offers of “higher paying jobs, educational opportunities and travel[ing] abroad”—which were all lies, of course. The women were later incarcerated in “comfort stations” and were raped incessantly by soldiers. There have been varying disputes on the number of women enslaved during Japan’s occupation, but many estimates range near the hundred-thousands, with some going over 400,000.

Ramseyer was raised, and educated, in Japan. He was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun in 2018, an award for those who promote Japanese culture in other parts of the world. When asked about this, Ramseyer acknowledged that he had friends working for the Japanese government but “absolutely denied” that the award, as well as his connections, had any influence on the claims he made in his paper. 

It’s important to consider the fact that the professor was educated in Japan. In a BBC article, written by a Japanese student, it was noted that, in the entire, 357-paged Japanese history textbook, there was only “a footnote on comfort women.” Because Ramseyer received education from a country which completely turns a blind eye to the existence of comfort women, it’s safe to assume that he internalized what he learned, making him distort, or at least be unaware of, the plight of comfort women.

It’s worth noting that one of Japan’s infamous conglomerates, Mitsubishi, known for being “complicit in war crimes [against Koreans] during World War II,” made an approximately $1.5 million dollar “donation” to Harvard on September 21st, 1972 to establish a chair in Japanese legal studies and give Ramseyer the role. In recent interviews, he’s claimed that “there are ‘no strings’ or money from Mitsubishi attached to his professorship today.” 

Harvard has, as of yet, done nothing except remain silent about this issue.

News of Ramseyer’s paper spread like wildfire within the Korean community, resulting in public protests, student petitions, as well as criticism from within, and outside of, Harvard’s campus. Many scholars questioned the sources of Ramseyer’s paper, claiming that many of his statements were drawn solely from Japan’s historical and political perspective. 

Yuji Hosaka–a professor at Sejong University–said that he “suspected Ramseyer’s work was influenced by his connections with the Japanese government.” It’s important to take this bit of information seriously. Former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s government party, the Liberal Democratic Party, is the ruling party of Japan. It’s evident which stance the Liberal Democratic takes by looking at the actions of their previous representatives, including Abe. According to The Guardian, it was reported that the “…prime minister… had honoured more than 1,000 convicted war criminals as ‘martyrs’…” by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. The fact that Japan’s government honors war criminals as ‘heroes’, as well as the fact that Ramseyer holds connections with that very government, can only lead to the conclusion that his paper is biased.

It was also discovered that many of his claims thoroughly denied historical bits of evidence. In his paper, Ramseyer stated that brothel operators were the ones who forced women to “work” at the comfort stations. It was noted by scholars that Ramseyer had completely disregarded the fact that these recruiters were following Japanese government orders.

When faced with the evidence that many scholars, including Hosaka, had used to censure his claims, Ramseyer concluded that “the notion that there are documents confirming Japanese government involvement is ‘just wrong.’” He also claimed he didn’t see anything that indicated “that the Japanese government dragooned [comfort women] into doing it.” Despite facing strong condemnation from the public, Ramseyer says that he will not “intend to pursue further research on this topic.”

In another one of his claims, Ramseyer states that “comfort women willingly entered brothel contracts, from which they financially benefited, and after which they were able to return home.”

Noah R. Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor who’s studied comfort women and contract theory, states otherwise: “The economic relationship that was deployed… is very close to what we would call debt slavery… Such arrangements are designed to… exploit the vast power discrepancy between different actors and institutions.” 

Carter J. Eckert, the Harvard Professor of Korean History, wrote to The Crimson with an email, stating that Ramseyer’s article “is woefully deficient, empirically, historically, and morally.” He announced that he, along with Andrew Gordon, a fellow Harvard History professor, is assembling “a critical response to Ramseyer’s article.”

Testimonies from former comfort women also prove Ramseyer’s statement false. In an article from the New York Times titled Kim Bok-dong, Wartime Sex Slave Who Sought Reparations for Koreans, Dies at 92, Ms. Kim recalls being “conscripted by Japanese officials, who told her that she would work in a garment factory and that her family would suffer if she refused.” Instead of taking her to the factory, however, the soldiers took her to a military brothel center in China—and, later, also took her to “Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, until World War II ended in 1945”—where she was raped by soldiers. According to Ms. Kim, she “had to take 15 soldiers a day” on weekdays and “on Saturdays and Sundays, it was more than 50.” After the war, like most comfort women, Ms. Kim “hid her background out of shame,” but began to speak up after another former sex slave, Kim Hak-Sun, publicly identified herself as a ‘comfort woman’ in the year 1991. 

Professor Katharine H.S. Moon of Wellesley College says, “How do we explain whether a 14- or 16-year-old girl knew what she was signing… especially in a Korean society at the time that was not accustomed to contracts?”

While facing criticism from fellow scholars, Ramseyer also faced backlash from the Asian community, both in and out of the country.

Philip “Flip” Ahn Cuddy, the grandson of the famous Korean activist Ahn Chang Ho, canceled his offer to donate historical archives of his family to Harvard’s Schlesinger Library “in anger over the University’s failure to respond to… Japanese Legal Studies professor J. Mark Ramseyer’s controversial paper about comfort women.”

