OPINION: CMC professor Eric Helland must apologize for involvement in revisionist article

Four surviving comfort women at the unveiling of a statue commemorating the sexual slavery of women by the Japanese army in World War II.
Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24 argues that CMC Professor Eric Helland should take accountability for approving to publish a controversial article regarding comfort women. (Courtesy: Melissa Wall)

CW: Mentions of sexual abuse

Last February, John Mark Ramseyer, a professor of Japanese legal studies at Harvard Law School, ignited controversy for his article titled “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War.” It disputed the widely accepted narrative that “comfort women” faced sexual slavery in military brothels by the Imperial Japanese army during World War II. 

Ramseyer wrote that the Korean comfort women willingly entered contracts that promised high wages for short working terms in the brothels — or “comfort stations” — and allowed the women to leave early “if they generated sufficient revenue.” Although the article was published online in December, the academic journal International Review of Law and Economics scheduled for it to appear in its March 2021 issue but suspended the issue following criticism of the article. 

Ramseyer’s argument is historical revisionism and denies the lived experiences of the comfort women. Claremont McKenna College economics professor Eric Helland is part of the editorial board that approved Ramseyer’s article for publication in IRLE. Thus, Helland must take accountability for his academically irresponsible decision to encourage revisionist narratives.

In an email to TSL, Helland declined to comment, writing, “As one of four editors of IRLE we are currently conducting an investigation into the allegations made about the article and have been asked by the publisher not to speak to the press until the investigation is complete.”

Ramseyer frequently failed to cite sufficient supporting evidence and misrepresented his sources. Those instances are too numerous to fully cover here, but here are some examples.

Ramseyer asserted that the comfort station system was similar to the system of licensed prostitution in pre-war Japan. While he provided sample contract prices for Japanese women recruited to Shanghai comfort stations on page six, he didn’t provide signed contracts or sample contracts for Korean comfort women.

In section 3.5, Ramseyer misrepresented a Korean comfort woman’s account in an attempt to prove brothel owners paid comfort women well. The cited quotation did not substantiate that idea. In her words, comfort woman Mun Ok-ju “saved a considerable amount of money from tips,” not payments from brothel owners, as Ramseyer claimed.

Six academics wrote an open letter favoring Ramseyer. “[Ramseyer’s essay] is the latest target of American ‘cancel culture’ … The South Korean and Japanese governments have discussed the wartime and colonial period and its aftermath at great length and have arrived at very carefully worded statements, including a key 2015 agreement on the comfort women issue, which take into full account the historical realities between the two countries,” they wrote.

“We are always in search of a better understanding of the past and of the Other. So, instead of ‘cancelling’ the work of a gifted and conscientious scholar, we encourage our peers to engage with [Professor] Ramseyer’s scholarship and so to establish ever more firmly the foundation of historical truth. Our calling is never to suppress, but always to explore, in fruitful dialogue with others similarly in pursuit of knowledge,” the letter continued.

Besides the absence of Koreans among the letter writers, almost all of whom are Japanese, to corroborate the claim that the settlement fully considered the historical realities between the two countries, their statement contains three major issues. 

Firstly, they failed to mention whether the comfort women supported the 2015 settlement, wherein Japan donated around $8.3 million to create a foundation to support comfort women survivors and their families. The women did not. South Korea later revoked the agreement, saying it didn’t reflect the women’s wishes. This year, the Japanese government also upset survivors by ignoring a South Korean court order to pay damages to 12 women.

Secondly, according to page two of an academic journal article in response to Ramseyer, a mountain of evidence, including “numerous testimonies and the findings of scholars, NGOs, and intergovernmental organizations,” upholds the comfort women’s narrative of coercion. Ramseyer’s article did not acknowledge this. The letter’s writers have been inconsistent in asking their peers to engage with Ramseyer’s work while ignoring Ramseyer’s neglect to do the same with other people’s work.

Thirdly, insinuating that a group of people was dishonest about their personal experiences — especially when many of them are still alive — opposes “fruitful dialogue.” Here, it reflects a societal tendency to suppress sexual assault survivors’ voices when they discuss their experiences. 

Following their investigation, IRLE must withdraw Ramseyer’s article from their issue. Additionally, regardless of Helland’s opinion on Ramseyer’s article, he nevertheless clearly sanctioned a poorly constructed, inaccurate argument for publication. For this, he must take accountability and apologize. 

Caroline Kim PO ’23, co-president of the 5C Korean Student Association, said in an interview with TSL, “Since he [has] that position of power and responsibility within the journal, we think he does owe [Korean students and the comfort women] an apology for … letting an article like that pass through.”

“We want [Helland] to acknowledge it to the entire Claremont College community in whatever way he can,” co-president Andrew Lee PO ’23 added.

Finally, along with this petition to hold Ramseyer accountable, I encourage everyone to sign the petition created by 5C KSA to hold Helland accountable and support the comfort women. Doing so affirms the stories of sexual assault survivors, a particularly important action during this Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24 is from Los Angeles, California. She loves Rhodia dot grid notepads and purple fountain pen ink with gold shimmer.

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