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Ramseyer’s Lies on Comfort Women Signal Deeper Rot

The Statue of Peace in front of the former Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea commemorates comfort women, sex slaves taken by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. The slogans on the tarp behind the statue demand the Japanese government to make reparations.
The Statue of Peace in front of the former Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea commemorates comfort women, sex slaves taken by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. The slogans on the tarp behind the statue demand the Japanese government to make reparations. By Simon J. Levien
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Harvard Law School professor J. Mark Ramseyer is in the process of publishing a deeply harmful, ahistorical lie. In a much-hyped, forthcoming paper, Ramseyer claims that “comfort women” — women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II — were in fact recruited sex workers. Business women, rather than victims of serial sexual abuse.

Let’s be perfectly clear: Ramseyer’s paper has no basis in reality. Up to 200,000 comfort women were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Army before and during World War II. Survivors of this violence have, for decades, paid powerful witness to the atrocities they were subjected to. Even the Japanese government has repeatedly apologized for its crimes. Any attempt to erase or rosily rewrite the story of Japan’s comfort women is both false, and part of a growing ultra-nationalist, history-denying strain in Japanese politics that is alarmingly gaining steam.

Ramseyer’s paper brings up questions of how academia should deal with human experiences, especially traumatic ones. If Ramseyer intended to rewrite history to purposefully deny and belittle the pain of comfort women, his motives are clearly evil. But what if the aim of Ramseyer’s paper was simply to develop an academic argument? What if he genuinely felt the intellectual need to inspect comfort women through the lens of contract law? Would that change our view of the author or his monstrous creation?

No. Irrespective of the paper’s intent, its impending publication has caused real harm by giving a megaphone to the denial of the real lives and trauma comfort women and those touched by their abuse have faced, all to engage in a wanton, poorly executed intellectual exercise. The lived experiences of comfort women, several of whom are still with us today, are not fodder for abstract arguments about contract labor.

As the Editorial Board, we value academic freedom: the freedom to pursue challenging or sensitive topics and argue potentially controversial opinions. However, Ramseyer’s paper does not fall under the protection of academic freedom. Ramseyer’s paper does not express a different opinion, but is disinformation plain and simple, as many of his fellow scholars have pointed out.

Academic theories are simply not worthy of publication if they run counter to basic facts. This is hardly a new concept or cancel culture run amok, but a common-sense standard of academic decency. None among us would defend a Holocaust negationist paper. We must recognize when ideas are dangerous and factually incorrect, then shut them down accordingly.

Similarly, there is no reason to publish (or, for that matter, pen) Ramseyer’s paper. The academic journal planning to publish his work has decided, amid outcry, to additionally publish work refuting Ramseyer’s claims. Still, the nature of confirmation bias — the tendency to assume what you read is true if it agrees with you — means Ramseyer’s dangerous ideas will stick to the forefront of some readers’ minds. Clearly, publishing Ramseyer’s lies will do more harm than good.

From Government preceptor David D. Kane’s alleged racist, neo-Nazi sympathizing blog posts, to bioengineering professor Kevin K. “Kit” Parker’s class wherein undergraduates directed police activity (and nearly did again) in the majority-minority city of Springfield, Mass., a disturbing pattern of Harvard academics flouting morality has emerged.

Professors at Harvard set the academic culture that undergraduates grow in and eventually export to the sectors they do work. Their status at the front of the classroom — and, by virtue of their Harvard affiliation, the forefront of scholarship — comes with a non-trivial obligation to yield this power responsibly. When a professor is cavalier about truth in their work, their students learn that this is sort of conduct, beyond being acceptable, can get you ahead.

This bankrupt leadership breeds classroom contrarians and devil’s advocates by signaling to students that it's alright to callously and dishonestly intellectualize human suffering as long as a “hot take” emerges. It’s on Harvard and professors themselves to stop this dynamic, but as students, we should be vigilant about not absorbing dangerous lessons about what is permissible in the name of personal gain.

The Harvard name lends validity to whatever claim it becomes attached to. This is the stunning, reality-shaping power Harvard academics yield. Using this credibility to dismiss the very real harm done to sexual assault survivors is a violent abdication of responsibility that implicates both Ramseyer and Harvard. Because Harvard’s professors rely on the prestige of the Harvard name, Harvard is complicit in the damage these professors do to our intellectual culture.

Despite international press and scrutiny, the University has yet to acknowledge or refute Ramseyer’s dangerous lies about comfort women. Harvard must do better. The administration must ensure that professors like Kane, Parker, and now Ramseyer face real repercussions for their wrongdoings. Considering how quickly various Harvard affiliates — from the Korean Association of Harvard Law School to Harvard Professor of Korean History Carter J. Eckert and fellow Harvard History professor Andrew Gordon — have mobilized to rebuke Ramseyer’s paper, the University’s lack of action is striking. Individuals and organizations have flocked together to gather more than 10,000 signatures criticizing Ramseyer while Harvard has stayed silent. Harvard must come out and condemn Ramseyer’s paper for its misinformation and harm. In the meantime, the paper’s falsehoods and the notion that immorality goes unchecked here grow stronger.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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