Dudden: Law Professor Promotes Denialism on WW II Military Sexual Slavery

A still-contentious subject in Japan and Korea has become the focus of global attention

South Korean protesters stand beside a statue of a teenage girl symbolizing "comfort women," who were sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II, near the Japanese embassy in Seoul on March 1, 2021, the 102nd anniversary of the Independence Movement Day against the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial rule.

South Korean protesters stand beside a statue of a teenage girl symbolizing "comfort women," who were sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II, near the Japanese embassy in Seoul on March 1, 2021, the 102nd anniversary of the Independence Movement Day against the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial rule. (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

A Harvard law professor recently sparked an international controversy by describing the documented history of state-sponsored sexual slavery during World War II by the imperial Japanese military as “pure fiction” in an op-ed in the Japan Forward newspaper and in the academic journal International Review of Law and Economics.

The writings of J. Mark Ramseyer, Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, resulted in a wide scholarly response to his characterization of the so-called “comfort women” as prostitutes who could negotiate payment for sex with the military. There is extensive scholarly and legal research documenting the Japanese military’s wartime system of military sexual slavery, which has been declared a human rights violation and crime against humanity by the United Nations.

The response from scholars included a special supplement in the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus edited by Alexis Dudden, a professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Science and a renowned specialist in modern Japan, modern Korea and international history. In her lead essay in the special supplement, Dudden writes, “The challenge remains to expand education about this crime against humanity so that undetected denialist racialist claims never again pass for scholarly inquiry.”

She spoke with UConn Today about the controversy.

Japan’s wartime sexual slavery during World War II is a documented part of 20th century history. Why have questions arisen now?
I can’t answer that yet. I’ve known Ramseyer for 30 years. I’ve seen him regularly in the last two decades at Harvard. He sent his essay to five of us in a group email in the middle of December. I was stunned by the opening paragraph. I thought that I had misread it because it was just incorrect for those of us who have done work on this. We’re talking about hundreds of scholars of Japan around the world. What we’ve learned is that in the last two years Ramseyer has attempted to publish at least seven essays on this deeply contentious, debated hot topic.

What are the specific issues with his article?
He’s cited data that doesn’t exist. It might be an interesting academic exercise if you’re talking about a Toyota motor part, but you can’t do this with something that has been defined by the United Nations as a crime against humanity. What we have now discovered by analyzing these different articles is that he’s picked up dog whistles from a particular political party or a political faction in Japan to weaponize history for political ends. I’ve come to look at this legally. Fraud is a very difficult thing to prove because you have to prove intentionality. You can say whatever you want. You can print whatever you want, but to do it in the guise of scholarly credibility and dress up fake news as academic fact is not just disingenuous, it’s scholarly fraud. It’s now really quite a multinational, multivalent effort; someone who is doing something clearly intentional picking low ranking journals assuming that the Harvard brand name will carry it through. The Cambridge University Press editor was absolutely clear on that; he said [his scholarly editors] didn’t know that this history was in dispute but assumed that the Harvard professor knew more than they did. That’s where there’s been an intention to subvert the scholarly review process, which goes beyond the bounds of academic freedom. The Harvard administration was a little quick out of the gate with their defense of academic freedom and are now dealing with the consequences of being shown this preponderance of evidence that the evidence that Ramseyer says exists doesn’t exist.

The history of the comfort women issue dates back well into the Imperial Japanese era, through the end of the Second World War to as recently as earlier this year, when a South Korean court ordered the government of Japan to pay compensation to 12 Korean women forced into sexual slavery during the war. There are those who are supporting Ramseyer’s writing.
It is the core of denialist views in Japan, but also, as we’re seeing around the world, there is a complicit denialism in some of his supporters, and they are not only in Japan, they are also in South Korea, and they are also in the United States and Europe. They are emerging, but what’s revealing is then they retract their statements. I don’t tweet, but people are sending screenshots on a daily basis of the sort of gladiatorial Twitter storms going on that are deeply alarming. It was revealed recently that a Japanese parliamentarian has started to blog to his rather Trumpian supporters that they should write in praise of Ramseyer or write to him directly and thank him. Then in a subsequent blog post, he was thrilled to report that Ramseyer was responding to these people. We’re not talking about what we could traditionally call a scholarly debate, or even contemporarily a scholarly debate, because Ramseyer himself has said that anybody who has a difference of opinion is a liar. On top of that, when asked by the press for comments, he said the facts speak for themselves.

What is the benefit of responding to this type of activity and challenging it?
Not only has there been an enormous international awareness now among people who would never even heard of the comfort women history in the first place, but we’ve also now built a really helpful scholarly digital archive. We’re in the process of doing even more of that; we’re going to be able to record and archive the voices of these still living survivors of sexual slavery in perpetuity through the Institute for Digital Archaeology. Does that prevent the denialists from saying this didn’t happen? No, but that’s what circles this back out of a Korea versus Japan issue, an us versus them issue. This is Japanese society at its dividing point. That’s where this moment resonates deeply with what we see in the United States, what we see in Germany, and what we see around the world of how to reckon with the historical wrongs of any open society.

Listen to Prof. Dudden discuss this topic here: