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.




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