Korean websites, news broadcasting stations, and civilians all rose up in fury over Ramseyer’s paper. A student residing in Korea says, “It was all over the news… I was extremely angry and upset when I first saw that.” Another student also spoke out, saying, “As a Korean citizen myself, I was very uncomfortable…” 

On March 6th, over 100 protestors gathered outside Johnston Gate, the main entrance to Harvard Yard, to condemn Ramseyer’s paper. It’s reported that they’ve chanted for Ramseyer’s removal from his position, repeating things such as “Dismiss Ramseyer!” and “Ramseyer out!”

Over the last few months, U.S. representatives including Rep. Michelle E. Steel and Rep. Young O. Kim criticized Ramseyer’s ignorance, with Steel adding that she couldn’t just stand by and watch while Ramseyer distorted historical truth. Kim wrote on Twitter mid-February, urging Ramseyer to apologize.

It’s possible that the vast number of students who raised awareness of this issue, as well as the articles that followed, made it possible for this incident to cover a broad spectrum.

On February 4th, the Korean Association of Harvard Law School (KAHLS) sent out a statement criticizing the Mitsubishi Professor’s paper as erroneous and “factually inaccurate.” Within two days, the statement collected over 800 signatures.

Multiple petitions were made to condemn the faults of Ramseyer along with the journal, as well as requests to permanently take down the paper. Voluntary Agency Network of Korea released a petition on, calling for Harvard to take action against Ramseyer, the journal to retract his paper from publication, and Ramseyer to sincerely apologize. The statement has garnered over 30,000 signatures as of March 9th.

An article was released February 7th, titled Harvard Professor’s Paper Claiming ‘Comfort Women’ in Imperial Japan Were Voluntarily Employed Stokes International Controversy. Within hours, it ranked as #1 most read article in The Harvard Crimson, helping to spread awareness about this issue, as well as comfort women in general, to those in the United States.
“Multiple individuals and groups have penned open letters and petitions, totaling at least 10,000 signatures, demanding various responses from the journal, Ramseyer, and Harvard,” one article reads. 

In a web conference hosted by Harvard Law School students, former comfort woman Lee Yong-Soo, although calling Ramseyer’s remarks absurd, suggested that Ramseyer’s article could also act as a “blessing in disguise” as well as a “wake up call” for those unaware of the existence of comfort women. It is her hope that “this issue can finally be resolved” and put an end to the appalling sentiments which argue against the historical consensus of these victims.

Lee Yong-Soo, second from bottom left, joined a Zoom meeting with Harvard Law School students to discuss the history of comfort women in February 2021. (Simon J. Levien/Harvard Crimson)

As of right now, although the journal has delayed print production of the article, it has been reported that the paper’s publication has already been set in stone.

Teaching at a school, especially one that is considered one of the most prestigious in the world, comes with a heavy burden to preach and sow seeds of truth. Ramseyer, having neglected the very principles of professorship, seems to have dealt with cards too dangerous to ignore, and too ignorant for victims to stand still. 

Speaking truth comes with a considerable amount of weight on one’s shoulders. Nothing is more important than bringing facts, and only facts, onto the table. That is the golden rule that all scholars, of any school or organization, must follow. 

With great privilege comes great responsibility. Ramseyer, having taken advantage of his academic freedom, should, in the eyes of any spectator, take on appropriate consequences to reflect on his duties as a scholar. 


Dozens Denounce Law Prof. Ramseyer’s ‘Comfort Women’ Paper at Harvard Protest (The Harvard Crimson)

Surviving ‘Comfort Woman’, Activists Speak at Law School Panel Aimed at ‘Debunking Denialism’ (The Harvard Crimson)

Harvard Professor’s Paper Claiming ‘Comfort Women’ in Imperial Japan Were Voluntarily Employed Stokes International Controversy   (The Harvard Crimson)

Government Officials Worldwide Respond to Law Prof. Ramseyer’s ‘Comfort Women’ Paper (The Harvard Crimson)

Law Prof. Ramseyer Thanked Supporter Who Disparaged Korean People, According to Email Exchange Posted Online (The Harvard Crimson)

Journal Delays Print Publication of Harvard Law Professor’s Controversial ‘Comfort Women’ Article Amid Outcry (The Harvard Crimson)

Why These World War II Sex Slaves Are Still Demanding Justice (NPR)

Mitsubishi of Japan Gives Million for Harvard Chair (New York Times)   

Ramseyer’s Academic Malpractice: Legitimizing Denialism  (The Harvard Crimson)

What Japanese History Lessons Leave Out (BBC)

Korea’s History (Britannica)

China criticises Japan after Shinzo Abe honours war criminals as martyrs (The Guardian) 

Who are the ‘comfort women,’ and why are U.S.-based memorials for them controversial? (NBC News) 

Remembering Japan’s Colonial Abuses Against Koreans on Hashima Island (The Diplomat)

Kim Bok-dong, Wartime Sex Slave Who Sought Reparations for Koreans, Dies at 92 (The New York times)

Seeking the True Story of the Comfort Women (The New Yorker)

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