Boston’s Korean American community was already reeling, Linda Champion said.
Racist attacks tied to the pandemic were sparking fear within Asian American circles, and Champion, a Black and Korean attorney, said those in the Korean American community had been talking about how they could keep one another safe.
Then in late February, they got wind of a paper from a Harvard University law professor that had angered Korean American students on campus, Champion said. Written by J. Mark Ramseyer, a professor who specializes in Japanese law, the paper argues that Korean women enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II had chosen to become sex workers, or as the Japanese euphemistically referred to them, “comfort women.”
Ramseyer cited the existence of labor contracts that he said suggested that women and girls entered willingly into sex work and were paid well.
An estimated 200,000 women from across Asia, including China, the Philippines and Indonesia, were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military during World War II, though some experts believe this number could be much higher. Korean women constituted the largest share of “comfort women,” who were routinely sexually assaulted by members of the Japanese military at “comfort stations.”
Many were taken when they were teenagers. In Korea, girls as young as 10 and 12 were coerced or trafficked. According to University of Miami creative-writing professor M. Evelina Galang, who has spent the past 20 years researching and writing about Filipina comfort women, the few living survivors of these crimes would be among that group — elderly women who were just children when they were forced into sex slavery.
Experts emphasize that survivors have been clear and consistent about the circumstances of their trafficking, detailing coercion, enslavement and brutal rapes that could happen multiple times a day.
Ramseyer’s paper, titled “Contracting for sex in the Pacific War,” dismisses decades of testimony given by these women, Galang said. In an op-ed published in a right-wing Japanese paper earlier this year, Ramseyer went further, referring to the “comfort-women-sex-slave story” as “pure fiction.”
Ramseyer declined to comment for this report.
His arguments sent a “shock wave” through the Asian American community, Champion said. “It just really felt like another punch.”
On Saturday, Champion was among dozens of protesters who gathered outside Harvard to call for Ramseyer to retract the paper, apologize and resign from his position. The protesters, organized by the Korean American Society of Massachusetts, also called on Harvard to denounce the paper and get rid of Ramseyer’s current position, Mitsubishi professor of Japanese legal studies, which was made possible by a $1 million donation from Mitsubishi, a major Japanese corporation, in 1972.
The paper sparked international uproar, as the university news outlet the Harvard Crimson noted, with high-ranking government officials from the United States, South Korea, Japan and China weighing in. As Ramseyer’s Harvard Law School colleague Jeannie Suk Gersen laid out in a New Yorker article last month, his arguments have reignited tensions between South Korea and Japan, which have been at odds for decades over how to adequately acknowledge and compensate the survivors of wartime sex trafficking.
Earlier this year, a South Korean court ordered the Japanese government to pay reparations to 12 survivors; Japan rebuked the ruling.
“It adds more trauma, more salt in the wound,” Champion said. “And we’re unsure why the story is being told this way.”
There is a cost to telling this kind of history the wrong way, said Keith Howard, a professor emeritus at SOAS University of London who compiled and edited a book of testimonies from Korean sex-slavery victims.
“The need to understand it is partly the need to stop it happening again,” he said. “When we have such an amount of data and information from survivors of sexual slavery, we should learn from it.”
NBC News reports that more than 1,000 economists have signed a letter condemning Ramseyer’s article, which was going to be featured in the March issue of the International Review of Law and Economics. After a version of it was published online in December, historians pushed for it to be retracted, alarmed at what they said was a lack of evidence in the paper.
The journal has since put the issue on hold and confirmed to The Lily that the paper is under investigation.
Harvard sophomore Sun-Jung Yum said she was shocked that Ramseyer, a “highly regarded” professor at the university, could misconstrue such a painful and well-documented history. Yum, who is Korean American, said Ramseyer’s claims hit close to home for a lot of Asian students on campus.
The 19-year-old economics major serves as co-president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association, the largest cultural affinity organization on campus. On Feb. 12, the organization issued a statement denouncing Ramseyer’s paper “in the strongest terms.”
The paper is “an insult to the thousands of victims, as well as their memory,” the statement read. Students were particularly disappointed that Harvard has yet to say anything about the issue. (The university and its law school did not respond to a request for comment for this report.)
But Yum was also “pleasantly surprised” at how many other student organizations came together to speak out against the paper and offer counterprogramming. They convened panels and film screenings to educate the community about the history of sex-slavery victims.
“People are not going to just accept this and let it fly,” she said.
The student pushback helped draw the attention of other academics, along with members of Boston’s local Korean American community.
“Professor Ramseyer’s lack of understanding or refusal to acknowledge the historical context of the Japanese colonialism in Korea [is] appalling,” said University of California at Irvine professor Chungmoo Choi, an expert in East Asian studies. She noted that not only is there insufficient evidence that the contracts existed, but many of the women and girls who entered into the contracts he cites were illiterate and would have been incapable of understanding the documents they were signing.
Choi said the paper adds to the “concealing or erasing from history” of other ongoing crimes against women in areas with armed conflict, such as Rwanda, the Balkans, Myanmar and Nigeria.
Galang said Ramseyer’s claims are “very much propaganda, very much playing into the revisionist ideology of the right-wing government in Japan,” which has long denied that such trafficking existed.
Gil Lee, a 62-year-old retired Air Force veteran and IT worker who helped organize the weekend protest, said Korean American demonstrators shared those concerns.
“Our biggest fear is that Japan will use and refer to the Harvard professor’s article to justify their views, which they already started to, and others who are not familiar with the history [will] believe such a lie,” Lee said.
Champion, the Boston attorney, learned about the paper through her mother, who was born several years after the Japanese occupation. They attended the weekend protest together.
For as long as she can remember, Champion’s mother would tell her stories about the girls who were taken off the street during that time. The fear that gripped families profoundly shaped her mother’s upbringing, Champion said. Even after the war, Champion’s grandmother would not let her daughters play outside, scared that they might be taken. That anxiety remained with her mother, who is now in her 70s, throughout her life, she said.
Though the crimes against Korean women happened more than 75 years ago, Galang said their effects are ever-present. She has seen survivors relive the trauma when telling their stories. They have guided her hand over the scars they received during their abuse.
It is a visceral history, and one that, without proper recognition and atonement, will keep repeating, Galang said.
“This act of violence against women continues to happen over and over again because we have yet as a culture to acknowledge it and to confront it.”