Open Letter Regarding Harvard Law School Mitsubishi Professor John Mark Ramseyer’s Scholarship on Japanese military “comfort women”

We express our concern with Harvard Law School Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies John Mark Ramseyer’s recent scholarship on Japanese military “comfort women” that puts forth a sexist, patriarchal, and colonialist view on the atrocities suffered by numerous women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military before and during World War II (the Asian-Pacific War). We are concerned that such a line of argument can be used to justify violence against women and the perpetuation of systems of sexual slavery and exploitation.

Behind the battlefields of World War II, numerous women in the Asia-Pacific region were coerced, abducted, and tricked into ‘comfort stations’ for the Japanese military. Formed at the intersections of sexism, patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, and racism, the system had inflicted violence upon many marginalized women in territories colonized or occupied by Japan. The few who survived were silenced for decades. This horrendous chapter, however, is not just in the past - it is also connected to contemporary issues of sexual violence in armed conflicts, rape culture on college campuses, post-colonial trauma, and #MeToo. We, as feminist scholars, students, and alumni, are writing this open letter to voice our concerns about sexist and colonialist perspectives that have perpetuated and continue to perpetuate injustice, oppression, and violence.

Professor Ramseyer’s recent publication in the International Review of Law and Economics conflates Japanese military “comfort women” with paid free-will prostitution, thus denying sexual enslavement. His argument distorts the historical truth by depicting Japanese military sex slaves as contractual prostitutes who freely enlisted to the job, negotiated their fares, and retired at their own will while disregarding imbalanced power dynamics and systemic violence. Professor Ramseyer’s claim mirrors, without critical analysis, arguments made by the Japanese government that evade any responsibility for the grave human rights violations it perpetuated during the Asia-Pacific War.[1] The Japanese government’s denial of the Japanese military “comfort women” system as sexual slavery and its subsequent distortions of the truth have been criticized by scholars and countless United Nations recommendations.[2] Scholarship over the past three decades, reports written by United Nations special rapporteurs and international organizations, and the 2000 Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal have recognized the system for what it was: institutionalized sexual slavery that deprived victims of their freedom of movement, threatened them with physical violence, and subjected them under repeated sexual violence and abuse.[3] Ramseyer’s violent argument not only perpetuates egregious violence towards these women and the system’s contemporary implications but also colludes with and validates the Japanese state’s own intentional erasure of this violent history.

We are further appalled at Professor Ramseyer’s distortions of Japanese military “comfort women” survivors' testimonies. Since Kim Hak-soon’s first public testimony as a Japanese military “comfort woman” survivor on August 14, 1991, hundreds of survivors from Korea, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor, the Netherlands, and Japan have courageously come forward to share their experiences, in many ways becoming forerunners of the #MeToo movement.[4]

Coming forward amidst discrimination and social stigma, these survivors have shown that while the details of their personal experiences may have varied, the overarching system of military sexual slavery was unmistakeably a war crime committed by the Japanese government. However, Professor Ramseyer has selectively appropriated survivors’ testimonies and erased holistic and complex understandings of their experiences that feminist scholars have advocated for.[5] We have far too often seen how survivors of sexual violence have been silenced — sometimes for years and decades — in recent cases that were brought to light at Harvard, across numerous campuses, and in the Japanese military sexual slavery system. In coming forward, survivors courageously broke such silences and have taken up the mantle of feminist activism, with their voices resonating with citizens around the world and building transnational solidarity.[6]

These testimonies encouraged researchers to unearth historical documents and records that only deepened the Japanese government’s responsibility in the establishment and operation of the comfort stations across the Asia-Pacific. These included Japanese military records found by historian Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki of Chuo University in 1992, which demonstrated the Japanese military’s supervision of private recruiters and direct involvement in the mobilization of women. [7] Responding to this body of findings, the Japanese government partially recognized its involvement with the Kono statement in 1993. A wide range of documents from Imperial Japan, the U.S. military, the Dutch government, etc., have built further historical understandings of the Japanese military sexual system.[8]

Professor Ramseyer’s argument also normalizes sexual exploitation of women’s bodies by using the historical existence of sex trafficking for “licensed prostitution” as a justification for the Japanese military sexual slavery system. Women from marginalized backgrounds were often trafficked into and exploited under indentured servitude in the historical contexts of Japan’s “licensed prostitution” system, which was condoned and encouraged by the Japanese government under sexist discourses justifying male sexual desire.[9] This system persisted even though international treaties ratified by Japan and Japanese domestic laws in the early 1900s had outlawed the trafficking of women and children for prostitution.[10] The universality of oppression against women cannot and should not be used to justify the perpetuation of further oppressions.

Numerous scholars have contributed to building an intersectional understanding of the systemic forces at play and the realities of the Japanese military sexual slavery system, without resorting to sexist arguments.[11] This letter is not meant to infringe upon the rights to academic freedom but to address the implications of academic knowledge that upholds sexist, patriarchal, and colonialist perspectives at the expense of uncovering the deeply entrenched, interlocking systems of oppression. As a community, it is imperative to revisit our values of equity and justice in face of discourses that justify sexual slavery.

