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Harvard Reischauer Institute Notes ‘Serious Concerns’ Over Prof. Ramseyer’s ‘Comfort Women’ Article

Dozens of demonstrators gathered outside Johnston Gate on March 6 in a protest organized by the Korean American Society of Massachusetts against Harvard Law professor J. Mark Ramseyer and his recent controversial paper on comfort women.
Dozens of demonstrators gathered outside Johnston Gate on March 6 in a protest organized by the Korean American Society of Massachusetts against Harvard Law professor J. Mark Ramseyer and his recent controversial paper on comfort women. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Ariel H. Kim and Simon J. Levien, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: March 22, 2021 at 2:45 p.m.

Harvard’s Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies issued a statement last week calling on the publishing journal to “fully address” concerns raised around Harvard Law professor J. Mark Ramseyer’s contentious article on “comfort women,” and condemning online harassment that has stemmed from the controversy.

Since Ramseyer’s forthcoming article in the International Review of Law and Economics has attracted international media attention, many Harvard professors — including Ramseyer himself — have reported receiving harassing emails and social media messages.

Before and during World War II, the Japanese Empire took women and girls from its occupied territories as sex slaves, today known as “comfort women.” In his paper, Ramseyer — a professor of Japanese legal studies — disputes this historical consensus, claiming these women were gainfully employed by choice. In response to worldwide condemnation from scholars and protests internationally, the journal set to publish his paper has delayed its publication and put the article under re-examination.

In its statement updated March 15, the Reischauer Institute noted that Harvard Japanese studies faculty had raised “serious concerns” about the “empirical foundations” of Ramseyer’s article. The statement goes on to provide links to an academic refutation sent to the IRLE in February by Harvard professors Andrew Gordon ’74 and Carter J. Eckert, as well as a critical article in the New Yorker by Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen.

“The Reischauer Institute reaffirms its call to the journal editors to fully address the concerns raised by scholars in the U.S. and abroad,” the statement reads.

The statement concludes by urging that discussion around the article remain “informative and civil,” condemning any form of harassment or hate speech.

While University and Law School administrators have repeatedly declined to make a statement, the Reischauer is one of two official branches of the University to publicly comment on the controversy.

Reischauer Institute’s statement follows a Feb. 19 statement issued by Harvard’s Korea Institute which formally endorses Gordon and Eckert’s refutation for the journal and similarly condemns harassment and hate speech. The Korea Institute was the first arm of Harvard to make an official statement regarding Ramseyer’s article.

In a Feb. 5 interview with The Crimson, Ramseyer said he had begun receiving hate mail and death threats after the South Korean press started reporting on his article in early February.

Other Japanese studies faculty have also been subjected to harassing messages. On March 8, Ramseyer and Director of the Reischauer Institute Mary C. Brinton received several rounds of hate mail, at least one of which copied 35 other Harvard faculty members.

Following the March 8 messages, Brinton emailed Ramseyer, copying other faculty colleagues, to inform him that the “entire Japanese studies community at Harvard is now being targeted” by such messages.

“I am sure you understand how profoundly disturbing—and needless to say, distracting—this has become for us,” Brinton wrote to Ramseyer.

She added in the email that she and two other professors — Gordon and director of the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations Christina L. Davis ’93 — requested the University issue a public statement on the controversy or otherwise provide guidance on how the faculty could respond themselves.

Brinton, Gordon, and Davis declined to comment further on the request, as did University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain.

David L. Howell — chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations — wrote in an email that he and the entire EALC department had also been targeted by hate mail.

“I wasn’t the personal target of any of the hate, so I was able to shrug the messages off, irritating though they were to receive,” Howell wrote.

Dean of Arts and Humanities Robin E. Kelsey was also targeted by hate mail, Howell added. Kelsey did not respond to a request for comment.

Harvard University Police Department spokesperson Steven G. Catalano declined to comment, citing HUPD’s policy not to comment on open investigations.

Ramseyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment and Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal also declined to comment.

University of Connecticut professor of Japanese and Korean history Alexis Dudden, who has publicly criticized Ramseyer’s article, said she also received threatening and harassing emails.

Dudden said, however, that she could not comment on the specifics of the messages she received because of an ongoing Freedom of Information Act request for her emails about the comfort women issue.

“This is a pattern, and it is part of a broader, a longer, history of attempts at intimidation and threats,” she said regarding the FOIA request, though she noted she generally supports FOIA.

Northwestern University professor Amy B. Stanley ’99, who co-authored a critical analysis of Ramseyer’s article, wrote in an emailed statement that she received “oblique threats” and reported them to local authorities.

“Unless they escalate further, I don’t think they’re serious,” Stanley wrote. “Still, I’ve reported them to the police, because my university wants to have a record.”

The IRLE’s investigation of Ramseyer’s article is ongoing. It published an updated Expression of Concern statement on March 9 reaffirming that it is soliciting post-publication comments on Ramseyer’s article, but that the article is considered to be a “formal and final publication.” The online issue “is still in progress,” according to the Expression of Concern, allowing for the addition of further articles or editors’ comments to articles that make up the issue.

Eyal Winter, professor of economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he was one scholar asked to take part in the post-publication review process.

“I’m not sure what they are going to do with my report,” Winter said. “But I hope they will eventually decide to retract the paper. It shouldn’t be there.”

At least one of IRLE’s associate editors has already resigned over the controversy. Northwestern law professor Alex Lee ’00 said though associate editors have no say in articles before online publication, he helped the journal solicit experts following the controversy to evaluate the historical claims laid out in Ramseyer’s article before resigning.

Lee said he has been told that two other Associate Editors have stepped down from the journal since Ramseyer’s article went live online.

CORRECTION: March 22, 2021

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Reischauer Institute was the first branch of the University to make an official statement regarding Ramseyer’s forthcoming article. In fact, Harvard’s Korea Institute was the first to issue a statement, on Feb. 19.

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @simonjlevien.

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