#ComfortWomen: Revisionist history, the Harvard effect, and controversial opinion

Over the past few days, #AcademicTwitter has been alive with activity concerning a journal article by Harvard University’s J. Mark Ramseyer that argued that “comfort women” during the Pacific War freely negotiated contracts, made money, and were able to leave at any time.

The issue of comfort women, women forced into work at Japanese military-run brothels, is a controversial one and even today can strain Korean and Japanese relations. While Ramseyer does not deny that these brothels exist, he suggests that it was a consenting, contractual process, at one point suggesting that a child entered into such a contract with a full knowledge of the implications of the role.

Many have wondered how such an article could have been published, since it was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Responses from academics across the world have been quick to point to intentional omissions of information, selective quotation, and assuming the situations of Japanese comfort women were analogous with Korean women. Some have suggested that his paper made it through on the prestige of his institution, Harvard University, while others have come out to defend his controversial views as “free speech”. However, as Harvard’s Andrew Gordon and Carter Eckert point out in their joint response to the paper, Ramseyer does not provide any examples of contracts, and it is not clear whether he has seen contracts himself. Further, many of his citations are for texts “wholly unrelated to claims made in the text”. They consider it less a matter of free speech and more of academic integrity, writing:

The obfuscation of this issue created by the lack of any discussion of whether he has seen actual or sample contracts, and the lack of any citation to such contracts, is for us the most egregious violation of academic integrity in the article. But there are numerous other serious problems: citations that are wholly unrelated to claims made in the text (just one is noted above); claims in the text of the article entirely at odds with the documents cited to support those claims; selective use of documents and other materials to the exclusion of evidence to the contrary.

Academics were quick to fact-check Ramseyer and many others openly denounced the piece. One particularly well-researched response came from Amy Stanley (Northwestern University), Hannah Shepherd (University of Cambridge), Sayaka Chatani (National University of Singapore), David Ambaras (North Caroline State University), and Chelsea Szendi Schieder (Aoyama Gakuin University), attracting significant media attention.

For more on this, check out Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s piece: “The ‘Comfort Women’ Issue, Freedom of Speech, and Academic Integrity: A Study Aid”, which also includes some excellent discussion questions.

If you would like to take a look at the original article by Ramseyer, you can find it here. How would you rate the article ‘Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War’ in terms of your own standards of research integrity? Do you think this article should be accepted for publication in an academic journal?

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