No Wonder Koreans Still Have a Problem with Japan

"The Japanese presentation of the war to its children runs something like this: one day, for no reason we ever understood, the Americans started dropping atomic bombs on us." To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian — Stephen E. Ambrose

In the last few weeks, there have been a slew of headlines about the remarks a couple of the members of the Nippon Ishin no Kai made. The timing was probably not accidental. There was a monument dedicated to ianfu in New York around the same time. Ianfu (慰安婦; "comfort" or "recreation" women) is a euphemism for what most non-Japanese believe to have been the institution of forced prostitution imposed on women in conquered territories during World War II. Apparently, there are Japanese source materials that show that some of the women were volunteers who were occasionally compensated, making this a "controversial" issue in Japan.

This is not the first time a Japanese public official has made a public statement about ianfu. For nearly every offhand comment by a cabinet secretary (like the first "official" specific apology by a cabinet member in 1993, which was never formally recognized or supported by the government as a whole) there's been an offsetting one like Prime Minister Abe's flat-out denial of Japanese wrongdoing in 2007.

The reactions abroad this time were more negative than usual. Because of the extent of the backlash, despite the membership and politics of this minority party, Nippon Ishin said they were considering expelling both Hashimoto and Nishimura over the statments.

Nippon Ishin no Kai (no relation to the name for this blog, by the way, despite some similarity in English transcription) is a nationalistic political party that was founded just last year. The current head, Ishihara Shintaro, is well-known for his right wing nationalistic views and for producing casually racist comments. That both Nishimura and Hashimoto also have terminal foot-in-mouth disease when it comes to Japan's behavior in World War II comes as no surprise whatsoever.

What is a pleasant surprise is the amount of media coverage resulting from those statements. Not all of it has been negative, but most people don't seem particularly supportive of Nishimura's statements. However, that doesn't mean that negative backlash has been as strong as it should. For example, the headline "11 women in Diet decry Hashimoto" sounds promising until you realize that only 11 out of 43 women in the House of Councilors and 39 women in the House of Representatives reacted publicly.

Many Japanese (including some of my in-laws) think that right or wrong, Japanese need to learn to stick up for themselves and debate issues. So, Japanese news articles similar to the ones in the English-language press: "Hashimoto takes flak for sex slave rationale" and "Hashimoto sticks to guns on sex slaves" have garnered mixed reactions. Some people are upset that the statement is taken as Japan's official political position, but are proud that at least Hashimoto isn't buckling under criticism.

The ianfu issue is not a new one. Some of the surviving women in Korea have been making public statements about their treatment and fighting court battles for decades. At times, it seemed that the Japanese government was just waiting for the women to die so no one would have to deal with the embarrassment any more.

The official position of the Japanese government (as much as it has ever had one) seems to have been "we already gave at the office" in 1951 as part of the San Francisco treaty, and again in 1965 when Japan, as part of normalizing relations with Korea, paid compensation for its practices of slave labor and military conscription of Korean citizens during the War. What happened to the money is a he-said-she-said mess, where Korea claims one thing and Japan claims another, but apparently little of the money reached the people who suffered abuses.

The Asian Women's Fund, set up in 1995 and dissolved in 2007, was partially administrated by the Japanese government, but was primarily private, so the main criticism from victims was that it was weak tea. No official apology, few public funds, and most bitter, no official acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Cast Japan as a little kid saying, "I guess I'm supposed to apologize to you or something," while handing over his little brother's marbles, given because his brother felt bad for what his older brother did, and I think you'll get the picture. If I were little Sally who got kicked in the crotch by Billy, I'd be pissed-off too.

These are what the right-wingers claim are the reparations already paid to ianfu. Not that they needed to pay reparations, because Japan totally didn't do anything wrong during the War. Certainly not anything that any other nation wouldn't have done. Heck, there are thousands of Korean whores working voluntarily in Japan right now, and anyway, ATOMIC BOMBS!

These guys are the friendlier public-facing version of the black van crowd: Japan's right-wing nationalistic groups. Since the end of the cold war (and the end of US tolerance for extremist groups whose only redeeming value was their opposition to communism) Japan's nationalist groups have been increasingly negative toward the US. Most have been active and vocal in their support of revisionist history, which is the Japanese version of Holocaust denial, using the usual tools of nitpicking, downplaying, disputing, cherry picking, and flat-out lying about source documents.

Among their other oh-so-friendly ideas is the assertion that the Japanese constitution should be thrown out because it was imposed upon Japan by a conquering power. They also agitate for Japan to have an active military, capable of projecting force overseas, instead of a strictly defensive force. I'm sure that'll turn out well.

They're not dissimilar to the Ku Klux Klan in the US, but with an estimated 100,000 active members out of 128 million Japanese, compared to between 3,000 and 5,000 KKK out of 316 million Americans. Imagine if there was a Klan rally in most major cities on every national holiday and you'll get an idea of what it's like when the black van crowd comes through blaring anti-foreigner banzai-Japan! rhetoric from their loudspeakers at central train stations.

This is one of the many reasons I don't really want to be here in 10–20 years. The clashes between the hidebound nationalistic Japanese and the more forward-thinking Japanese are going to get worse. While membership in these groups doesn't really seem to be growing, it's disturbing that it's as high as it is, and even more disturbing that most people even outside the groups support some of the basic premises. Given Japan's demographic trends, immigration is going to be absolutely necessary at some point, and tensions between Japanese and non-Japanese are going to get unbearable.

If notoriously egalitarian Sweden can end up with immigrant riots I don't want to think about what Japan is going to be like when it's confronted with the necessity of immigration and assimilation, two cultural accommodations they have virtually no experience with. Japan is egalitarian (in theory anyway) if you're Japanese. It's very much not if you're not Japanese. Any change, if change is possible in a country that has proven so resistant to it, is going to be slow and painful. And probably violent.

I could be wrong, though. If there's one thing Japanese police are good at, it's keeping people in line. They have riot cops standing by with reinforced vehicles at the ready to cart away potentially unruly protestors at official public gatherings of any size. I personally witnessed this at a protest that passed by near where I was walking. There were a grand total of about 30 people with signs, chanting in a fairly restrained way. They were more orderly than lunchtime school kids.

There were more police than protestors present. I saw at least three vehicle units on two different side streets in the area, and about a dozen police in riot gear flanking the protestors on all sides.

So, I guess between the omnipresent surveillance cameras, broad police powers, and paramilitary training and deployment, they might be able to quell the riots pretty quickly and get the immigrants back to work where they "belong". I just don't want to still be here when that happens.