Earlier this year a Harvard law professor found himself at the center of controversy once again after he published a detailed and well-researched defense of a previous paper studying Japanese military brothels during World War II. Activists were furious that the paper suggested some “comfort women” were engaged in compensated prostitution, instead of being depicted as coerced captives of the army.

The author, J. Mark Ramseyer, paid a high price for this transgression. The public outrage included numerous letters and petitions demanding he be fired, multiple threats and attacks on his reputation, and near-universal condemnation in liberal-leaning media.

But what if, in fact, this controversial paper contained some inconvenient truths?

Judging by the information contained in one official U.S. government document from the time, that appears to be the case. First declassified in 1973, the archival document is known as “The Japanese Prisoner of War Interrogation Report No. 49.” It was prepared by the U.S. Office of War Information, Psychological Warfare Unit which was attached to the U.S. Army forces in Myitkyina, Burma, in 1944 shortly before the end of the war. The authors had the opportunity to interview 20 Korean comfort women and two Japanese “house masters” detained by the U.S. military.

What’s interesting about this document compared to the first-hand testimonies is its credibility. As an official U.S. military document, the authors had no reason to favor any party in the modern-day comfort women dispute. In fact, with Japan as a sworn enemy of the U.S. in 1944, the intelligence officers would obviously exercise great scrutiny toward these matters. But instead, the image that emerges differs sharply from the version of history promoted by the activists.

Firstly, the document rather bluntly states that a “comfort girl” is nothing more than a “prostitute” or “professional camp follower” attached to the Japanese Army for the benefit of the soldiers. The report found that the average Korean “comfort girl” was about 25 years old. The interviews revealed how they were recruited, which is consistent with Ramseyer’s paper: these women signed contracts which bound them to Army regulations and to war for the “house master” for a period of from six months to a year, usually motivated by the incentive to pay off family debts.

The living and working conditions described by Interrogation Report No.49 are starkly different from the comfort women testimonies promoted by activists.

“They lived in near-luxury in Burma in comparison to other places,” the report states. “This was especially true of their second year in Burma. They lived well because their food and material was not heavily rationed and they had plenty of money with which to purchase desired articles. They were able to buy cloth, shoes, cigarettes, and cosmetics to supplement the many gifts given to them by soldiers who had received ‘comfort bags, from home.”

The report continues: “While in Burma they amused themselves by participating in sports events with both officers and men, and attended picnics, entertainments, and social dinners. They had a phonograph and in the towns they were allowed to go shopping.”

The women were also reported to be in good health, and were provided with contraceptives. “A regular Japanese Army doctor visited the houses once a week and any girl found ill was given treatment, secluded, and eventually sent to a hospital,” the report reads.

While these privileges mark a clear departure from the modern-day activists’ claims of comfort women being kept as prisoners, the Interrogation Report No. 49 is also very clear that this was without a doubt a very hard and difficult profession. The private “house masters,” many of whom were Korean men, “made life difficult” for the comfort women interrogated in this report by charging high rates for food and other articles. The women they interviewed reported that the brothels were open seven days a week, with tiered rates based on rank, and sometimes too many solicitors that many had to be turned away, causing “ill feeling” among soldiers.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the report states that “the girls were allowed the prerogative of refusing a customer. This was often done if the person was too drunk.” The report also found that “in the latter part of 1943 the Army issued orders that certain girls who had paid their debt could return home. Some of the girls were thus allowed to return to Korea,” while in terms of salaries, each earned approximately 1500 yen a month, allowing for savings of approximately 550-900 per month. This is a significant amount of money in relative terms, given that the average Japanese soldier was only paid 10 yen per month, and that in the 1940s, one could buy a home in Tokyo for around 5,000 yen.

The facts revealed in this official U.S. military document conflict with many of the testimonies from the remaining comfort women. Many of those testimonies themselves have changed over time as well. Lee Young-soo, the most well-known former comfort woman, has changed the story about how she was recruited several times. In 1993, she said she joined a recruiter after being offered fine clothing and shoes. Then in 2018, testifying before the French Parliament, she claimed she was kidnapped by soldiers, who marched her off with a sword to her back.

The problem of shifting testimonies appears to be common. Academics have found many instances in which elderly, vulnerable former comfort women were pressured and coached by activists to change their testimonies, forcing all the narratives to match the construct that the comfort station system was a crime by the Japanese empire against colonized subjects, which of course ignores alternative evidence and experiences. Feminist researcher Chizuko Ueno writes that the former comfort women in South Korea "started to deform their narratives so as to meet the expectation from their audience; that is to say, a narrative of innocence by a 'model' victim, such as an innocent maiden, fetched by force, thrown into the living hell and survived."

Ueno continues: "Activists were also guilty even out of good will to construct the innocence and ignorance of victims so as to hear the story which they wanted to hear."

There appears to be a serious problem when history becomes so intensely politicized and instrumentalized in service of nationalist identity. There is likely not any definitive truth which could be revealed that will change people’s minds about this highly volatile period of history, but at best we could begin by recognizing there is greater nuance and complexity to all these events than is being portrayed by the howling mob. It may not always suit the political priorities of the day, but when considering the meaning of documentary evidence like this report, it is important to decontextualize history and stop trying to force it into any pre-established construct.

Professor Robert Carmona-Borjas has taught at both George Washington University and American University and serves as the CEO and founder of the Arcadia Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that seeks to curb corruption in developing governments.