This picture taken on February 1, 2017, shows statues symbolizing so-called comfort women in a park in Shanghai. Photo: AFP / Johannes Eisele

In Lu Chuan’s 2009 film about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, City of Life and Death, a harrowing panorama unfolds in which we view human cruelty and sympathy, victors and vanquished.

Two characters in this film came to mind amid the ongoing academic controversy over Harvard University scholar Mark Ramseyer’s paper “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War.” The paper made contentious claims about wartime comfort women’s employment conditions, which sparked an explosive brouhaha and a global retraction campaign.

The two characters in question are prostitutes. One is Japanese, the other Chinese.

The Japanese prostitute, Yuriko, works in a frontline comfort station and becomes the sympathetic love interest of Kadokawa, a naive everyman soldier. Kadokawa brings her food and sake, fantasizes that she is his wife, and fails to notice her declining health. He learns later she has died from illness.

We encounter the former prostitute Xiao Jiang as a refugee in Nanjing; she self-sacrificingly “volunteers” – in horrifying circumstances – for what turns out to be a rape camp. When Kadokawa gets his turn with her he gives her a rice ball instead, and sits beside her quietly – but leaves when a friend barges in to rape her. Afterward he watches, guilt-stricken, as her corpse is carted away.

Jiang’s and Yuriko’s fates are both plausible from what we know of the Nanjing Massacre and the “comfort women” system used by Japanese Imperial forces during the Pacific War.

Lu’s work is historical fiction. In historical study, the unconstrained search for the full truth of such women’s experiences  requires due respect for academic freedom and academic integrity. Yet the academic freedoms needed to protect participants researching comfort-women issues are not always being upheld.

Before addressing academic freedoms, I should first make my views clear on the academic-integrity problems besetting Ramseyer’s recent study.

Comfort women: free laborers?

This paper applies what appears to be an “ideal type” model of “credible commitments” contracts. The model is supposed to explain the bargaining conditions conducive to consensual, relatively highly paid indentured prostitution contracts for the usually impoverished Japanese, and later Korean, females working in the military comfort-women stations during the 1930s and ’40s.

Ideal types have both uses and limits as explanatory tools. Imagine a paper exploring the limits of Ramseyer’s contract model. It assesses one notion his analysis presupposes, of a “compensating differential” – the idea that employers typically face market-driven inducements to pay higher wages to motivate employees to work in dangerous, unhealthy conditions.

Such conditions were rife especially for Korean women trafficked to comfort stations close to battlefronts, with few exit options, tenuous law enforcement, disease risks, combat hazards, and the stress of coping with sometimes drunk, violent and delinquent soldier-clients.

Assuming an ideal labor-market exchange, we would expect prospective recruits to know such conditions, and demand high upfront payments, generous wages, health-care benefits etc. Recruitment brokers, facing the alternative of a recruitment crisis, would comply.

But given the evidence we have of wartime comfort stations, how plausible is this expectation?

That is not the paper Ramseyer wrote. After reading critics’ analyses of the paper he did write, I agree there are concerns about its academic integrity. For rather than considering evidence that tests his model, he appears to have cherry-picked or ”cooked” some evidence and ignored countervailing evidence to confirm its idealized assumptions.

For instance, many women and girls were sold by parents into debt bondage, raising obvious consent issues. There is also evidence that, with the tacit cooperation of authorities, Japanese and Korean brokers increasingly used unlawful and deceptive recruitment methods to resolve recruitment shortfalls.

More violently coercive methods were used on local women in occupied territories in China and elsewhere.

If Ramseyer cannot satisfactorily defend his paper against charges of evidence falsification or fabrication I agree it should be retracted, though as the controversy over his paper winds down, this outcome seems unlikely.

Next are the academic-freedom concerns that also arise in this retraction campaign. These concerns relate to scholars downstream from Ramseyer in employment security and status, sometimes in less liberal jurisdictions than his.

Histories and nationalisms

In East Asia, the comfort-women issue is among the most potent of war memory issues. It has become material for competing nationalisms in East Asian states and for “weaponized diplomacy” between and beyond them.

The global controversy over Ramseyer’s paper has aroused strong factional, censorial passions. These passions can be mitigated, exacerbated or manipulated by state authorities, depending on the political system and civil society they arise within.

In Japan a revisionist, nationalist backlash developed against the growth of the comfort women justice movement during the 1990s. Since around 2002, and especially during the conservative prime minister Shinzo Abe’s terms, school history textbook publishers have diluted or removed references to contentious war memory issues, including comfort women.

However – and this is a point sometimes overlooked overseas –  pushback within Japanese civil society, and from international public opinion, has mostly contained overt censorial efforts. Academic debate over the comfort-women issue remains vigorous.

Early in March, Japanese historians and civic groups strongly denounced Ramseyer’s paper, while rightists raised their usual racket and the Japanese government largely remained quiet.

In South Korea, the comfort-women debate has especial significance. A post-democratization civil-society movement in the 1990s first brought the comfort women to national and international notice as a human-rights and feminist issue.

But this movement has also been co-opted for a populist, anti-Japanese nationalism, which has made the comfort women emblematic of national victimization under colonial rule. This populist nationalism grew out of a long culture war between the South Korean left and right over Korea’s colonial and post-colonial legacies.

It has also incorporated patriarchal influences that make the comfort women symbols of a national masculine humiliation by Japan.

These influences are often overlooked in Anglosphere/Western reactions to the comfort-women movement. In those geographies, the movement’s transnational feminist, human-rights themes have most powerfully resonated.

Defending the narrative

Historians and feminist scholars like Sarah Soh and Ueno Chizuko have raised uncomfortable questions about how elderly, vulnerable former comfort women have altered their testimonies to fit the “model victimhood” expectations of their supporting non-governmental organizations and other audiences.

These questions are not only unwelcome in South Korea, criminal defamation law has been deployed to enforce the nationalist orthodoxy about the comfort women. South Korean scholar Park Yu-ha has endured both civil and criminal defamation proceedings for research questioning the reductive, model victim assumptions.

Park is not alone. More recently another scholar, Joseph Yi, an untenured political scientist at Hanyang University in Seoul, has come under fire.

In February, Yi co-wrote an article with Yonsei University scholar Joe Phillips calling for debate, not censure of Ramseyer’s article. His article also explained the repressive “groupthink” around the comfort-women issue that prevails in South Korea’s otherwise pluralistic civil society.

This article attracted national press coverage in South Korea, insults about its “Jap money professor” authors, denunciations from a ruling-party legislator and renewed demands for laws prohibiting “distortion of history.” And a student campaign at Hanyang University got under way seeking to have Yi sacked.

At time of writing – and to the credit of his university – Yi maintains his position. Even so, the pressures piled upon academics working on comfort women are problematic.

Scholars like Park and Yi do valuable work in South Korea by examining the capture of the comfort-women issue by factional interests. Protecting their academic freedoms enables fairer assessments of contentious arguments across the spectrum of the comfort-women debate – including Ramseyer’s.

Academic freedom also assists historians’ aspirations to impartiality as they seek to comprehend the “degrees of servitude” and abuse experienced by East and Southeast Asian women under Japan’s wartime “comfort women” system.  

Shaun O'Dwyer

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University.