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Debating History of ‘Comfort Women’ Should Not Be Taboo

On December 1, 2020, a relatively obscure academic journal published a digital version of a peer-reviewed paper by a law professor at Harvard University. For almost two months, nothing happened. Then, on January 28, the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun ran an article calling attention to its findings, igniting an explosive backlash which appears to be growing by the day.

Sizable numbers of activists have demanded that the professor be fired, suspended, and/or censured by Harvard University. Thousands of signatures have been gathered demanding that the journal retract the paper, while several members of congress, numerous civic groups, and other academics have issued attacks against the author.

What was this professor’s unforgivable crime? He penned a paper — premised on game theory — about the contracts used to employ “comfort women,” a reference to the women involved in the frontline brothels of the Japanese military during World War II.

To describe Korea’s history with Japan as “sensitive” would be a considerable understatement, but the story of J. Mark Ramseyer’s article “Contracting for Sex during the Pacific War,” published in the International Review of Law and Economics, illustrates how academic freedom can be compromised by individuals who believe that their version of history is beyond reproach.

The impassioned — some might even say unhinged — opposition to Ramseyer’s comfort women article has become increasingly deranged. One prominent South Korean academic unleashed an ad hominem attack against the professor arguing that, because Ramseyer spent much of his childhood in Japan, his scholarly work must therefore be corrupted, alleging nonexistent ties to far-right groups. The same individual claimed that Ramseyer’s work was somehow sponsored by the Mitsubishi Corporation, though later it would be revealed that no such connection has existed since the company endowed Ramseyer’s chair at Harvard University some 20 years ago.

Another South Korean activist group started a widely circulated petition using a photoshopped image to mock Prof. Ramseyer, comparing him to Joseph Goebbels and describing him as a “puppet of the Japanese government.”

The few people who have risen to defend Prof. Ramseyer’s right to freedom of inquiry have paid the price. Writing in The Diplomat, academics Joseph Yi and Joe Phillips argued that “the suppression of critical discourse too often means that Koreans, including students, lack awareness of arguments and data challenging the dominant narrative.”

Within a week there were more rounds of letters and petitions circulating on social media calling for their dismissals from their respective universities for having defended the value of debate and open discourse.

Ramseyer is not the first academic to face a smear campaign for questioning the official narrative on the topic of comfort women. Park Yu-ha, a literature professor at Sejong University in South Korea, had her career effectively destroyed after publishing her book, Comfort Women of the Empire, which advanced a more nuanced understanding of comfort women’s victimhood and the collaboration of other parties. She faced civil suits from surviving comfort women and criminal charges from South Korean prosecutors who accused her of criminal defamation and was ultimately held liable, convicted, and fined.

Lee Young-hoon, a professor emeritus in economics at Seoul National University, who edited the bestselling book Anti-Japanese Tribalism, also faced a cancel mob for questioning the official narratives of the comfort women period and what he argued was the underlying racism and hatred driving these beliefs. Prof. Lee received death threats, insults, was called a traitor on television newscasts, and even had his office raided by angry students, who allegedly screamed and spat at the professor of economics.

Academic freedom has long been threatened in South Korea but now the activists behind prior efforts to curtail freedom of inquiry are seeking to export their censorship by extinguishing contested framings of a dominant narrative on a delicate historical topic.

A similar episode transpired in 2015 following comments made at a conference by then U.S. diplomat Wendy Sherman (whom President Joe Biden recently nominated to serve as Deputy Secretary of State). Explaining why South Korea has a tendency to obsess over the comfort women issue, she commented, “of course, nationalist feelings can still be exploited, and it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy.”

A few days later, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea was attacked and brutally slashed in the face with a razor blade, just narrowly missing major facial nerves, requiring 80 stitches.

To be clear, I cannot verify that every claim in Ramseyer’s paper is accurate. Some of the critiques of the paper are credible, compelling, and deserving of further examination. But this is not a moment to call for people to be fired for having different perspectives or to pressure publishers to engage in censorship. Ramseyer should be called on to defend his findings, not forced to apologize for them. Academic freedom is vital to basic enlightenment principles, allowing for a vibrant marketplace of ideas and a vigorous debate that advances understanding.

Instead, what we have witnessed on the comfort women issue is akin to the response to heresy in the Middle Ages. If in fact South Korean activists engaged in the noisy campaign to silence challenges to historical assumptions on this topic are unable to tolerate competing claims or contest alternative narratives, it may be time to take stock and reexamine the source of their anger in the first place.