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Engaging the Ramseyer Controversy on Our Own Terms

Why I Pulled My Rebuttal from the International Review of Law and Economics


By Jinah Kim | February 24, 2021

“Comfort Women: Column of Strength” memorial statue in San Francisco.

Photo by Sung Sohn.


I originally wrote this brief comment intending to have it published in the International Review of Law and Economics to rebut J. Mark Ramseyer’s article “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” strongly objecting to his misleading, inaccurate, and unethical analysis. However, after corresponding with the journal’s editorial board, I decided against publishing it there for three reasons: 1. instead of soliciting rebuttals, they should have done their job and conducted their own thorough review. This is not a situation where the editors are facilitating a difficult dialogue on a controversial topic, but one where they are displacing their failure to conduct due diligence onto other scholars. 2. I do not want to drive more traffic to their journal and increase their impact factor. 3. In addition to rebuttals, the editorial board invited comments in favor of Ramseyer’s article. I do not want to participate in a process that legitimates Ramseyer’s support of a horrific history through a pro-con discussion.

I was first alerted to Ramseyer’s article on February 5, 2021 and sent my initial response on February 14. Like me, numerous scholars across disciplines have been working to scrutinize this article alongside Ramseyer’s recent body of scholarship, discovering a disturbing trend where among other issues of academic misconduct, he promotes misrepresentations and distortions to legitimate histories of violence against Korean comfort women and racialized minorities in Japan, including zainichi Koreans and burakumin. See the engaged scholarly response to Ramseyer’s work here. I deeply appreciate how this collective endeavor contributes to promoting the highest standards and safeguards for research and knowledge production.


[This letter has been edited and revised. The original, which was submitted to but subsequently withdrawn by the author from the International Journal of Law and Economics, can be found here.]


To the editors of the International Review of Law and Economics:


I am writing to express extreme concern regarding the decision by the International Review of Law and Economics to publish J. Mark Ramseyer’s article, “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” in which he argues that Korean comfort women were prostitutes who collaborated with comfort station operators to create favorable “indenture contracts” that would entice them to want to go to the warfront and “work hard.”[1] This article is objectionable on every level, starting with the premise and including his faulty interpretation of primary sources. To be clear, there is no legal contract that protects perpetrators of sexual slavery and sex trafficking. No contracts have ever been found, moreover, in which the so-called comfort women agreed to indentured servitude. “Comfort women” is a euphemism for an estimated 200,000 sexually enslaved girls and women taken by the Japanese military from nations colonized and occupied by Japan during the World War II era. They suffered atrocious violence in an institutionalized and coordinated sex trafficking and forced sexual labor system that imprisoned and subjected them to frequent sexual violence and abuse. In 1991, Korean survivor Kim Hak-Sun halmoni publically testified to her experience as a comfort woman. This opened space for other women enslaved across Japanese-occupied territories including China, the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, Malaysia, Burma, and Taiwan to testify. Survivors describe how they still suffer from physical and emotional pain and trauma. Their testimony prompted the 1993 Kono Statement, which acknowledged the Japanese Imperial Army’s role in the forcible recruitment of women and the administration of military comfort stations, ignited activism around Japanese military slavery, and prompted new research and scholarship that has supported global mobilization against gender-based violence.


In a relatively short period of time, groups of concerned scholars have come together to critically scrutinize Ramseyer’s sources and assertions, definitively rebutting the article’s argument that the comfort women were willing prostitutes, not coerced sex slaves.[2] Particularly unethically, he distorts the life story of survivor Mun Okju to assert that comfort women profited from sexual slavery. Given the serious limitations of Ramseyer’s scholarship, it is unfathomable how this article could have passed the journal’s review process.


To be clear, there is no legal contract that protects perpetrators of sexual slavery and sex trafficking. No contracts have ever been found, moreover, in which the so-called comfort women agreed to indentured servitude.

