Harvard Professor Faces Backlash over WWII Sex-Slave Claims

  • By Jeong Si-haeng

    February 18, 2021 12:00

    A professor at Harvard University Law School has stirred up a hornet's nest by describing women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army as "sex workers."

    The International Review of Law and Economics recently posted online an abstract of a paper by Mark Ramseyer titled "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War." The gist is much the same as the Japanese government's own claims, namely that the Imperial Army did not force women into sexual slavery in World War II but they volunteered to become prostitutes.

    Mark Ramseyer

    Ramseyer's paper considers the problem from a purely economic perspective and claims that Korean women who were drafted into military brothels were given "a large advance with one- or two-year maximum terms with an ability for the women to leave early if they generated sufficient revenue."

    Ramseyer is not a historian but teaches Japanese law and corporate law. But he lived in Japan until he was 18, is fluent in Japanese and majored in Japanese history at a U.S. university.

    Another suggestion of bias is that he holds the title of Mitsubishi professor of Japanese Legal Studies, meaning he is paid out of an endowment from the Japanese company, which used Korean slave labor in World War II.

    In an op-ed in a Japanese newspaper in January last year, Ramseyer also dismissed evidence that women were forced into sexual slavery during the war as "fabrications."

    Wading into another controversy, he also downplayed the 1923 massacre of Koreans in Japan after the Kanto earthquake and suggested that Koreans provoked the mob violence with widespread crimes.

    Fellow U.S. academics were scathing. Alexis Dudden, a historian at the University of Connecticut and expert on modern Korean and Japanese history, said, "There has been so much scholarship produced in the 30 years since the first survivor came forward, and it's almost as if Professor Ramseyer's decision is to just ignore all of the debate -- as if he's the first person to come into this -- and give a withering condemnation of all opinions different from his as lies."

    And Harvard historian Carter Eckert described Ramseyer's paper as "woefully deficient, empirically, historically, and morally."

    Korean-American groups are up in arms. Several of them held a press conference on Wednesday and accused Ramseyer of violating Harvard's mission of civic education and demanded his resignation.

    The Korean Association of Harvard Law School "strongly condemn[ed] the deliberate erasure of human rights violations and war crimes" and called for the paper to be withdrawn, backed by 800 other Korean students of law at U.S. universities.

    Rep. Young Kim on Thursday tweeted Ramseyer's claims are "untrue, misleading and disgusting."

    But others are wary of so-called "cancel culture" and have defended Ramseyer's right to be wrong. Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow, responding to demands for a retraction, said Ramseyer's paper is an expression of "academic freedom."

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