Denial of Violence, and the Violence of Denial: Controlling the “Comfort Women” Narrative
Campus News, Commentary, Current Events

Denial of Violence, and the Violence of Denial: Controlling the “Comfort Women” Narrative

HLS professor’s recent article on “comfort women” is amidst controversy, for arguing that the girls and women forced into sexual slavery during Japanese wartime were contracted prostitutes. Five HBS students share their thoughts on the importance of acknowledging history and its necessity for progress in women’s and human rights.

By Christa Choy, Contributor, Lesley Kim, Contributor, Seoyoung Kim, Contributor, Berakah Lee, Contributor & Esther Park, Contributor

Almost 400 members of the broader Harvard community joined Harvard APALSA (Asian Pacific American Law Students Association) on February 16, for a roundtable discussion titled “Debunking Denialism on the ‘Comfort Women’ Issue Through the Grassroots Movement in the U.S.,” featuring speakers who have been directly involved in efforts to seek justice for survivors of sexual slavery (often referred to as “comfort women”) during World War II. Most recently, the panelists had played an instrumental role in the passage of H.Res.121 (2007), a resolution “that [expressed] the sense of the U.S. House of Representatives that the Government of Japan should formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces’ coercion of young women into sexual slavery.” The panel also included activist Yong Soo Lee, one of fifteen “comfort women” still living today. Lee is the voice of an estimated 200,000 young women who were tricked, coerced or downright abducted into serving at “comfort stations” during World War II—some were as young as 14 years old when they were subjected to sexual slavery.

Controversies surrounding “comfort women” have long been prevalent. In fact, the term “comfort women” itself has been heavily debated, as it is a direct translation of a Japanese euphemism for prostitutes. Using a Japanese euphemism calls into question the very validity of using a term designated by the aggressors to describe their victims of sexual slavery; the word “prostitute” inherently implies the women’s willingness to participate, and thus falsely shifts the responsibility of the horrors of the Japanese Imperial Army’s war crimes onto the victims themselves. Most recently, the topic has garnered refreshed public attention due to the publication of an article titled “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” written by Professor J. Mark Ramseyer, a Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. We write today not to reiterate previous debates around the term “comfort women,” but rather to raise attention specifically Ramseyer’s article: the underlying logical fallacy that the piece is built upon, as well as the potential for its arguments to subjugate the victims of sexual abuse to yet another traumatic experience, an offense referred to as “secondary victimization.”

Ramseyer’s article is established upon the ideas that the Japanese government did not enforce sex work on women, but that the victims had in fact entered into voluntary contracted employment, and thus that they were empowered to “leave early” should they desire so. This framework, falsely founded upon the contractual nature of voluntary employment, is Ramseyer’s justification in calling “comfort women” “prostitutes,” though historical facts diverge from his article in many pronounced ways. Ramseyer then continues to draw parallels between said contractual dynamics of “comfort stations” to that of elementary game theory. This comparison, however, fails to consider the fundamental nature of colonization—a context in which game theory is simply irrelevant due to the power imbalance between the countries. The autonomy of both Korea as a nation as well as its people were stripped altogether; as such, it is unsound reasoning to apply game theory to reframe the existence of “comfort women.” From the principal nature of slavery and forced sex to the specifics of the procurement process, which typically relied on threats or false promises, it is evident that the “comfort stations” deprived women of their free will and therefore are irrelevant as subjects to Ramseyer’s argumentation throughout his article.

Not only does the very foundation of the article fail to reflect the historical context and power dynamics of war, but also the publication of such work introduces the potential to inflict additional abuse to the victims of violent sexual abuse. These women were often lured with prospects of factory work or a life overseas, though they then found themselves confined to crowded houses, where strips of fabric divided makeshift “rooms.” There, each woman was forced into sexual and physical submission, sometimes serving as many as 60 soldiers in a single day. The infringement of the basic human rights of these “comfort women” was massive in its violence and brutality but also in its sheer scale. Though a reported ~80% of “comfort women” were trafficked from Korea, the stations spanned across various Japanese-occupied territories such as China, Thailand, and Indonesia—all of them established with the sole purpose of providing sexual servitude for the Imperial Japanese Army. Survivors like Yong Soo Lee have endured trauma and social exile following their experience, and have had to regurgitate some of their most painful memories in the name of advancing justice and awareness. Trivializing their trauma by discussing the “game theory” of contractual sex work, which itself is fundamentally illogical, is undeniably yet another form of abuse on the victims. Such blunt disregard of the victim can be characterized as a “secondary victimization,” a term that refers to behaviors and attitudes that dismiss the needs of victims, and by doing so, further violate and traumatize them. 

Allowing the secondary offense against “comfort women” in this way also leads to larger implications around indirectly reinforcing existing societal issues. We acknowledge the difficulties in unpacking the issue at hand in its entirety, as the historical disputes we engage in today are merely the tip of the iceberg—in fact, it is impossible to comprehensively address “comfort women” without touching upon the countless nuances more deeply rooted in issues such as gender stereotypes, sexist prejudice, as well as the systemic violation of human rights throughout time. Without opening this Pandora’s Box, however, it can be said that the publication of articles like Ramseyer’s work reinforces these institutional inequalities by perpetuating a dangerous and irresponsible framework of thought, resemblant to modern-day gaslighting, that shifts the responsibility of war crimes onto the victims by mislabeling their abuse to be voluntary.

Ramseyer’s denialism, disguised as academic freedom, is legitimized by his authority as a professor at Harvard Law School. It is the dangers of privileged platforms such as that of Harvard that allow articles like “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” scattered with false and questionable details, to be published to the public. We urge the HBS community to question the moral obligation we hold as we grow to fill the shoes of “leaders who will make a difference in the world”—how will we exercise the privileges of our platform, what purpose will we advocate for, and whose voices will we empower? 

The writers have reached out to Professor Ramseyer, who provided no commentary.

Seoyoung Kim (MBA ’22), Berakah Lee (MBA ’22), Lesley Kim (MBA ’21), Esther Park (MBA ’22), and Christa Choy (MBA ’22) are students from various personal, educational, and professional backgrounds. Despite their diverse experiences prior to HBS, they share a common passion for Korean history and human rights—a passion that brought them together to collaborate in penning this article.

March 2, 2021
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