Professor’s ‘Comfort-Women’ Lecture Gets Him Indicted—And Sparks Debate on Academic FreedomHistorians in the News
tags: comfort women, human rights, World War 2, Japanese history, Korean history
Deep into a three-hour sociology class, a South Korean professor offered a controversial view of women in Japan’s World War II-era military brothels. They weren’t taken forcefully by the Japanese military. The work was “a form of prostitution,” the professor said, according to a 2019 transcript of his remarks.
Those words cost professor Lew Seok-choon his job, got him indicted and have now made him an avatar in the global debate about academic freedom on college campuses.
A recording of the comments, made two years ago in the first class of the fall semester at Seoul’s Yonsei University, became public after a student leaked the audio to local press on the day of the lecture. The school blocked Mr. Lew, now 66 years old, from teaching the course during his final year before retirement. Prosecutors last year charged him with three counts of defamation. The case remains ongoing.
Among the list of grievances between Tokyo and Seoul, none carries as much emotional charge in South Korea as “comfort women” who were forced into sex slavery by Japan. To many Koreans, the matter remains unresolved and serves as a painful reminder of Japan’s 35-year colonial rule. It endures as a central point of tension between the two countries, unfolding in diplomacy, at protests and in forced-labor lawsuits.
The Japanese government has acknowledged its military was involved in the “comfort women” system and issued formal apologies. Tokyo’s disagreement on the matter now with Seoul largely revolves around whether the government bears any legal liability—which it denies, citing prior accords with Seoul. The United Nations, as far back as 1996, has published reports describing the comfort-women system as sexual slavery.
In an interview, Mr. Lew said he had given that same lecture for more than a decade. Students always pushed back and they debated. But the discourse had never before become public.
Decades of research clash with Mr. Lew’s interpretations of history. South Korean victims, aged 11 to 27 at the time, testified that they were drafted into “military comfort stations” through abduction and false job offers, according to the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a Seoul-based advocacy group for the survivors. At times 20 to 30 Japanese soldiers waited in line outside of the “comfort stations” and the women weren’t allowed to leave, according to testimonies collected by the group.
In a 1996 U.N. special rapporteur report that addressed “military sexual slavery in wartime,” one Korean victim testified that as a 13-year-old girl she had been snatched by a Japanese garrison soldier as she went to fetch water from the village well. She was later taken to a Japanese army garrison, where there were around 400 other young Korean girls who served more than 5,000 Japanese soldiers a day, according to the U.N. report.
The body of evidence totals hundreds of survivor testimonies and historical documents that point to Japanese coercion, said Jinhee Lee, a history professor at Eastern Illinois University, who has catalyzed efforts to respond to claims that the women were prostitutes—including an academic-journal article published online late last year by a Harvard professor that drew widespread recrimination. Such notions are akin to hate speech, she added.
“The rhetoric of ‘academic freedom’ cannot be used to crush the sanctity of human lives and throw off the priority of protecting people’s basic human rights,” said Ms. Lee, who is also a research associate at Harvard’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies.
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