By Jeannie Suk Gersen
The New Yorker
In January, I was outlining an article I hoped to write about a recent judgment by a South Korean court ordering Japan to pay compensation for atrocities committed during the Second World War against “comfort women,” women and girls who were transported to war-front “comfort stations” to provide sexual services to soldiers in the Imperial Japanese Army. The women were taken by force or entrapped by deception in many countries in and beyond Asia, but a large number came from Korea, which, at the time, was a colony of Japan. Estimates of the number of victims have ranged widely, from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. On January 23rd, Japan announced that the Korean court’s judgment, which ordered a compensation of ninety-one thousand and eight hundred dollars to be paid to each of the twelve Korean comfort women who were plaintiffs in the case (seven of whom had died since it was filed, in 2013), was “extremely regrettable and absolutely unacceptable.” Japan said that it was not subject to Korea’s jurisdiction and considered the matter to have been previously settled. I was ruminating on how legal decisions relating to Second World War crimes against humanity might help resolve or aggravate historical traumas that seem impossible to leave in the past—in part, because they have been mired in waves of conflict and denial about the truth of what happened.
On January 31st, I began to receive messages from students and alumni of Harvard Law School, where I am a professor, about a longtime colleague of mine, J. Mark Ramseyer, a corporate-law specialist in Japanese legal studies. I knew him slightly, as an unassuming man in his late sixties who had ridden bikes with my husband and once advised us on what Japanese knives to buy. A child and grandchild of American Mennonite missionaries in Asia, he grew up in Japan. I knew that his scholarly contributions had included debunking conventional wisdom about the postwar Japanese economy.
The students and alumni wrote to tell me that Ramseyer had become front-page news in South Korea, owing to two recent articles he had written that challenged the historical consensus on comfort women. Ramseyer had made his views clear in “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” an article published online, in December, by the peer-reviewed journal International Review of Law and Economics (and forthcoming in print, this March), and in an op-ed published on January 12th in Japan Forward, an English-language Web site of Sankei Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper known for its conservative-nationalist bent. Read together, their message was unmistakable: the comfort-women system was not one in which Korean women were forced, coerced, and deceived into sexual servitude and confined under threat of violence. Ramseyer called that account “pure fiction.” Instead, he claimed that Korean comfort women “chose prostitution” and entered “multi-year indenture” agreements with entrepreneurs to work at war-front “brothels” in China and Southeast Asia. Purporting to use game theory, he said that the economic structure of the contracts reflected that the sex work was voluntarily chosen. “Prostitutes have followed armies everywhere, and they followed the Japanese army in Asia,” he wrote.
Picture: April Jennifer Muller, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons