Monday, March 17, 2014

A Friend in Tehran

The nationalist Japanese novelist Naoki Hayakuta may be controversial in his own country, but he is a hero in Iran. During a nine-day visit in February, he was treated like a VIP everywhere he went. The trip included a meeting with officials close to Supreme Leader Ali Khanenei.

“Japan-Iran relations have always been friendly – despite pressures from some Western powers,” greeted Ali Majedi, Iran’s deputy petroleum minister for international affairs and trading, and a former Iranian ambassador to Japan. He praised Hayakuta’s work in clarifying Japan –Iranian ties going back to the 1950s.
Hayakuta’s most recent best-seller, The Man Who Was Called a Pirate, published in 2012, recounts an episode shortly after the end of World War II known as the Nissho Maru Incident. In 1953 the Japanese petroleum trading company Idemitsu chartered a tanker, the Nissho Maru, to bring a shipment of diesel oil and gasoline to Japan, one of the first, if not the first case of Japan importing fuel from the Middle East.

Iran had just nationalized British petroleum assets in Iran, and Britain was seeking to punish Iran through a world-wide boycott of Iranian petroleum. The British took Idemitsu, still today one of Japan’s main petroleum companies, to court for breaking the boycott but were unsuccessful following several years of litigation.
The captain of the Nissho Maru, and the “pirate” of the novel, received a hero’s welcome when the ship docked in Japan. The incident was seen in Japan as a morale boosting episode for a country that was just emerging from, the “fires of war”. For the Iranians it was a small but inspiring victory against the Anglo-Americans who would soon overthrow the nationalist leader Mossaddegh.

The Man Who Was Called a Pirate became a best-seller in 2013, selling about 2 million copies and winning the Honya Taisho, or Bookstore prize.
Hayakuta’s most recent novel, Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero) is also a best seller and was made into a successful movie. It tells the story of a young man who investigates the life of his grandfather who died on a kamikaze suicide mission during World War II.

But the author probably would have stayed out of the limelight enjoying his gadfly role as a novelist except for his recent appointment to the Board of Governors of NHK, Japan’s equivalent of the state-owner BBC, along with two other ultra-conservative figures appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earlier this year.

Hayakuta subscribes to most of the extreme Japanese-nationalist tropes: The Nanjing Massacre was a Chinese fabrication, the “comfort women (forced prostitution) a rude South Korean libel, that Japan was tricked into going to war with the U.S. while liberating Asia from colonial domination. He is not shy about of espousing them.

Though an NHK governor is supposed to be non-political, he campaigned openly for the most extreme right wing candidate in the recent by-election for governor of Tokyo, the former air force chief of staff Toshio Tomogawa, who was fired in 2009 for distributing similar opinions among the troops. Hayakuta was unapologetic about his overt partisanship.
His arguments are standard boiler-plate from right-wing agitators who patrol the streets of Tokyo and other Japanese cities every day, haranguing people through loudspeakers mounted on trucks. Critics of the appointment fear Abe has handed the extremists a much bigger mouthpiece, Japan’s national broadcaster.

It wasn’t so much that he and similarly minded governors would turn the NHK into a propaganda organ for extreme conservative-nationalist views (though there is some concern about that). It is that under the Abe regime their views do not disqualify them from serving on prestigious boards. Not long ago people with these reactionary views would be reluctant to enter the public arena or quickly be forced to resign. That is no longer the case.
The conservative Abe is known to admire Hayakuta’s books, and the two have developed a close association. The two collaborated on a book published last December that included a long essay by Hayakuta denouncing the Nanjing Massacre as a fairy tale and several speeches by Abe, who doesn’t dispute any of the questionable assertions of Hayakuta.

The Iranians may not know or care much about such issues as the Nanjing Massacre, but they can appreciate America-bashing when they hear it. And there is the long-term solidarity with Japan dating back to in Nissho Maru Incident in 1953. During the visit, the novelist appealed to anti-American sentiments with comments that America “has always used dirty politics” or that Americans are “not normal.”
Tokyo has always been a reluctant participant in the American-led international system of sanctions aimed at persuading Iran to forego developing nuclear weapons. Though progressively diminishing in importance, Iran is still a major supplier of petroleum to Japan. With no fossil fuel assets of its own Japan is dependent on imports from the Middle East.

Over the years, Japan has been forced to dispose of its Iranian petroleum concessions one-by-one. In 2010 Tokyo withdrew entirely from ownership of the Azadegan oil field near the Iraqi border under steady pressure from Washington. Japanese companies were worried that they would be sanctioned and excluded from the American market for continuing the deal with Iran.
Recognizing Japan’s total dependence on imported fuel and need to have diverse supplies, Washington has granted exemptions to Japan to buy a limited supplies of oil from Iran. In early March Japan announced the purchase of $450 million of crude oil. It was the first such deal under the arrangements of the interim nuclear deal.

