KAHLS Statement in Response to Professor J. Mark Ramseyer’s Article “Contracting for sex in the Pacific War”

Professor J. Mark Ramseyer, the Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, recently published an article (“Contracting for sex in the Pacific War”) and accompanying editorial (“Recovering the Truth about the Comfort Women”), in which he describes the forced sex slavery organized by Japan during World War II as a consenting, contractual process. He claims, without sufficient evidence, that the Japanese military sex slaves were willing prostitutes who were able to “negotiate” for substantial wages in a consensual, contractual relationship. In his editorial, he also makes multiple assertions that the comfort women story is “pure fiction,” a revisionist claim that is recycled time and time again by neonationalist figures. 

Professor Ramseyer’s arguments are factually inaccurate and misleading. Without any convincing evidence, Professor Ramseyer argues that no government “forced women into prostitution,” a contention he also makes in his editorial. Decades’ worth of Korean scholarship, primary sources, and third-party reports challenge this characterization. None are mentioned, cited, or considered in his arguments. 

Professor Ramseyer’s deficient presentation of the historical record is demonstrated by his bibliography. Korean perspectives and scholarship, both rich sources of material on this topic, are almost completely absent in his work. Scholars studying history understand the possibility of post-hoc revisionism and bias. To counter such effects, they consult a wide-ranging set of materials from a variety of sources. Professor Ramseyer does not. 

He also ignores expansive scholarship done by international organizations, such as the United Nations and Amnesty International, which has conclusively found that the “comfort women” were coerced, kidnapped, or forced by the Japanese government. After its independent inquiry, the Japanese government itself acknowledged as part of the Kono Statement that “the then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of comfort stations.”

As students of law and democracy, we are committed to a fair presentation of diverse perspectives. Our professors stress the fundamental importance of bringing multiple perspectives to a discussion. Again, Professor Ramseyer’s article falls short in this regard. He does not engage with the historically validated and important perspectives of scholars who have worked to amplify the testimonies of these women. To ignore this work is to create the false impression of a settled history of an imagined world where Korean comfort women were free to contract for higher wages paid at their preferred schedule.

Analytically, Professor Ramseyer takes these contracts as a given. He suggests comfort women “negotiated” their contractual terms. Such value-neutral language erases important historical context of coercive sexual violence. He assumes away important issues of consent, duress, and power dynamics. As law students, we study the doctrines and equitable principles that have developed to correct for these issues in our first-year curriculum. As future lawyers, we recognize that much is still to be done, that settlements and non-disclosure agreements can do much to obscure latent coercion. As citizens of a world where sexual violence, denialism, and slavery run rampant, we call attention to misleading histories and economic analyses that callously suggest that these women negotiated into their own sexual slavery.

We, and the undersigned, strongly condemn the deliberate erasure of human rights violations and war crimes. Up to 200,000 women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military, from not only Korea, but also China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Netherlands, East Timor, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma. We stand with the victims who have yet to receive full reparations and a proper, official apology from the Japanese government. We strongly condemn all actions that inflict pain and insult to the victims, who bear witness to the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army.

As students, we have the utmost respect for academic freedom, including that of Professor Ramseyer. But at the same time, we firmly believe that a sincere commitment to academic freedom is inseparable from the obligation of academic integrity as part of a genuine search for truth. Upholding these values requires that we shed light on the failings of misleading narratives that omit important voices and obscure critical histories. 


February 4, 2021

Korean Association of Harvard Law School (KAHLS)

Harvard Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA)

Harvard Law School China Law Association (CLA)

Harvard Asia Law Society (HALS)

Harvard South Asian Law Students Association (SALSA)

La Alianza at Harvard Law School

Harvard Law Entrepreneurship Project (HLEP) Board of Directors

Harvard Women’s Law Association (WLA) Executive Board

Harvard Law School Advocates for Human Rights

Harvard Law School Student Government


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