Recent social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and #RhodesMustFall, have prompted us to critically reflect on the role of higher education in pursuing truth, justice, and equity. We believe in the importance of research, knowledge, and education that enable students to become thoughtful and critical thinkers who can reflect on historical and present-day injustices. In facing our past histories of oppression and injustice, we learn to create a more just society. Deconstructing sexual slavery and exploitation of women’s bodies in both the past and present is instrumental in building institutions and societies that respect women’s rights and survivors’ fight for justice. Our learning communities should not teach us to stay complicit to sexist discourses that perpetuate impunity to sexual violence. As concerned feminist scholars, students, and alumni of Harvard University and other higher education institutions, we hope that our open letter will inspire our communities to engage critically with the perpetuation of sexual violence, sexism, patriarchy, colonialism, and racism in our academic spheres.

We call on higher educational institutions to take the following actions:

  • Form campus task forces to construct or strengthen community guidelines on diversity and equity that acknowledge the harms of sexism, colonialism, and racism.

  • Actively investigate hate speech and behaviors that perpetuate sexist, colonialist, and racist views under relevant university guidelines and Title IX regulations.

  • Provide funding and administrative support for campus diversity and inclusion initiatives aimed at fostering critical conversations about historical and present-day structural injustices.

  • Provide funding to resources for survivors of sexual violence on campus, implement educational programs and institutional measures that aim to end impunity to sexual violence, and ensure survivor-friendly and trauma-informed processes for reporting sexual violence.

  • Refrain from investing in or receiving funding from companies involved in perpetuations of war crimes and disclose information on funding received from such companies.


The undersigned

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This statement welcomes anyone who self-identifies as a feminist scholar, student, or alumni of a higher education institution to sign as individuals. We also welcome organizations to sign.

View signatories here:

View our press release:

View resources on the issue:

Read the statement in Korean 성명 한국어 버전:

Read the statement in Japanese 声明 日本語版:


[1] “H.Res.121 - A Resolution Expressing the Sense of the 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, known to the World as ‘Comfort Women’, During its Colonial and Wartime Occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands From the 1930s Through the Duration of World War II,” United States Congress, July 30, 2007,

Tong Yu, “Reparations for Former Comfort Women of World War II,” Harvard International Law Journal 36, no. 2 (1995): 528-540.

Gay McDougall, “Addressing State Responsibility for the Crime of Military Sexual Slavery During the Second World War: Further Attempts for Justice for the “Comfort Women,The Korean Journal of International and Comparative Law 1, no. 2 (2013): 137-165.

[2] Alexis Dudden, “Standing with historians of Japan,” March 1, 2015,

Kohki Abe, "International Law as Memorial Sites: The “Comfort Women” Lawsuits Revisited," The Korean Journal of International and Comparative Law 1, no. 2 (2013): 166-187.

Chin Sung Chung, “The Origin and Development of the Military Sexual Slavery Problem in Imperial Japan,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 5, no. 1 (1997): 219-253.

United Nations Committee against Torture, Concluding Observations on the Second Periodic Report of Japan, adopted by the Committee at its fiftieth session (6-31 May 2013), CAT/C/JPN/CO/2, (June 28, 2013), available from

United Nations Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Japan, CCPR/C/JPN/CO/6, (August 20, 2014), available from

United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding observations on the combined seventh and eighth periodic reports of Japan, CEDAW/C/JPN/CO/7-8, (March 7, 2016), available from

United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Concluding Observations on the Combined Tenth and Eleventh Periodic Reports of Japan, CERD/C/JPN/CO/10-11, (September 26, 2018), available from

United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances, Concluding observations on the report submitted by Japan under article 29 (1) of the Convention, CED/C/JPN/CO/1, (December 5, 2018) available from

“Observation (CEACR) - Adopted 2002, Published 91st ILC Session (2003),” International Labour Organization, accessed February 2, 2021, available from

[3] United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 1995/85, E/CN.4/1996/53/Add.1 (February 5, 1996), available from

United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Systematic rape, sexual slavery and slavery-like practices during armed conflict: Final report submitted by Ms. Gay J. McDougall, Special Rapporteur, E/CN.4/1998/13 (June 22, 1998), available from

Ustinia Dolgopol and Snehal Paranjape, Comfort Women, an Unfinished Ordeal: Report of a Mission. (Geneva: International Commission of Jurists, 1994).

“Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal Archives Judgment,” Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace, accessed February 4, 2020,

Carmen Argibay, "Sexual slavery and the comfort women of World War II," Berkeley Journal of International Law 21, no. 2 (2003): 375-389.

[4] Hasunuma, Linda, and Shin, Ki-young. "MeToo in Japan and South Korea: #WeToo, #WithYou." Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 40, no. 1 (2019): 97-111.

[5] The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, A to Z Guide for Just Resolution of the Japanese Military Sexual Slavery Issue, (Seoul: The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, 2020): 34-39.

