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Ramseyer’s Refutal Isn’t Worth Our Time

By The Crimson Editorial Board

Early last year, Harvard Law School Professor J. Mark Ramseyer published a controversial paper on Imperial Japan’s World War II practice of impressing women from occupied territories into sexual slavery. He argued that the victims of the practice — often euphemized as “comfort women”— were better understood as recruited sex workers. This paper naturally drew ire from many scholars, with critics alleging deeply inadequate research and a fundamental misunderstanding of both facts and context. Students from the Law School and College responded with outcry as well.

In response to this broad criticism, Ramseyer released another paper last month, arguing that critics failed to address its “actual topic,” which he claimed was “exclusively descriptive.” In turn, some of the original critics claimed that Ramseyer did not address many of their concerns, instead mischaracterizing their critiques so that he could deflect the major points of criticism made.

We affirm our belief that Ramseyer’s dangerous and broadly unfounded ideas must be called out for what they are and be condemned by Harvard as well as the broader academic community. Moreover, his ideas don’t deserve the prominent place in academic discourse that this back-and-forth conversation affords them. His opinions were incorrect last year, remain incorrect today, and add nothing to legitimate scholarly debate. Scholars have refuted him many times over.

As eye-catching as the academic scuffle surrounding Ramseyer might be, we must recognize that dwelling too much on it ultimately distracts from more important issues at the cost of affected victims. Not many comfort women are still alive. We don’t know how long it will be before we have no more living survivors to share their stories with us, but we do know that the clock is ticking. By focusing on Ramseyer and the larger controversy that he sparked, we are unable to move past questioning the experience of survivors, no matter what our intentions may be. There is a cost to idle pondering and intellectualization of the horrifying reality that comfort women lived through.

Last year, in addition to collectively opining on Ramseyer’s initial work, we ran several pieces on its broader implications. They represent only a fraction of the extensive, deeply worthwhile range of academic and journalistic literature on comfort women. In them, you will find valuable, heart-wrenching details on the history of the victims and the sociopolitical context they live in today. They add weight to this reality: Some survivors are still alive and pursuing a path to justice. They have not given up, and we must not give up on them either.

Ramseyer’s initial report followed a 2021 ruling by a South Korean court that ordered Japan to pay $91,800 to each of 12 former comfort women who filed suit against the Japanese government. Yet the fight for a small measure of justice has not ended, nor have comfort women always prevailed in litigation. As survivors grow fewer and farther between, every effort becomes a desperate struggle against not only the Japanese government’s attempts at historical revisionism but also time itself.

Such moments demand moral and intellectual clarity. They demand a focus of our collective attention, undistracted, on the issues most urgently at stake. In this case, they demand a clear view of the horror these women faced and the avenues left toward repairing some of that harm.

That is where scholars should focus their attention.

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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