SEOUL, South Korea — The students and the survivor were divided by two generations and 7,000 miles, but they met on Zoom to discuss a common goal: turning a Harvard professor’s widely disputed claims about sexual slavery during World War II into a teachable moment.
A recent academic journal article by the professor — in which he described as “prostitutes” the Korean and other women forced to serve Japan’s troops — prompted an outcry in South Korea and among scholars in the United States.
It also offered a chance, on the Zoom call last week, for the aging survivor of the Japanese Imperial Army’s brothels to tell her story to a group of Harvard students, including her case for why Japan should issue a full apology and face international prosecution.
“The recent remarks by the professor at Harvard are something that you should all ignore,” Lee Yong-soo — a 92-year-old in South Korea and one of just a handful of so-called comfort women still living — told the students.
But the remarks were a “blessing in disguise” because they created a huge controversy, added Lee, who was kidnapped by Japanese soldiers during World War II and raped repeatedly. “So this is kind of a wake-up call.”
The dispute over the academic paper has echoes of the early 1990s, a time when the world was first beginning to hear the voices of survivors of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery in Asia — traumas that the region’s conservative patriarchal cultures had long downplayed.
Now, survivors’ testimony drives much of the academic narrative on the topic. Yet many scholars say that conservative forces are once again trying to marginalize the survivors.
“This is so startling, 30 years later, to be dragged back, because in the meantime survivors from a wide range of countries found a voice,” said Alexis Dudden, a historian of Japan and Korea at the University of Connecticut who has interviewed the women.
The uproar began after an academic journal’s website published an article in December in which J. Mark Ramseyer, a Harvard Law School professor, argued that the women were “prostitutes” who had willingly entered into indenture contracts.
An international chorus of historians called for the article to be retracted, saying that his arguments ignored extensive historical evidence and sounded more like a page from Japan’s far-right playbook. A group of more than 1,900 economists wrote this week that the article used game theory, law and economics as “cover to legitimize horrific atrocities.”
The Korean International Student Association at Harvard has also demanded an apology from Ramseyer, expressing concern that the university’s name “could lend credibility to the argument” that Japan’s wartime government was not responsible for the trafficking and enslavement of women. A petition with similar language has been signed by hundreds of Harvard students.
Several scholars noted that Ramseyer’s argument was flawed because he did not produce any signed contracts with Korean women as evidence — and that focusing on contracts in the first place was misleading because the women, many of whom were teenagers, did not have free agency.
Ramseyer’s paper also ignored a 1996 United Nations report that concluded that comfort women, who came from a number of countries, mostly in Asia, were sex slaves, said Yang Kee-ho, a professor of Japanese studies at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul.
“There are many details in the paper which contradict facts and distort truth,” he added.
The paper, “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” argues that the Japanese army created standards for licensing so-called comfort stations around Asia during World War II as a way of preventing the spread of venereal disease.
Ramseyer, an expert on Japanese law, wrote that “prostitutes” who worked in the brothels signed contracts that were similar to those used in Tokyo brothels, but with shorter terms and higher pay to reflect the danger of working in war zones.
Ramseyer declined an interview request. He has previously argued that relying on survivors’ testimony is problematic because some of the women have changed their accounts over the years. “Claims about enslaved Korean comfort women are historically untrue,” he wrote in Japan Forward, an English-language website affiliated with a right-wing Japanese newspaper, last month.
The International Review of Law and Economics, which published Ramseyer’s recent paper online, posted an “expression of concern” this month saying that it was investigating the paper’s historical evidence. But the journal’s editorial team said through a spokesman that the article would still be published in the March edition and was “considered final.”
Another publication, the European Journal of Law and Economics, said this week that it was investigating concerns that had been raised about a paper by Ramseyer that it published last week about the experiences of Korean migrants in Japan.
Ramseyer’s supporters include a group of six Japan-based academics who told the editors of the International Review of Law and Economics in a letter that the article that caused the recent outcry was “well within the academic and diplomatic mainstream” and supported by work from scholars in Japan, South Korea and the United States. They did not name any specific scholars.
One academic who signed the letter, Kanji Katsuoka, said in an interview that he had only read the abstract of the “Contracting for Sex” article, but felt that the term “prostitute” was appropriate because the women had been paid for their services.
“Harvard University is the top school in the United States,” added Katsuoka, a lecturer at Meisei University and the secretary-general of a right-wing research organization. “If they lose freedom of speech, I have to judge that no freedom of speech exists in the United States.”
Three decades ago, when survivors like Lee began speaking publicly about their sexual slavery for Japan’s troops, they were embraced by a nascent feminist movement in East Asia that prioritized the right of women to claim their own history.
Even though the testimonials prompted an official apology from Japan in 1993, the issue remains deeply contentious.
The governments of Japan and South Korea agreed to resolve it in 2015, when Japan expressed responsibility, apologized anew to the women and promised to set up an $8.3 million fund to help provide old-age care. Some of the survivors accepted a portion of the funds, but Lee and a few others rejected the overture, saying it failed to provide official reparations or specify Japan’s legal responsibility.
More recently, people on Japan’s political right, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have insisted that the Korean women were not sex slaves because there is no proof that they were physically forced into the brothels.
Survivors have long challenged that claim. Lee has said that Japanese soldiers dragged her from her home when she was a teenager, covering her mouth so she could not call to her mother.
Ji Soo Janet Park, a Harvard law student who helped organize the recent Zoom event with Lee, said it was designed to combat “denialists and revisionists” who sought to erase the accounts of wartime sexual slavery.
“We’re the next generation that’s responsible for making sure that this remains a part of history,” said Park, 27, whose undergraduate thesis explored how memorials to former sex slaves shape Korean American identity.
In an interview this week, Lee, the survivor, said that she was dismayed to see people in Japan echo Ramseyer’s “absurd” remarks. She said that she had not given up her campaign to have the issue prosecuted at the International Court of Justice.
“As my last work, I would like to clarify the matter at the ICJ,” she said, referring to the court. “When I die and meet the victims who have already passed away, I can tell them that I resolved this issue.”