Scholar calls journal decision on ‘comfort women’ paper ‘rotten at the core’

Alexis Dudden

The journal that published a hotly contested article by a professor at Harvard Law School arguing that Korean women forced into sexual slavery during World War II were willing prostitutes has reaffirmed a prior expression of concern over the paper, but stopped short of retracting the article.

However, the International Review of Law and Economics encourages readers of the article, by Mark Ramseyer, to “also consult the comments published in IRLE and in other venues for the broader historical perspective.”

Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut who has written extensively about Japan’s wartime system of military sexual slavery, called the statement “wishy-washy.”  

“For the denialists, this is a victory,” she told Retraction Watch. “The IRLE decision is rotten at the core.”

Japan’s record of sex trafficking of hundreds of thousands of women and girls as young as 8 — the so-called “comfort women” — has been thoroughly documented and is a matter of consensus among most historians outside that country. 

In his article, Ramseyer argued that the “political dispute between South Korea and Japan over the wartime brothels called ‘comfort stations’ obscures the contractual dynamics involved.” Instead, Ramseyer used game theory in an effort to show that the women negotiated voluntary contracts for sex work. The article, published online in December 2020 and titled “Contracting for sex in the Pacific War,” has been cited eight times, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science.

Ramseyer also stated in an op-ed in JAPAN Forward that the narrative of comfort women as sex slaves was “pure fiction.”

The two articles quickly sparked international furor. In February 2021, the IRLE issued an expression of concern, noting that “concerns have been raised regarding the historical evidence in the article … These claims are currently being investigated and the International Review of Law and Economics will provide additional information as it becomes available.”

In its new statement from January 18, the journal said it solicited comments from several historians; asked Ramseyer for his response to the criticism; and requested confidential reviews from several additional historians with subject-matter expertise.

All of the experts had misgivings about Ramseyer’s interpretation of the evidence and agreed it did “not warrant overturning the historical consensus,” the journal says. Still, it found “nothing that rises to the level of clear data fabrication or falsification and the COPE description of honest error appears orthogonal to the current situation.”

The journal leaves open the question of whether “Ramseyer’s interpretation and judgment regarding the way he used sources constitutes qualitative error akin to a miscalculation or an experimental flaw”:

In the end the editors are divided on whether the paper should be retracted based on [COPE and Elsevier] guidelines. We are agreed, however, that the guidelines are clearly intended to present a high threshold for retraction and, as such, we have decided to retain the Expression of Concern attached to Professor Ramseyer’s article.

While Ramseyer’s article may not contain fabricated data, Dudden said his contortion of the historical record could still be construed as a version of that:

Maybe thinking of it in terms of how the Russian state is currently refusing even to call the Ukraine invasion a war, when we talk about data fabrication, that’s becoming truth for many Russians. And so that’s what data fabrication is here, playing with words.

“It’s human trafficking of minors for sex. And that’s what it is, and it’s state-sponsored. And Ramseyer denies all of that,” added Dudden, who edited a supplementary issue about the IRLE article in The Asia-Pacific Journal, for which she is a contributing editor. “That’s what right-wing radio does. But it’s not what academics do.”

In an email to Retraction Watch, Ramseyer pointed to an article in which he discussed the main accusations against him, adding:

Certainly, I stand by my article, my discussion of the accusations, and more longer [sic] more recent article about the controversy.

Amy Beth Stanley, a professor of history at Northwestern University, was among the people who contacted the IRLE to request a retraction of the paper. Along with other scholars, she laid out her reasoning in an article in The Asia-Pacific Journal, arguing that a paper “containing this level of academic misconduct should not have passed peer review, or have been published in an academic journal.” 

Stanley told Retraction Watch the IRLE‘s decision was a “reasonable outcome,” especially because COPE’s threshold for retraction is “extremely high” and relies “on language about ‘data falsification’ that seems more suited to scientific research.” 

However, she added:

In my opinion, citing evidence that doesn’t exist to say things that the evidence does not say does constitute “data falsification.” But I think this issue highlights the problem with our standards as they are written, especially for the humanities and social sciences, as I believe it is absolutely crucial to be able to distinguish scholarship that is fraudulent or dishonest from scholarship that is merely offensive, controversial, and unpopular.

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15 thoughts on “Scholar calls journal decision on ‘comfort women’ paper ‘rotten at the core’”

  1. Alexis Dudden is the type of propagandist we need to rid from the academic community. If she can’t publish her ‘work’ on merit alone (i.e., in a journal she does not control), it should not be considered a valid contribution to the discussion.

    1. One “contributing editor” who “controls” one publication? Really? What about all of the other historians dissenting from Ramseyer’s interpretation? You can’t validate Ramseyer without proving all of the other historians who work in this area are wrong. Attempting to dismiss Dudden’s interprtation because they have a little editorial power over one journal is not an effective tactic.

