SEOUL, South Korea – The students and survivor were divided by two generations and 7,000 miles, but they met on Zoom to discuss a common goal: to transform a Harvard professor’s widely controversial claims about slavery sex during WWII at a time of learning.

A recent article by the professor in an academic journal – in which he called Korean women and others forced to serve Japanese troops “prostitutes” – sparked an uproar in South Korea and among academics in the United States.

It also offered a chance, during the Zoom call last week, for the aging survivor of Imperial Japanese Army brothels to tell her story to a group of Harvard students, including her arguments as to why the Japan should issue a full apology and face international prosecution.

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“The Harvard professor’s recent remarks are something you should all ignore,” Lee Yong-soo, 92, South Korea and one of the few so-called comforting women, told students. .

But the remarks were a “blessing in disguise” because they created a huge controversy, added Lee, who was kidnapped by Japanese soldiers during World War II and raped several times. “So it’s kind of a wake-up call.”

The dispute over the academic article has echoes of the early 1990s, a time when the world began to hear the voices of survivors of Japan’s sexual slavery during the war in Asia – traumas that conservative patriarchal cultures in the region had long been minimized.

Now, the testimony of the survivors guides much of the academic narrative on the subject. Yet many researchers claim that conservative forces are once again trying to marginalize the survivors.

“It’s so surprising, 30 years later, to be dragged back, because in the meantime survivors from a wide range of countries have found a voice,” Alexis Dudden, historian of Japan and Korea at the University of Connecticut who interviewed the women.

The uproar began after an academic journal website ran an article in December in which Harvard Law School professor J. Mark Ramseyer argued that the women were “prostitutes” who had voluntarily entered into deals. contracts under contract.

An international chorus of historians called for the article to be removed, saying its arguments ignored a lot of historical evidence and looked more like a page from Japan’s far-right playbook. A group of more than 1,900 economists wrote this week that the article used game theory, law and economics as “a cover to legitimize horrific atrocities.”

The Association of Korean International Students at Harvard also asked for an apology from Ramseyer, expressing concern that the university’s name “may lend credibility to the argument” that the Japanese government in wartime was not responsible for the trafficking and slavery of women. A petition in similar language has been signed by hundreds of Harvard students.

Several academics noted that Ramseyer’s argument was flawed because he failed to produce signed contracts with Korean women as evidence – and that focusing on contracts in the first place was misleading because women, many of whom were teenagers, had no free will.

Ramseyer’s article also ignored a 1996 United Nations report that concluded that Comfort Women, who came from a number of countries, mostly in Asia, were sex slaves, Yang Kee-ho said. professor of Japanese studies at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul.

“There are many details in the document that contradict the facts and distort the truth,” he added.

The document, “Contract for Sex in the Pacific War,” argues that the Japanese military created standards for the licensing of so-called comfort stations around Asia during World War II to prevent the spread. venereal disease.

Ramseyer, an expert on Japanese law, wrote that “prostitutes” who worked in brothels signed contracts similar to those used in Tokyo brothels, but with shorter terms and higher wages to reflect the danger of working. in war zones.

Ramseyer declined an interview request. He previously argued that relying on the testimony of survivors was problematic because some women had changed their accounts over the years. “The claims about enslaved Korean comfort women are historically false,” he wrote in Japan Forward, an English-language website affiliated with a right-wing Japanese newspaper, last month.

The International Review of Law and Economics, which published Ramseyer’s recent article online, published an “expression of concern” this month saying it was investigating historical evidence for the article. But the journal’s editorial team said through a spokesperson that the article would still be published in the March edition and was “considered final.”

Another publication, the European Journal of Law and Economics, said this week it was investigating concerns raised about a Ramseyer’s article published last week on the experiences of Korean migrants in Japan.

Ramseyer’s supporters include a group of six Japan-based academics who told the editors of the International Review of Law and Economics in a letter that the article that sparked the recent outcry was “well into the academic stream and diplomatic ”and supported by the work of academics. in Japan, South Korea and the United States. They did not name any particular scientist.

An academic who signed the letter, Kanji Katsuoka, said in an interview that he had only read the summary of the article “Contracting for Sex”, but felt that the term “prostitute” was appropriate because women were paid for their services.

“Harvard University is the best school in the United States,” added Katsuoka, a lecturer at Meisei University and general secretary of a right-wing research organization. “If they lose their freedom of speech, I have to judge that no freedom of speech exists in the United States.”

Three decades ago, when survivors like Lee began to speak publicly about their sexual slavery for Japanese troops, they were embraced by a nascent feminist movement in East Asia that made women’s rights a priority. claim their own history.

Even though the testimonies elicited an official apology from Japan in 1993, the issue remains deeply contentious.

The governments of Japan and South Korea agreed to resolve it in 2015, when Japan expressed responsibility, again apologized to women, and pledged to create an $ 8.3 million fund for help provide care for the elderly. Some of the survivors accepted part of the funds, but Lee and a few others rejected the opening, saying it had not provided official reparations or clarified Japan’s legal responsibility.

More recently, people on the Japanese political right, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have insisted that Korean women are not sex slaves because there is no evidence that they have. been physically forced into brothels.

Survivors have long disputed this claim. Lee said Japanese soldiers dragged her out of her home when she was a teenager, covering her mouth so she couldn’t call her mother.

Ji Soo Janet Park, a Harvard law student who helped organize the recent Zoom with Lee event, said it was designed to fight “deniers and revisionists” who sought to erase narratives of sexual slavery in times of war.

“We are the next generation who are responsible for making sure this remains a part of history,” said Park, 27, whose undergraduate thesis explored how memorials of former sex slaves shape the Korean American identity.

In an interview this week, Lee, the survivor, said she was dismayed to see people in Japan echo Ramseyer’s “absurd” remarks. She said she had not given up on her campaign to have the matter pursued before the International Court of Justice.

“As a final job, I would like to clarify the matter to the ICJ,” she said, referring to the court. “When I die and meet the victims who are already deceased, I can tell them that I have solved this problem.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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