In Japan, many right wing revisionist groups continue to glorify its wartime legacy, seeking to validate their versions of the past however they can. The issue of sexual slavery, or “comfort women,” and forced labor during Japan’s colonization of East Asia remains contested and unresolved. In early 2021, right wing revisionists found a coveted ally in J. Mark Ramseyer, the Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies at Harvard University. Ramseyer has come under fire for claiming in a recent essay that comfort women, young girls and women trafficked by the Japanese military during World War II, were not sex slaves but instead willing prostitutes.
Ramseyer’s article was published online in the International Review of Law and Economics (IRLE), a peer-reviewed academic journal in December last year. His argument runs counter to decades of historical scholarship and survivor testimonies, asserting that women (mainly but not exclusively Korean women) enslaved for sex by the Japanese military were all voluntary actors who entered into prostitution through a system of contracts that they could freely leave after their term. The following month Ramseyer added that the narrative of comfort women being sex slaves was “pure fiction” in an op-ed in JAPAN Forward, the English-language outlet of the far-right Sankei Shimbun. The peer-review at IRLE process was void of experts in Japanese history, and academics from diverse specializations expressed shock that Ramseyer’s was approved for publication. Currently, IRLE has yet to retract the essay.
Why was this allowed to happen? In Ramseyer’s case, scholars outside the history field have been critical of his approaches for years, though it is only recently that his radicalization has become more visible. He has even gone so far as to openly admit that applying Korean, Burakumin, and Okinawan issues to demonstrate his logic allows him to make offensive remarks about minorities while avoiding the backlash he would rightly receive if similar statements were made about American minority issues. Ultimately, the ecosystem that shelters these views is a closed circuit, with right-wing social media promoting revisionist history while threatening researchers.
The ecosystem that shelters these views is a closed circuit, with right-wing social media promoting revisionist history while threatening researchers
Ramseyer’s controversial eight-page essay ignited fierce public backlash and reactions from a broad range of mainstream news outlets, experts, academics, and scholarly organizations. The misrepresentation of history attracted a swell of media coverage from CNN, The New York Times, Vice and Jezebel. Additionally, Two U.S. congresspeople tweeted their outrage along with the Chinese government who condemned the denial of wartime atrocities.
The academic community in Asian Studies has rallied together calling for accountability and the rejection of historical denialism. Almost immediately after the article was published, a group of researchers in Asian Studies began reviewing every citation in Ramseyer’s essay. One of the first scholarly refutations, published on February 18, was a damning 36-page fact-checking study titled “‘Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War’: The Case for Retraction on Grounds of Academic Misconduct.” It exposed the paper’s problematic methods; in particular, the lack of evidence of signed contracts from women at “comfort stations” (the core of his argument being that these women were contracted workers). It is clear from their study that Ramseyer overtly excluded elements of survivor testimonies that directly contradicted his claims and at times provided incorrect, incomplete, or misleading citations. Meanwhile, concerned about the precedent such a work sets, prominent scholars and organizations have also created study aids to put the issue in perspective in the classroom.
Ramseyer overtly excluded elements of survivor testimonies that directly contradicted his claims and at times provided incorrect, incomplete, or misleading citations
Twitter has become a fierce battle ground over the wartime history of comfort women. In response to pushback from the academic community, Ramseyer’s right wing defenders, known as netto uyoku or neto uyo in Japan, came out in force online. When the “Case for Retraction” went public, neto uyo began inserting links to far-right blogs and news sites on tweets and the replies to academics who criticized Ramseyer or anyone who expressed support for them. Right wing antagonizers state that those who disagreed with Ramseyer’s article needed to study the “correct materials” to have the full story. They claim that foreign scholars were attacking the Japanese people while ignoring crimes committed by their own countries as a way to deflect from the issues at hand.
Other right wing defenders questioned the ethnicity of Japanese scholars and accused academics of being funded by South Korea or communists. Some were subjected to hate mail and death threats, but the worst of the harassment was reserved for female and Japanese scholars. Many academics with a public presence have quickly learned the most efficient methods to mass-block on Twitter. On the other hand, the neto uyo declare that anyone who blocked them is no scholar, as they are only “running away” instead of engaging in discussion.
Right wing antagonizers stated that those who disagreed with Ramseyer’s article needed to study the “correct materials” to have the full story
The neto uyo enlisted a campaign of contacting employers and institutions funding academics in Asian Studies to complain of what they interpret as hate speech and racism. As a historian of premodern Japan who supports the work of my colleagues and an active presence on Twitter, I found myself a target of online harassment from these right-wing circles. One ringleader used a Japan Foundation grant I received in 2015 to claim that Japanese taxes are being used to spread hate of Japan all over the world.
These are not hollow threats. Recently, a young Japan scholar was denied a prestigious fellowship due to concerns that her research proposal would draw the anger of the Sankei Shimbun and the program would become a target of right-wingers. Some of the tweets promoted by the neto uyo leaders even claimed that Jews were secretly running the Japan Foundation.
The toxic feedback loop of right wing social media was on full display when Ramseyer defended himself as part of a right wing video conference on Comfort Women hosted in Tokyo during late April 2021. Not only did he refer to his critics as Stalinists, but Ramseyer also alleged that the humanities in the United States harbors anti-Japanese bias. His comments played directly to the right wing’s rejection of scholarship that does not affirm their views and served to fill a crucial gap that the historical denialist community needs to legitimize themselves within and outside of Japan. What’s more, some of Ramseyer’s so-called sources are themselves dubious right wing blogs, the same blogs that revere his word as gospel and accept no alternatives. Ultimately, each feeds off the other, allowing the pernicious cycle of self-validation to continue.
Privilege, institutions, and networks of enablers allow certain groups of people, most often senior, white men at elite institutions, to abuse their positions. These instances embody the “Ivory Tower” at its worst, the kind of academia that scholars have been struggling to reform and decolonize. Where the academy has failed and social media has emboldened far right communities, scholars have seen a way forward, energized to collaborate, educate, and be public advocates for ethical scholarship. Although in many ways social media has been a platform where history is corrupted, twisted, and misrepresented to odious ends, it has also generated new possibilities for solidarity among those who would step up to challenge the misuse of the past and refuse to let untruths fester unchecked.
Paula R. Curtis is a historian of medieval Japan. She researches artisanal organizations, social status, forgery, and elite institutions from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. Her work has been supported by the Japan Foundation and the Fulbright Japan Program.