As a scholar of the Korean comfort woman history and activism, I am additionally alarmed by how Ramseyer’s article contributes to a growing transpacific right-wing alliance centered on denying comfort women history. His building of his argument around consent perfectly aligns with the claim advanced by right-wing Japanese revisionists and legitimated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and members of the Liberal Democratic Party, who for decades have been fixating on the concept that comfort women were agents free from coercion.[3] Their argument is in service of refusing the comfort women demand for an official apology from the Japanese Diet. The attempts to delegitimize the claims of comfort women, despite the discovery of evidentiary corroboration of their testimony, have escalated in Japan over the past thirty years, including the removal of mention of comfort women from Japanese history books.[4]


This denialist mobilization is transpacific in scope and must be contextualized against the rise in activism and scholarship around comfort women history in the United States, signaled by the building of comfort women memorials across the United States since 2010 and the passing of House Resolution 121 supporting redress for former comfort women in 2007. These measures have emboldened the Japanese right wing even further and given them renewed energy and a new platform for growing their movement.[5] Scholar Tomomi Yamaguchi notes the Japanese right-wing mobilization to remove a comfort women memorial that was built in 2010 in Palisades, NJ, as the start of the “so-called ‘history wars’” now explicitly expanded to include the United States.[6] In 2014 concerned scholars across the United States came together when the New York Consulate General for Japan’s Foreign Ministry, acting on behalf of Prime Minister Abe, demanded that McGraw-Hill revise its textbook, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective, to correct its representation of comfort women.[7] Given how much has been written about coercion and consent with regard to comfort women history, it is hard to believe that Ramseyer is unaware of this debate.


Like the U.S. alt-right, the most virulent of the comfort women deniers have relied on distorting the past and making up lies, with casting doubt on the testimony of comfort women being one of the most popular strategies.[8] The testimony of Korean survivor Mun Okju (also Mun Okchu) is often targeted for such abuse. According to her own account, Mun Okju was born in 1924 in Daegu.[9] In 1940 she was abducted and became a sexual slave for Japanese soldiers in Manchuria where she was regularly raped 20 to 30 times a day.[10] She was able to escape to Seoul, but Mun Okju was captured again and sent to Southeast Asia. Her story is well known to comfort women scholars, and her testimony has been translated into English in True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women: Testimonies Compiled by the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and the Research Association on the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.[11] Her experience has further been documented in a book dedicated to her life, first published in Japanese as Biruma sensen tateshidan no “ianfu” datta watashi[12] and then in Korean as Mun Okju halmeoni ildaegi.[13] Her narrative has been an important part of analysis around the comfort women history, featured in monographs by Joshua D. Pilzer, Anh Yonson, C. Sarah Soh, and George Hicks, as well as several articles.[14]


Th[e] denialist mobilization is transpacific in scope and must be contextualized against the rise in activism and scholarship around comfort women history in the United States, signaled by the building of comfort women memorials across the United States since 2010 and the passing of House Resolution 121 supporting redress for former comfort women in 2007.

Instead of relying on her own memoir or her testimony in True Stories, Ramseyer cites a pro-Japanese neo-nationalist website, where the moderator has picked out 12 quotations detailing only Mun Okju’s time in Burma and Vietnam near the end of her period in the comfort women system.[15] The website features numerous other articles denying comfort women history, the Rape of Nanking, and other atrocities perpetrated by Imperial Japan. These passages are decontextualized from the broader narrative web of Mun Okju’s life. They are specifically selected to make an argument that comfort women were happy, had freedom of mobility, and were well compensated. Mun Okju was a talented singer and sometimes received tips after she was made to entertain Japanese soldiers, which she saved. However, she was never able to retrieve her money, as her account was frozen by the Japanese government after the end of World War II.[16] Scholars such as Pilzer, Soh, and Hicks in their incorporation of her autobiography into their scholarship present her whole life story. They neither gloss over the fact that she may have earned tips nor deny that her experience has elements that demonstrate the complexity of the Japanese comfort system across the war front. Indeed, Mun Okju’s life points to how larger systems of state violence were negotiated and mediated in complex ways by the various subjects who were forced into the system. In his turn to Mun Okju’s experience, however, Ramseyer does not assess her story rigorously to create a wider and deeper understanding of the military comfort system, but to use her life and experience for his own gain.


By contrast, feminist theorists, advocates for victims of gender-based violence, and human rights jurists argue that giving testimony and having their stories heard is a primary step in restoring dignity and can lead to healing for victims of gender-based violence.[17] Testimonies are the bedrock of victim-centered justice models. Oral histories are historical sources that foreground the importance of a reparative approach to history and address the gaps inherent in imperial archives. For example, consider how comfort women’s experiences were completely occluded from the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco or the 1965 ROK-Japanese Normalization Treaty, even though the U.S. military and Allied forces had explicit knowledge that the comfort women system existed.[18] Comfort women testimony and accounts from oral history have consistently come under attack from deniers who question the validity of memories as historical sources. Through such denials, the experiences of the victims are discredited and their dignity impugned.


Like the U.S. alt-right, the most virulent of the comfort women deniers have relied on distorting the past and making up lies, with casting doubt on the testimony of comfort women being one of the most popular strategies.

The accepted term used to describe the experiences of these women and girls is sexual slavery. The testimony of the comfort women, along with a broad and deep historical archive, including documents from the Japanese Self Defense Agency and U.S. military reports, substantiate that the victimization of these young women was organized by the Japanese Imperial Army. The first time the term was introduced to describe the comfort women history at the UN was in 1992 when Sin Heisoo spoke on behalf of the Korean Council and categorized the “comfort system” as sexual slavery.[19] In 1993, Theo Van Boven, Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities would amplify this term, using the expression “sexual slaves” concerning the comfort women system.[20]In 1996, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, challenged Japan’s objection to the term military sexual slavery, concluding that “the practice of ‘comfort women’ should be considered a clear case of sexual slavery and a slavery-like practice.”[21] In conjunction with the testimony of the victims of sexual slavery from the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and International Tribunal for Rwanda, the testimony of the comfort women from the 2000 Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery have been central to creating global accountability and forcing states to accept full legal and moral responsibility for sexual violence against women. Ramseyer offers absolutely no evidence that would over turn this overwhelming consensus that has built up over the past 30 years.


That Ramseyer did not consult any scholarship in the field, such as the works of C. Sarah Soh, Pei Pei Qui, Yuki Tanaka, Bonnie Oh, Puja Kim, Laura Hyun Yi Kang, and Yoshimi Yoshiaki should have raised red flags about the problematic nature of this work. The International Review of Law and Economics should withdraw his article immediately.


Yours truly,


Jinah Kim

Associate Professor in Communication Studies

Faculty Affiliate in Asian Studies

California State University, Northridge


Jinah Kim is Associate Professor of Communication Studies and faculty affiliate in Asian Studies at the California State University, Northridge. Trained in literary and cultural studies, her scholarship focuses on the American Century in Asia, with a focus on the legacies of the Korean War and US military occupation in Asia and the Pacific Islands. She is the author of Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas (Duke University Press, 2019). She is the recipient of the 2021 NEH Award to support her research, "Against Forgetting: Memory, Care, and Feminist Arts across the Transpacific.” She is a member of the Ending the Korean War Collective, an Executive Board Member of the Association for Asian American Studies, and a member of an Executive Committee for the Modern Language Association.


