Japan is pressuring U.S. scholars to rewrite history

A journal finally published an article by a professor accused of foreign influence because of his revisionist take on forced prostitution in Imperial Japan.

A strategic communication campaign from Japan has ‘bombarded’ American scholars with revisionist materials and pressured textbook companies to edit their accounts of Japanese history.

The International Review of Law and Economics (IRLE) finally published a controversial article by J. Mark Ramseyer after his research received accusations of foreign influence, revisionist history, and questionable sources. 

Ramseyer is the Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies at Harvard University and a recipient of Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun, according to his faculty biography. His article, “Contracting for sex in the Pacific War,” argued that the “comfort women” of Korea entered prostitution largely by choice rather than coercion from Imperial Japan. 

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IRLE’s decision to move forward with publication subjected Ramseyer to scrutiny over his possible role in Japan’s “History Wars,” a communication campaign that pressures U.S. scholars to change their narratives about Japanese history. 

Controversy over the article centers on Ramseyer’s suggestion that women forced into prostitution received favorable conditions based on their contracts with the brothels used by the Japanese military. 

“The brothel owners and potential prostitutes faced a problem: the brothel needed credibly to commit to a contractual structure (i) generous enough to offset the dangers and reputational damage to the prostitute that the job entailed, while (ii) giving the prostitute an incentive to exert effort while working at a harsh job,” the article’s abstract reads. 

“To satisfy these superficially contradictory demands, the women and brothels concluded indenture contracts that coupled (i) a large advance with one- or two-year maximum terms, with (ii) an ability for the women to leave early if they generated sufficient revenue.”

Other scholars, however, criticized Ramseyer for overlooking evidence that the brothel owners operated under the Japanese government’s directive, according to The Harvard Crimson. Ramseyer also did not cite any Korean sources. 

Another article in The Harvard Crimson describes an event held during the nearly two-and-a-half-year controversy. In 2021, the Harvard Asian Pacific American Law Students Association hosted a webinar featuring a survivor of forced prostitution under Imperial Japan.  

“My wish is to go to [the International Court of Justice (ICJ)] and get a clear decision and judgment from ICJ so that the Japanese government and the people can learn what really happened,” the survivor said. 

The Japanese and Korean governments “agreed to ‘irreversibly’ end the dispute in a 2015 deal,” NBC reported. Japan enslaved an estimated 200,000 “comfort women” according to one historical narrative, an atrocity that South Korea chose to memorialize–to Japan’s chagrin–in front of its embassy and dozens of other locations. 

Despite the 2015 deal, a communications campaign from the Japanese government shows that the dispute over “comfort women” is far from settled. A journal article describes Japan’s opposition to memorials and to “resolutions, museum exhibits, and textbook descriptions on the ‘comfort women’ issue in the U.S.”

The “strategic communication” campaign comes from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), which says it is “communicating to the Governments of assigned countries, their citizens, and the media on Japan’s position and viewpoints on a range of subjects including the recognition of history and the maintenance of territorial integrity,” according to the journal article. 

“Particularly since around 2015, Japan studies scholars in the U.S. and Australia, and foreign correspondents covering Japan, have been bombarded with revisionist emails, books, pamphlets, and documents in English sent from Japan,” the author, cultural anthropologist Tomomi Yamaguchi, wrote. 

In the early days of the campaign, CNN reported, the American Historical Association (AHA) published a letter in its newsmagazine revealing attempts by the Japanese government to “intimidate journalists and scholars” into rewriting the history of “comfort women.” AHA scholars referenced a similar request that Japanese diplomats made during a 2014 meeting with McGraw-Hill, which refused to eliminate two paragraphs on “comfort women” from one of its textbooks. 

Yamaguchi suggested that Ramseyer is a more recent example of Japanese influence on scholarship, quoting MOFA’s goal of “expanding the circle of people with a great ability toward or knowledge of Japan.” She pointed to a shortened version of Ramseyer’s article in Japan Forward, the English-language newspaper of the media company that launched its revisionist history series, “The History Wars,” in 2015. 

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The Harvard Asian Pacific American Law Students Association also suggested that Ramseyer is a product of Japan’s History Wars. The Association referred Campus Reform to its 2021 letter sent to President Biden shortly before he met with Japan’s former Prime Minister

“We have painfully observed through Harvard Law Professor J. Mark Ramseyer’s article…that historical denialism and revisionism are still very much in existence not only in Japan, but also here in the U.S. and abroad,” the Association wrote. 

“State-funded projects focused on denying the coercion of ‘Comfort Women’ or demanding the removal of memorials in the City of Glendale and elsewhere in the U.S. or in the Philippines must also stop.”

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment, and this article will be updated accordingly. 

Editor’s Note: Ramseyer provided Campus Reform with a statement. The statement in part reads: