Michael Yon, Journalist
Jason Morgan,participant from Univ. Wisconsin, Madison

In January of 2015, a group of professors met during the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) conference to plan a response to a textbook controversy. 

Herbert Ziegler and the late Jerry Bentley had written a Howard Zinn-type world history textbook. But when members of the Japanese consulate staff contacted the publisher, McGraw-Hill, to ask about a few paragraphs on the comfort women‒paragraphs that managed to contain eight factual errors in just a couple of pages‒Ziegler and colleagues girded for battle. 

Instead of making corrections, Ziegler and a group of nineteen academics went on the offensive, accusing Prime Minister Abe Shinzō of encroaching on academic freedom. The ensuing folderol made international news. 

Taking advantage of this global publicity, Prof. Alexis Dudden of the University of Connecticut and Prof. Jordan Sand of Georgetown University ratcheted up the attack, garnering 187 additional signatures by early May, 2015 to a protest letter designed to influence Japanese politics and slander a democratically-elected leader of one of the United States’ most trusted allies. The number of signatures eventually topped five hundred. 

The American academy’s reactionary intolerance was disappointing. The AAS pleaded political neutrality, but the overt and sustained politicking by hundreds of its members, including Jordan Sand‒who is an editor at the AASʼ flagship publication, the Journal of Japan Studies‒made this a dubious plea. 

In the wake of the American academics’ initial broadside and subsequent anti-Japan attacks, the response of many fair-minded Japanese and American scholars was to turn to the historical record in order to demonstrate that the Ziegler/Bentley textbook is stained by propaganda. 

The textbook’s many errors are easy to refute. Even a passing familiarity with the historical record is enough to persuade a candid mind that there is no evidence‒none‒for such outrageous falsehoods as “there were 200,000 comfort women,” “who were all sex slaves,” “mainly Korean,” and “provided as gifts from the Japanese Emperor to his troops in the field.” These are fictions. 

These fictions notwithstanding, ongoing research into the status of the comfort women and the Japanese military’s role in that arrangement has yielded a firm set of facts which scholars in Japan, South Korea, and the United States hold largely in common. Apart from isolated incidents, the comfort women‒many of whom were Japanese, and not Korean‒were not sex slaves. Nor were they forcibly conscripted. They were mainly poor, uneducated young women who either willingly chose or were deceived by civilian recruiters and proprietors to work at military brothels. Compensation often included advance payment to their families. 

Their plight differed little from that of camptown prostitutes the world over. The comfort women who serviced Japan’s imperial troops were, if anything, remarkable only due to how well they were treated in comparison with other wartime prostitutes throughout history.