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The typical law school class begins with the professor asking, “What are the facts of the case?” Professors require us to include specific citations in our papers — down to the precise paragraph. In law journals, we spend hours verifying footnotes and locating the most authoritative sources. We are trained to scrutinize facts, to avoid overclaiming, and to call out lazy academic work when we see it.
Having internalized these lessons for three years, we were shocked to read an article titled “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” released by one of our very own professors. In the article, Harvard Law School Japanese legal studies professor Mark J. Ramseyer writes about so-called “comfort women”: civilians who were forcibly mobilized into “comfort stations” of the Japanese imperial military to perform sexual services for soldiers under conditions akin to sexual slavery. He claims that the “contracts” between comfort women and comfort stations reflect “straightforward game theoretic logic,” a premise refuted by leading economists. From this, he concludes that comfort women were effectively consenting “prostitutes.” Referring to one Japanese “prostitute” in particular, he goes so far as to say that “even at age 10, she knew what the job entailed.”
The article elicited sharp criticism from scholars, activists, politicians, and students alike. The response made resoundingly clear what the peer-reviewed journal failed to address: Professor Ramseyer’s contractual theory operates in a vacuum, with no acknowledgment of the reality faced by impoverished young women who were colonial subjects. The article disregards facts established by survivor testimonies, investigations by international organizations, and decades of academic literature while relying on questionable and misleading citations. These supposed “contracts” would be void for reasons of legal incapacity, duress, fraud, or unconscionability.
We, too, could not sit idly by, especially given the deafening silence from an institution whose motto is “Veritas” — truth. We felt compelled to combat the neo-nationalist discourse that inappropriately frames this issue as a diplomatic dispute. To ensure the care and thoroughness that this issue deserves, we spoke to scholars and practitioners within the University and beyond — historians, law and economics professors, and feminist scholars. We also reached out to Ramseyer to verify his citations and underlying sources. Unfortunately, none of the documents we received from him alleviated our concerns regarding the article’s failure to meet basic standards of academic integrity.
Comfort stations were far from, as the article claims, the “military analogue to the private brothels in Japan and Korea.” For one, many girls were forcibly mobilized through deception or abduction — practices that were illegal then under customary international law as they are now. And unlike Ramseyer’s suggestion that the military was uninvolved with this coercive mobilization, the Japanese government has recognized in the historic Kono Statement that its military was involved in the transport of women and the establishment of these stations.
These women also faced grotesque physical and sexual violence — something the article entirely fails to mention. Some were forced to have sex with 60 to 70 men per day. They suffered burns, bruises, bayonet stabs, and broken bones. Escape was not a realistic option. They were closely surveilled and had nowhere else to go in overseas combat zones. Based on remaining official records not destroyed by the Japanese government — plus testimonies by survivors from Korea, China, Indonesia, the Netherlands, the Philippines, and other countries formerly under Japanese occupation — the United Nations categorized the operation as a crime against humanity.
Ramseyer neither addresses these established findings nor engages with the abundant scholarship in this field. He says he is unable to speak or read Korean. For interested English-speaking readers, we encourage you to read collections of testimonies and the comprehensive compilation of resources by concerned economists.
In addition to glaring analytical and factual deficiencies, the article suffers from major methodological flaws. To begin with, the citations fail to support the argument. While Ramseyer freely refers to “the contracts used by the comfort stations themselves,” he fails to present even one such “sample” contract involving Korean women.
In other instances in the article, he relies on unverified sources to support spurious conclusions. A subsection misleadingly titled “prostitute savings'' ends with a block quote from the memoirs of a survivor, Mun Ok-ju, to imply that comfort women were able to amass enough money to live “flamboyantly.” Even putting aside the problem with directly lifting an English translation of unknown origin, the citation directs readers to a blog post that is curiously attributed to the “Korea Institute of History,” an entity that only seems to exist as an email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Properly researching Ms. Moon’s story would have alerted Professor Ramseyer to the fact that she never received the tips she deposited and a subsequent lawsuit to recover her and other survivors’ savings was dismissed.
In discussing the public outcry against the article, Lee Yong-soo, a survivor and activist, said that the article is a “blessing in disguise” for creating the opportunity to rebut pernicious denialism. It is crucial not only to have credible, trustworthy sources of information but also to challenge falsehoods that hide behind a facade of credibility. Even as its publication has been delayed for further investigation, the article has received support from those who deny the experiences of comfort women. Academic freedom comes with responsibility and professionalism, especially for those who have the weight of authority as a professor at Harvard Law School.
As students, we expect our professors to do better.
Stephany Bai, Minsun Cha, and Linda Heeyoung Park are third-year students at Harvard Law School. Sungjoo Ahn, Jaehyuk You, and Sun Young Hwang, third-year students at Harvard Law School, also contributed to the writing of this op-ed.
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