During his fifteen months in office, Prime Minister Abe has visited more than two-dozen countries, including twice to Turkey but not yet Iran. During a short visit to Tokyo Iran’s foreign minister said he hoped Abe should add Iran to his busy itinerary and held out the lure of buying Japan’s nuclear power plants. He was talking Abe’s language.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Empire Strikes Back

Two months ago several members of municipal assemblies in Japan journeyed to the southern California city of Glendale. They were not bent on forming some kind of sister-city relation with Glendale, which, in fact, already has one with a suburb of Osaka.

No, they were on another mission – a mission impossible? – to persuade the Glendale city fathers to remove a statue to Korean “comfort women” ( the euphemism for prostitute) that the city placed in a public park last July. It is part of a blowback in Japan to a new trend of American cities and states to insert themselves long-standing historical issues between Korea and Japan.
Yoshiko Matsuura, a member of the Suginami Ward (kind of borough) assembly in Tokyo, led the Japanese delegation to California. “It was shocking to see the statue and the inscription, ‘I was a sex slave for the Japanese military’ on it.” She and a colleague, Tomoko Tsujimura, a Komae city councilor, said they were worried it would lead to bullying of Japanese children in the town.

Last month the state of Virginia waded into unfamiliar foreign policy waters when the state legislature passed a law requiring that publishers of textbooks used in Virginia schools add six-little words to any references to the Sea of Japan: “also known as the East Sea”. New York state and New Jersey are contemplating adopted similar laws.
The East Sea is what Koreans call the body of water that separates them from Japan. The Koreans claim that the term “Sea of Japan” is a relic of colonialism a reminder of the time when Korea was annexed to the Japanese empire from 1910 to 1945. Japan says it is a longstanding term and recognized by international agencies that keep track of such things.

The interesting thing about these recent controversies is how they pit local governments against each other. Both Japan and South Korea have generally tried to stay aloof from these battles at the national level to keep bilateral relations on an even keel. The South Korean embassy in Washington did not enter the naming controversy.
However, the Japanese Embassy did lobby heavily against the Virginia bill. Ambassador to the U.S. Kenichiro Sasae met with the governor urging that he veto the legislative bill and hinting of some kind of Japanese trade retaliation that might discourage investments in the state.

Japan is at a disadvantage in these controversies in that Korean emigration to America has far distanced Japanese immigration in recent years. Nationally, neither has the numbers to constitute a powerful national constituency, but Korean immigrants are more closely concentrated in pockets where they have the numbers to exert influence on local decision makers. For example, 16 percent of Glendale’s population is Asian, but Koreans outnumber Japanese by 8-1.

The Japanese councilors, mostly members of the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party has been emboldened by election more than a year ago of a new government led by conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who makes no secret he doubts that Korean or other Asians were conscripted to serve the army as prostitutes. During his first term as premier in 2007 his cabinet issued a statement that the government could not prove that there was coercive recruitment of comfort women. That led directly to a unanimous Congressional resolution condemning Japan.
The official position of the Japanese government on comfort women is contained in the 1993 Kono statement. In it the then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono admitted and apologized for at least indirect Japanese government involvement in the forced recruitment of Asian women to work in army brothels. The statement seems to satisfy nobody. Koreans dismiss it as a vague whitewash; hardline nationalists in Japan want to repudiate it entirely.

The current Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga recently raised a storm in late February when he suggested that the government might re-examine the statement and in some fashion possibly re-interview some of the 16 former comfort women whose testimony formed the basis of it, thus casting doubt on the veracity of the testimony.
That statement raised concerns that the government was about to repudiate the Kono Statement. So far, that hasn’t happened, but while the Abe government has not repudiated the statement (and other official World War II apologies) it hasn’t reaffirmed it either.

Conservatives in Japan make the following basic claims: that no comfort woman was forced into prostitution, that the army was not directly involved, that it was a necessary condition of war and that, anyway, other countries provided official army brothels for their troops.

There is some evidence to support the first view. U.S. Office of War Information in 1944 conducted extensive interviews with Korean comfort women captured in Burma after the fall of Myitkyina. It said that the young women were recruited by Japanese agents offering an opportunity to pay off family debts and other inducements.
Often, the report says, they were deceived into thinking that “comfort service” amounted to work connected with visiting wounded soldiers in army hospitals or rolling bandages. “On the basis of these false representations, many girls enlisted for overseas duty and were rewarded with an advance of a few hundred yen.”

On the other hand, it is hard to understand how these young women were recruited in Korea and then transported to Japanese army camps in central Burma without the direct involvement of the Imperial Army.

It was not reported how many of the 16 women whose testimonies formed the basis of the Kono Statement are still alive. Like other veterans, or victims, of World War II, they are dying off rapidly. The Korean government counts only 55 living ex-comfort women in Korea with an average age of 88. They are all left of numbers that ran into the tens of thousands.