[1] P.7, “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” International Review of Law and Economics, Volume 65, March 2021. [2] See Amy Stanley, Hannah Shepherd, Sakaya Chatani, David Ambaras, and Chelsea Szendi Schiedler, “Contracting for Sex In the Pacific War: The Case for Retraction on Ground of Academic Misconduct,” https://sites.google.com/view/concernedhistorians/home, accessed February 19, 2021. This situation is fast unfolding and there are other scholars also writing rebuttals and demanding that the journal pull the article. The resources to counter Ramseyer’s article are compiled by UCLA Political Scientist Michael Chwe on this website: https://chwe.net/irle/?fbclid=IwAR13dDdO3l04LKxI7YAONZH9ozzxdo0WlPQBESYogLAljBcR_-edv6G41Cs [3] In March 2007 Shinzo Abe stated when addressing the Japanese Diet that there is no evidence to prove that comfort women were coerced. In April 2015 at a lecture at Harvard Kennedy School, he denied that the Japanese military coordinated the sexual slavery system, stating that “comfort women were victims of human trafficking conducted by private recruiters.” For more on Shinzo Abe’s history of denial, see Tomomi Yamaguchi, “Japan’s Right Wing Women and the ‘Comfort Women’ Issue,” Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs, 6 (2020): 46. For a useful history of the arc of government denial, see Yoshiaki Yoshimi, “Government must admit ‘comfort women’ system was sexual slavery,” Asahi Shimbun: Asia and Japan Watch, September 20, 2013. [4] Yoshiko Nozaki, “Feminism, Nationalism, and the Japanese Textbook Controversy over ‘Comfort Women,’” in France Winddance Twine and Kathleen M. Blee, eds., Feminism & Antiracism: International Struggles for Justice (NY: New York University Press, 2001), 170-189. [5] Michael Honda and Kinue Tokudome, “The Japanese Apology on the “Comfort Women” Cannot be Considered Official: Interview with Congressman Michael Honda,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 5:5 (2007), https://apjjf.org/-Michael-Honda--Kinue-TOKUDOME/2438/article.pdf. [6] Yamaguchi, 47. [7] See Alexis Dudden, “Standing with Historians of Japan,” Perspectives on History, March 1, 2015, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2015/letter-to-the-editor-standing-with-historians-of-japan. According to the New York Times, the specific passage Abe objected to is: “The Japanese Army forcibly recruited, conscripted and dragooned as many as 200,000 women aged 14 to 20 to serve in military brothels.” Martin Fackler, “U.S. Textbook Skews History, Prime Minister of Japan Says,” New York Times, January 29, 2015. [8] For more on this debate, see Yoshiko Nozaki, “The ‘Comfort Women’ Controversy: History and Testimony” in The Asia-Pacific Journal 3:7 (2005), https://apjjf.org/-Yoshiko-Nozaki/2063/article.html. [9] Keith Howard, ed. and trans. Young Joo Lee, True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women: Testimonies Compiled by the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and the Research Association on the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (London: Cassell, 1995), 104. [10] Ibid, 106. [11] Ibid. [12] Mun Okuju with Morikawa Michiko, Biruma sensen tateshidan no “ianfu” datta watashi (Tokyo: Nashinokisha, 1996). [13] Mun Okju with Morikawa Michiko, Beoma jeonseon ilbongun “wianbu”: Mun Okju halmoni ildaegi (Seoul: Areumdaun saramdeul, 2005). [14] Joshua D. Pilzer, Hearts of Pine: Songs in the Lives of Three Korean Survivors of the Japanese “Comfort Women” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Anh Yonson, Whose Comfort? Body Sexuality, and Identity of Korean ‘Comfort Women’ and Japanese Soldiers during WWII (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2020); C. Sarah Soh. The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan (Chicago: U Chicago, 2008); George Hicks. The Comfort Women: Sex Slaves of the Japanese Imperial Forces (St. Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1995). [15] Ramseyer’s quoting from Mun Okju’s narrative appears on page 6 of his article. The citation for his source is “KIH, Apr. 20, 2016, 2016b. Korea Institute of History. 2016 Former Korean Comfort Woman Mun Oku-chu,” which can be found on this website, http://scholarsinenglish.blogspot.com/2014/10/former-korean-comfort-woman-mun-oku.html, accessed February 11, 2021. The organizing impulse for the blog is to collect articles that deny comfort women history and document pro-Japanese imperial sentiment by Koreans. Other blog titles from April 2016 include “Confronting Korea’s Censored Discourse on Comfort Women” by Professor Joseph Yi” and “Korean Wartime Sex Slaves is Fake News” by Professor Ikuhiko Hata.” Mun Okju’s autobiography has regularly been cited partially by those seeking to discredit comfort women’s claim of sexual slavery, with deniers pointing to the same passages on the KIH website. Another section of her autobiography which gets a great deal of attention is a section where she narrates her experience of being put on trial for killing a Japanese soldier. See this website as an example of the latter: http://harc.tokyo/en/?p=76, accessed February 13, 2021. [16] P.79, Sejung Sage Yim, Thomas Chung, and Min Pyong Gap. Japanese Military Sexual Slavery: The Transnational Redress Movement for the Victims. Munchen: De Gruyter, 2020. [17] Elizabeth Son, Embodied Reckonings: “Comfort Women,” Performance, and Transpacific Redress (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018) 14. [18] See Yoshiaki’s analysis of materials from the Japanese Defense Agency which constitutes the core of Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military during World War II, trans. S. O’Brien (NY: Columbia University Press, 2000). Also see United States Office of War Information, Psychological Warfare Team Attached to US Army Forces India Burma Theatre, “Japanese Prisoner of War Interrogation Report No. 49,” APO 689. This report was produced by the Office of War Information of the U.S. Army forces in CBI (China-Burma-India) Theatre and based on an interview conducted by a US soldier with 20 comfort women and two Japanese comfort station operators. The report confirms that the Japanese military operated the comfort system, including the discovery that “the conditions under which they transacted business were regulated by the Army.” [19]Laura Hyun Yi Kang, Traffic in Asian Women (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 8. [20] Christine Levy, trans. Anne Epstein, “The Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, Tokyo 2000: a feminist response to revisionism?” in Clio: Women, Gender, History Journal 39 (2014): 130. [21] Quoted in Kang, 13. Original quotation comes from Radhika Coomaraswamy, Report on the Mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery in Wartime. Report submitted to the 52nd session of the UN Commission on Human Rights (E/CN.4/1996/53/Add.1) (New York: UN Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, Economic and Social Council, 1996), 4.

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