“Did Mun Ok Ju Became Rich in Burma?” Fight for Justice, accessed February 4, 2021,

Hyunah Yang, “Revisiting the Issue of Korean “Military Comfort Women”:The Question of Truth and Positionality,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 5, no. 1 (1997): 51-71.

Hyunah Yang. “Finding the ‘Map of Memory’: Testimony of the Japanese Military Sexual Slavery Survivors.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 16, no. 1 (2008): 79-107.

To read more testimonies of survivors, refer to the following sources:

Sangmie Choi Schellstede and Soon Mi Yu. Comfort Women Speak: Testimony by Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military. (New York: Holmes & Meier, 2000).

Peipei Qiu, Zhiliang Su, and Lifei Chen. Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

The Research Team of the War & Women’s Human Rights Center. Stories That Make History: The Experience and Memories of the Japanese Military Comfort Girls-Women. Translated by Angella Son. (Berlin, Germany: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2020).

Henson, Maria Rosa. Comfort Woman: A Filipina's Story of Prostitution and Slavery under the Japanese Military. (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).

Ruff O'Herne, Jan. 50 Years of Silence. (Sydney: Editions Tom Thompson, 1994).

Korea-Verband e.V. “Testimonies of Former ‘Comfort Women’ from Korea.” Accessed February 4, 2021.

[6] Na-young Lee, “The Korean Women’s Movement of Japanese Military ‘Comfort Women’: Navigating between Nationalism and Feminism,” The Review of Korean Studies 17, no. 1 (2014). 71-92.

[7] Yoshiaki Yoshimi, Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military during World War II. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

See a copy of the 1938 March 4th Japanese military document demonstrating Japanese military supervision of private recruiters and direct involvement in the mobilization and transportation of the women. This document, discovered by Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki in 1992 in Japan’s Defence Agency Library, was written by Chiefs of Staff of Japan’s North China Army and Central China Expeditionary Army:

“Recruitment of female employees for Army brothels,” Japan Center for Asian Historical Records – National Archives of Japan, accessed August 19, 2020,

[8] Sung Hyun Kang, “The US Army Photography and the ‘Seen Side’ and ‘Blind Side’ of the Japanese Military Comfort Women: The Still Pictures and Motion Pictures of the Korean Comfort Girls in Myitkyina, Sungshan, and Tengchung,” Korea Journal 59, no. 2 (2019): 144-176.

Peipei Qiu, "Documenting War Atrocities Against Women: Newly Discovered Japanese Military Files in Jilin Provincial Archives," In The Transnational Redress Movement for the Victims of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery edited by Pyong Gap Min, Thomas Chung and Sejung Sage Yim, 275-294. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2020.

Sejong University and Yuji Hosaka. Anthology of Documents on Japanese "Comfort Women" Issue 1. [일본의 위안부문제 증거자료집 1]. (Seoul, South Korea: Gold Egg Publishing Company, 2018).

Bart van Poelgeest, Report of a Study of Dutch Government Documents on the Forced Prostitution of Dutch Women in the Dutch East Indies during the Japanese Occupation, Unofficial Translation (January 24, 1994).

[9] Rumiko Nishino, Puja Kim and Akane Onozawa, “The Comfort Women and State Prostitution,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 16, no. 10 (May 15, 2018),

[10] Amnesty International, “Still Waiting After 60 Years: Justice for Survivors of Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery System,” October 27, 2005,

“Laws and Custom of War on Land (Hague, IV),” Library of Congress, accessed February 3, 2021,

“International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic,” United Nations Treaty Collection, accessed February 3, 2021,

“International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children,” United Nations Treaty Collection, accessed February 3, 2021,

“ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29),” International Labour Organization, accessed February 3, 2021,

[11] Pyong Gap Min, “Korean ‘Comfort Women’: The Intersection of Colonial Power, Gender, and Class,” Gender & Society 17, no. 6 (2003): 943-952.

Michele Park Sonen, "Healing Multidimensional Wounds of Injustice: Intersectionality and the Korean Comfort Women," Berkeley La Raza Law Journal 22, no. 1 (2012): 269-300.

Christine Chinkin, “Women's International Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery,” The American Journal of International Law 95, no. 2 (2001)

Yayori Matsui, “Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery: Memory, Identity, and Society,” East Asia 19, no. 4 (2001): 119-142.

Yuki Terazawa, “The Transnational Campaign for Redress for Wartime Rape by the Japanese Military: Cases for Survivors in Shanxi Province,NWSA Journal 18, no. 3 (2006): 133-45.

Katharine Mcgregor, “Emotions and Activism for Former So-called “Comfort Women” of the Japanese Occupation of the Netherlands East Indies,Women’s Studies International Forum 54 (2016): 67-78.

Elizabeth Son, Embodied Reckonings: “Comfort Women,” Performance, and Transpacific Redress, (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2018).

Kandice Chuh, "Discomforting Knowledge: Or, Korean" Comfort Women" and Asian Americanist Critical Practice," Journal of Asian American Studies 6, no. 1 (2003): 5-23.

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