OPINION

[Kim Myong-sik] Pure motivation desired for academic research

By Kim Myong-sik
  • Published : Feb 25, 2021 - 05:31
  • Updated : Feb 25, 2021 - 05:31

Academic freedom is universally recognized and constitutionally protected here like the precious freedom of expression and the freedom of movement. Then what about an academic paper on the World War II “comfort women” written by a Harvard University professor, who defined them as “willing prostitutes who carefully negotiated the terms of their contracts.”

Whenever there arises controversy over the past and present plights of those old Korean women who were sexually abused by the Japanese military, we feel sad thinking of the steady decrease of their numbers which has gone down to 15. When the news of Mark Ramseyer’s contemptuous article about the old women came around early this month, I hoped their helpers would rather not inform them of what was happening, to avoid deepening their grief.

The author’s title as “Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies” at Harvard drew particular attention to the paper for his apparent Japanese connection. It appeared in the online edition of the International Review of Law and Economics issued by the major academic publisher Elsevier. His biography revealed that the son of American missionary parents spent most of his childhood in Japan before he returned to the US for college.

He earned degrees at the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School and then lectured at various institutions in the US and Japan until he began teaching Japanese law at Harvard Law in 1998. In 2018, the Japanese government awarded Ramseyer the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, one of the oldest and highest national decorations, in recognition of his extensive contributions to the development of Japanese studies in the US and the promotion of understanding between the two countries.

I don’t know how many American scholars have been given such an honor which must mean the recipient’s commendable services to the Japanese national interest. He was not among early debaters on the WWII sex slavery since their experiences became an international human rights issue in the early 1990s. His first article on Korean comfort women appeared in Japan Forward, the English website of the conservative Sankei Shimbun, last month, in which he said media reports on comfort women were “pure fiction.”

Then came the academic paper, “Contracting for sex in the Pacific War,” in the international academic journal. Observing that the women in Japanese military brothels during the war were prostitutes voluntarily at work there, the article said in its abstract:

“The brothel owners and potential prostitutes faced a problem: the brothel needed credibly to commit to a contractual structure 1) generous enough to offset the dangers and reputational damage to the prostitute that the job entailed, 2) giving the prostitute an incentive to exert effort while working at a harsh job in an unobservable environment.

“Realizing that the brothel owners had an incentive to exaggerate their future earnings, the women demanded a large portion of their pay upfront. Realizing that they were headed to the war zone, they demanded a relatively short maximum term … the women and brothels concluded indenture contracts that coupled 1) a large advance with one- or two-year maximum terms with 2) ability for the women to leave early if they generated sufficient revenue.”

Well, these findings could be a monumental academic research work if the author had only produced sufficient evidence and appropriate sources. His fellow professor at Harvard, Carter J. Eckert, referred to Ramseyer’s article as “woefully deficient, empirically, historically, and morally,” in his statement sent to Harvard Crimson. A Seoul newspaper quoted Alexis Dudden, a professor of Korean and Japanese history at the University of Connecticut as saying, “What concerns me is that this is scholarly fraud … He has to be able to reproduce the evidence and there is no evidence.”

I cannot but feel sorry for Ramseyer, 67, who may by now convince himself that he has fulfilled his moral obligation to the Mitsubishi Corp., the donor of his salary at Harvard, and the Tokyo government which bestowed him the high-ranking national order, but has to face censure from his students “for injuring the institution’s reputation and standards for academic soundness.”

Ramseyer of course is supported by other doubters of the general belief in the international community that the comfort women were coerced into sex slavery for the Japanese military. Among them is Professor Park Yu-ha at Sejong University in Seoul who has been waging a court battle for more than seven years after she published books which depicted the diversity of experiences by those women in foreign war zones, including sex for money.

Park’s appeal is still pending with the Supreme Court after she was convicted of defamation with a fine of 10 million won ($9,000) by an appeals court in 2017. She essentially claimed in her books that there were different processes in recruiting women for the Japanese military brothels, which included trickery, coercion and voluntary employment. Park, 64, who majored Japanese literature at Japanese universities and earned a Ph.D. at Waseda University, had continued contacts with some comfort women for her research.

She was found not guilty in a district court but was then given the guilty verdict by the Seoul Appellate Court for using the term “managed prostitution,” which the court determined untrue. Park defended that she had referred to the conditions that some women faced individually during the war, and she asserted Korea need not continue to ask for a Japanese apology because the Japanese authorities had already made it legally and practically.

Last week, two foreign resident professors here made some valuable comments about the comfort women debate started by Prof. Ramseyer’s claim of prostitution. Joseph Yi teaching at Hanyang University and Joe Phillips at Yonsei University said attacking Ramseyer’s academic integrity because of his personal connections to Japan is unproductive and sounds xenophobic. Accusations that his article lacks Korean perspective assume a homogeneous, victim-centered, “Korean” perspective, which labels opponents as anti-Korean or pro-Japan collaborators, they argued.

So, we now see different shades of denialism regarding the Japanese military atrocity 76 years after the end of the war. If I am more inclined to recognize the academic integrity of Prof. Park than the Harvard professor, it is not because she is Korean but because I found her courageous enough to stand by her belief against possible ostracism from her own people. Ramseyer’s academic freedom should be respected too -- but with reservation until he proves the purity of his motivation.


Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.