      1. That’s Ramseyer’s point, and that’s why he is so hotly attacked: he says that a lot of American historians have been fooled by stories from old ladies at a nursing home that is a North Korean front. Read his 66-page response, linked to in this article. If I were a historian, I’d be embarassed.

    2. The purpose of moving her article to her own journal was that Dudden and the other response authors were working with the IRLE editors for several months and realized that they were not taking the matter seriously. All the response authors eventually abandoned IRLE.

      1. Or perhaps they realized they couldn’t face Ramseyer in a face-to-face journal battle. Notice how they didn’t offer him room for response in their journal issue.

    1. She probably prefers chocolate ice cream to vanilla, too.
      Really, her “biased radio comment” is irrelevant.

      Does liking conservative talk radio make you bias historical accounts toward denying sexual slavery? It does not.

      Does disliking conservative talk radio make you bias historical accounts toward denying sexual slavery? It does not.

      Physician, heal thyself.

  2. There is no “contract” involved in involuntary servitude, sexual or otherwise. There is no “consent” involved by minors having sex with adults. There is no “historical context” involved in slavery. Even “sex workers” are consenting under duress. This article belongs in the journal of science fiction.

    1. Lol, re: “There is no “contract” involved in involuntary servitude, sexual or otherwise.” Are you unwittingly proposing an Étienne de La Boétie situation?

  3. Like-minded are Amy Stanley and the U.S. military top brass during WWII. U.S. soldiers raped many French women after D-Day. A disproportionately high number of black soldiers were charged of sexual assault. One of the reasons was that the U.S. military leadership tried to evade criticism by portraying rape as a problem, not of the U.S. military, but of black men. They also resorted to the then-wide-spread stereotype that black men had strong sexual ardour and were morally debauched. (*1)
    I am not trying to say that the U.S. is a racist country. However, it is also true that no country is free from individuals who still have such prejudice. The U.S. is no exception and Stanley is a good example.
    In her essay titled ‘On Contract’, she described a crime committed by Japanese soldiers *against military orders* in Semarang, Indonesia, where they kidnapped and forcibly put local women in brothels, and untruthfully tried to convince her readers that it was of the nature of the Japanese military and the same kind of abuse systematically happened also in Korea, without presenting hard evidence.
    You don’t have to look at what’s happening in Ukraine to understand sexual misconduct during war is omnipresent. Estimated 10,000 women, for instance, were raped by U.S. soldiers in Okinawa after WWII.(*2) Stanley trivializes wartime rape as a Japanese problem by leveraging the stereotype that the Japanese are cruel, and papers over her own country’s blemishes. It is Amy Stanley who has the same mindset as the U.S. command in Normandy who made black soldiers scapegoats for military-wide sex offence to keep their false sense of integrity intact.
    *1. Mary Louise Roberts “What’s Soldiers do – Sex and American GI in World War France”
    *2. NY Times “3 Dead Marines and a Secret of Wartime Okinawa” June 2020

  4. Amy Stanley might have a PhD in Japanese history, but she is by no means an expert talking about “comfort women.” She published an essay titled “On Contract” in March 2021 and it sounds more like dreaming girl’s amateur hour.
    In this essay, she untruthfully tried to convince readers that what happened in Semarang, Indonesia or something similar systematically happened in Korea. However, even Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a chief proponent of coerciveness in the CW issue, accepts the Semarang case was a result of a violation of military regulations. According to Dutch victim’s testimonies, the Semarang brothels where they were forced to work were promptly closed when the Japanese military leadership learned of the situation.
    When this fact was pointed out, Stanley claimed those who opposed to her only read ”denialist websites” about the Semarang case and urged people to read books such as Yuki Tanaka’s.
    However, it turned out that the one who didn’t read books was Stanley herself. The Semarang case is described in Ikuhiko Hata’s definitive “Ianfu to Senjo no Sei” (1999) as well as Yoshimi’s equally definitive “Jugun Ianfu” (1995) so it is safe to say that the case is part of basic knowledge among those interested in the issue across the political spectrum in Japan. You can’t miss this if you claim you are knowledgeable about the issue, but Stanley did.

  5. I don’t believe a paper presenting a sincere perspective backed by legitimate evidence should be retracted just for having potentially unsavoury implications. Indeed, I’m not sure that I would argue that this paper SHOULD be retracted if there isn’t a rigorous enough basis for it, but in my opinion it should definitely not be taken seriously by anyone. “Well according to game theory there was profit motive for these women to sex-traffic themselves on the free market!” This is like a parody of economics. He doesn’t provide any historical evidence, he just invokes game theory and assumes the ideal conditions where it could apply. I’m certainly not an expert in any of these fields but this paper just seems like useless, buzzword-throwing journal bait to me. I think the premise is so nonsensical that there’s no need to retract it–I don’t think it’ll be swaying anyone’s opinions or sparking any serious discussions. If it does get retracted though, I won’t shed a tear.

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