The Value of a New Paper on Comfort Women that Explores the Essence of Employment ContractsHideomi Tanaka (Professor, Faculty of Business and Information Studies, Jobu University)

The Value of a New Paper on Comfort Women that Explores the Essence of Employment Contracts

Hideomi Tanaka (Professor, Faculty of Business and Information Studies, Jobu University)

 A paper by Professor J. Mark Ramseyer of Harvard Law School has caused an international stir. The paper, titled “Sex Contracts in the Pacific War,” is scheduled to be published in volume 65 of the academic journal International Review of Law and Economics.

 The paper, titled “Sex Contracts in the Pacific War,” will be published in volume 65 of the journal International Review of Law and Economics.

 Professor Ramseyer’s paper is of an academic nature. The Sankei Shimbun accurately summarized the gist of his paper. However, a group of Korean students at Harvard University protested against the paper, according to a report in Korea’s leading newspaper, the JoongAng Ilbo.

 Professor Ramseyer’s work is well known in Japan for his incisive analysis of laws, institutions, and economic policies based on human economic rationality. In his analysis, he is known for breaking down common theories about the postwar Japanese economy, especially about industrial policy.

 His analysis is characterized by the assumption that people make rational choices. This is evident, for example, in his confronting the popular notion that the Japanese bureaucrats were extremely competent and that their leadership enabled Japanese industry to achieve a “miraculous economic recovery” after the war. Shiroyama Saburo’s novel “Summer of the Bureaucrats” provides a fictionalized “behind-the-scenes” look at the industrial policies of such capable bureaucrats.

 Professor Ramseyer questioned the portrayal of private entrepreneurs as having no agency, subordinate to the government and bureaucrats. He argued that corporations, politicians, and bureaucrats are all players who make rational choices, and he wanted to reflect on Japan’s industrial policy from that perspective. This led to a breakthrough in the common belief that the role of the bureaucracy was to distort the choices of private companies and make them inefficient.

A statue of a young girl symbolizing the damage caused by comfort women is installed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, Jan. 8, 2021 (Kyodo).

 In connection with this comfort women article, I am reminded of Professor Ramseyer’s interpretation of “bureaucratic descent”. I have previously introduced it in my book “Inappropriate Economics” (Kodansha). Simply put, he argues that amakudari (direct translation: descending from heaven. Government officials settling into executive positions after leaving their post; golden parachuting) itself is not a social evil.

 It sees amakudari as a kind of “employment relationship” related to the career development of ruling party politicians and bureaucrats. Ruling party politicians ask the bureaucrats to do work that serves their interests. The bureaucrats are paid relatively low salaries during their working years, but in return they enjoy high incomes from their descent after they retire from the government.

 What appears to be hard work for the bureaucrats makes sense in terms of lifetime compensation, and both the ruling politicians and the bureaucrats are satisfied with this “contractual relationship. It should be noted, however, that Professor Ramseyer and his colleagues do not think this is a good idea.

 Even if the descent contract itself is efficient, whether or not the descent itself imposes a burden on society must be clarified separately. If the government agencies to which the bureaucrats descend repeatedly waste money in ways that are a social evil for the people, that is a problem.

 It would be a social loss if the descent bureaucrats stifle competition by directing profits to certain people or groups. This obviously leads to the criticism of Professor Ramseyer’s myth of industrial policy that I pointed out earlier.

 This paper is characterized by its positioning of “comfort women” as an overseas (extraterritorial) military version of the public prostitution system in Japan and Korea, which had been under the rule of Japan at that time. In other words, the “comfort women” system did not suddenly appear with the deployment of the Japanese military overseas, but was recognized as a type of public prostitution system that had existed before that.

 This interpretation is the same as that made in “Anti-Japanese Tribalism” (edited by Lee Eong Kaun, a former professor at Seoul National University), which has become a hot topic in Japan. It is noteworthy that just as Lee and others have begun to understand the comfort women issue from the perspective of economic history, Professor Ramseyer is also trying to shed light on the issue from an economic perspective.

 Both Professor Ramseyer and Mr. Lee have rejected the “comfort women” theory. They did not ignore the will of the women and force them into sexual labor. As was typical of the public prostitution system of the time, the women worked under an employment contract or indentured servitude contract between themselves and the owner of the comfort station.

 This employment contract was made to repay the compensation paid in advance to the person or their parents (advance loan). Of course, it must be questioned whether or not the employment contract was a “complete contract” that was made with a clear understanding of what could happen. As Lee and others have argued, it is possible that the father’s authority within the Korean family at that time was warped and strengthened, depriving his daughters of their freedom of choice.

 There may also be cases in which people became comfort women in an unintended way because they were not familiar with the details of the contract. In particular, comfort women work in a “foreign land” that is different from Japan and Korea, and in wartime, they work in a particularly high-risk environment. Whether this high risk was properly understood by the comfort women is another point of contention.

 In any case, the “comfort women = sex slaves” theory is wrong. In many cases, comfort women either fulfill their obligations or their contracts expire, and their bodies are free, so they are not sex slaves. Many of them were also better off in terms of food, clothing, shelter, and wages than their counterparts in other professions. Of course, from today’s point of view, there is no way that such a system of “public prostitution” should be allowed, and I am merely explaining it in the historical context of the time.

 To quote the abstract of Ramseyer’s article in the Sankei Shimbun, “The Ministry of Home Affairs asked recruiters to hire only those women who were already working as prostitutes as comfort women, and instructed the competent police to confirm directly with the women that they were applying for the job of their own volition and to tell the women to return home immediately after their contracts expired.

Lee Young Kaun (third from right) attends a press conference for the launch of “The Struggle Against Anti-Japanese Tribalism” in Seoul, May 2020 (photo by Takahiro Namura)

 However, Ramseyer says that this contract was not a “complete contract,” as he has pointed out before. The reason for this was mainly the recruiter in the Chosun side who acted as an intermediary between the employer and the comfort women. The recruiter had made the employment contract “incomplete”. Many of the recruiters may have been recruiting without providing the proper contract details. This is what the Ramseyer paper points out.

 What was the “responsibility” of the Japanese military and the Japanese government at that time? It is clear from the Ramseyer paper and the writings of Lee and others that it was not the creation of “sex slaves,” and this is something that the current Japanese government denies. These new perspectives should be used as an opportunity to examine the comfort women issue in an empirical and rational manner.

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