The Debate | Opinion

On ‘Comfort Women’ and Academic Freedom: A Rebuttal

Academic freedom does not protect outright falsehoods and distortions.

By Yong-Shik Lee and Chan Un Park for
On ‘Comfort Women’ and Academic Freedom: A Rebuttal

In this Friday, Oct. 9, 2020 file photo, a statue commemorating so-called “comfort women” is displayed at a residential area in central Berlin, Germany.

Credit: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

A recent attack on the criticism of J. Mark Ramseyer’s article, “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” reveals troubling insensitivity and disregard of an atrocious human rights violation.

We, scholars based in the United States and South Korea, call for the cessation of attempts both to spread outrageous falsehoods about Japan’s abuse of “comfort women,” an atrocious crime against humanity, and to advocate such conduct directly or indirectly by attacking fair criticism of Ramseyer’s article under the false pretense of academic freedom. Academic freedom does not protect outrageous falsehoods and distortions.

Joseph Yi and Joe Phillips wrote an op-ed on the controversy in The Diplomat, claiming that “[a]ttacking Ramseyer’s academic integrity because of personal connections to Japan is unproductive and sounds xenophobic.”

Yi and Phillips mischaracterize the criticism of Ramseyer’s article, which attempts to justify the military sexual slavery enforced by Japan during World War II as a legitimate contractual arrangement. Such contracts did not exist, and Ramseyer has not been able to present any evidence of such contracts.

For this reason, a number of scholars from around the world, including Hannah Shepherd (University of Cambridge, U.K.), Sayaka Chatani (National University of Singapore, Singapore), David Ambaras (North Carolina State University, U.S.), and Chelsea Szendi Schieder (Aoyama Gakuin University, Japan), question Ramseyer’s academic integrity.

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They demand the retraction of Ramseyer’s paper, not because of his personal connections to Japan, but rather because of his complete disregard of relevant evidence. Two Harvard historians, Professors Carter Eckert and Andrew Gordon, acting on a request by the International Review of Law and Economics to review Ramseyer’s article, also reached the same conclusion. They recommended that the journal suspend the publication of Ramseyer’s article and retract it, pending the outcome of the journal’s own investigation.

As should be evident to readers, the widespread criticism is not an expression of nationalism or the “Korean perspective,” but of a grave concern about attempts to justify atrocious human rights violations. The controversy is not a political debate between Korea and Japan, as Yi and Phillips purport it to be, but a serious human rights question that concerns everyone.

Yi and Phillips also criticize South Korea for allegedly failing to accommodate vigorous public discussions on the question of “comfort women.” Their insensitivity and disregard of the painful memory of the victims and their supporters is appalling. The military sexual slavery enforced by Japan is traumatic history for most Koreans. Koreans would be naturally cautious about such discussions, as they are likely to trigger the memory of traumatic pain and suffering.

Yi and Phillips also cite Korean lawsuits regarding controversial books and speeches about the sexual slavery. While academic freedom should be protected, it must not be abused to justify outrageous falsehoods and distortions. In Germany, where many believe academic freedom is well preserved, public advocacy of the war crimes committed by the Nazi regime would lead to criminal prosecution and punishment, but such response is not an illegitimate intrusion upon academic freedom.

Yi and Phillips also attack the credibility of testimonies offered by Korean survivors. Decades before the Korean testimonies were made public in the 1990s, the Netherlands interviewed Dutch comfort women who served during the war and secured testimonies affirming the atrocities of the sexual slavery. Victims from other countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, not just from Korea, also offered testimonies that confirmed kidnapping, deceit, torture, and killing of so-called “comfort women.” Even the Japanese government, through the “Kono Statement” admitted the atrocities inflicted upon “comfort women” in 1994:

The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.

The military sexual slavery enforced by Japan, the system of so-called “comfort women,” is a war crime and atrocious human rights violation, as confirmed by major international and domestic institutions such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. State Department. Even the Yamaguchi District Court in Japan affirmed the illegality of the military’s use of sexual slavery in 1998.

Perhaps most perplexing is Yi and Phillips’ attempt to make connections between the atrocious sexual slavery of the 20th century and the “tribute women” who they argue were sent to China from Korea some 600 years ago. It would be absurd to draw any relational inference between the two events that took place several centuries apart from each other under completely different historical, political, and cultural contexts. They also refer to the women who they contend offered sexual services on American military bases in Korea after World War II, citing wild numbers without any verification. Again, such comparison is unwarranted: the Japanese military’s sexual slavery was a war crime that bears no comparison to pre- or post-war prostitution. (Ramseyer also tried, unconvincingly, to make connections between pre-war prostitution and the military sexual servitude.)

Yi and Phillips also compare and contrast between what they call a repressive environment in South Korea, which, as they describe, suppresses public discussions on comfort women, and a purportedly freer Japanese environment that tolerates diverse positions. They will also find the absence of vibrant discussions advocating the Nazi war crimes in Germany or supporting the slavery of African Americans in the United States. It is not because these societies suppress discussions in general, but rather because the extreme trauma and sensitivity of such issues raises public caution, particularly against irresponsible positions justifying such atrocities without clear evidence. For the same reason, Koreans are cautious about the similar positions on the so-called “comfort women” issues, and given the trauma, Koreans should not be blamed for this caution. Korean society does not generally suppress discussions. On the contrary, it is likes of Yi and Phillips who try to suppress fair criticism of what many consider to be the dissemination of plain falsehoods by critics of undermining academic freedom. We reiterate: Academic freedom does not protect outrageous falsehoods and distortions.

Yong-Shik Lee is director of the Law and Development Institute and visiting professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law.

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Chan Un Park is professor of law at Hanyang University School of Law.