Japan’s Uphill PR Battle

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Japan’s Uphill PR Battle

China and South Korea mount a vigorous campaign abroad against revisionist thinking in Japan.

Japan’s Uphill PR Battle
Credit: REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

Japan is involved in a worsening quarrel with its two neighbors, China and South Korea, not only concerning sovereignty over some tiny islets, but also its alleged tendency to whitewash its history of military aggression and brutal colonial rule.

One of the major points of antagonism is the issue of “comfort women” (or “sex slaves” as an angry Hillary Clinton called them), namely women in Japan-occupied Asia who were forced into prostitution serving Japanese soldiers. Despite the 1993 Kono Statement in which the Japanese government admitted that Japan’s military had coerced these women, a recent rise of nationalism has led a majority of Japanese to deny any such thing, giving rise to suspicion that Japan is again refusing to take responsibility for its war crimes.

On this issue, the Koreans are more militant than the Chinese and political ties between Tokyo and Seoul have been frozen since the hawkish Shinzo Abe returned to power, and has hardly bothered to hide his aim of repealing past Japanese admissions of sin regarding the comfort women. The right-wing prime minister actually represents a growing number of Japanese who believe that Japan did nothing wrong in the last world war and that the comfort women were only professional prostitutes. These Japanese are fed up with the Korean and Chinese demands for apologies and compensation.

The South Korean grievances are not only about Japan’s peculiar interpretation of history, but also Tokyo’s position that any outstanding war-related disputes with Korea were settled once and for all when diplomatic relations were established in 1965. Tokyo has since consistently refused to provide official compensation to individual victims of its war conduct, including comfort women. To Japan’s credit, it did create a private fund to compensate surviving women, but the Koreans insist on an “official” form of reparations.

In the U.S.

It is in this context that South Korea launched a vigorous PR campaign a few years ago, which sought to raise global awareness about the plight of comfort women and Japan’s attitude toward the issue. The well-organized campaign has mainly taken place in the United States and has so far met with little resistance from Japan.

Japan first tried to dismiss this campaign as unworthy of attention. Tokyo also comforted itself with the thought that the U.S., its ally and protector, would stand firmly by the Japanese under any circumstances. In fact, Washington had until recently shown no particular interest in the reemergence of nationalism and revisionism in Japan. Now, however, this Japanese conviction of America’s unconditional support has been shattered, as Washington too has finally grown frustrated with Abe’s poor management of Japan’s relations with neighbors. Moreover, the Americans have also begun to realize the danger posed by Tokyo’s renewed revisionism, sensing that it is evolving towards outright denial of the postwar world order masterminded by the United States.

In 2007, the first blow from America came when Congress adopted a resolution condemning the practice of comfort women and demanding that Japan apologize to the victims. Although this embarrassing slap in the face by Tokyo’s “best friend” was hurriedly swept under the carpet in Japan, Congress acted again this year by approving the 2014 federal spending bill with the condition that the State Department press the application of the 2007 resolution to Tokyo. The height of humiliation for Japan is that the author of the 2007 resolution was Mike Honda, a congressman of Japanese descent.

In 2010, Japan was again embarrassed when a number of U.S. cities voted to erect “comfort women statues” in their parks, starting with several cities in New Jersey. The latest statue was unveiled on July 30, 2013 at Glendale, California, following a decision by the city council.

In fact, the campaign to erect comfort women statues across the U.S. is being pushed by Korean-American and Chinese-American communities, who are gaining influence in U.S. local politics thanks to their financial affluence and growing political awareness. This is where the Japanese suddenly realized how poorly they are represented in American society, in term of number of immigrants, organization, political relevance and lobbying power.

Many Japanese are bewildered by the fact that this spreading “anti-Japanese movement” in America is being led by a congressman of Japanese descent. Why would Mr. Honda, of all people, take the lead in condemning Japan? The first explanation is that his electoral district in California is heavily populated with voters of Korean and Chinese descent.

The second explanation lies in the particular history of the Japanese-American community. Like many other Japanese-Americans at the time, Mr. Honda spent part of his childhood imprisoned with his family in a U.S. concentration camp during the Pacific War because of their Japanese ancestry and in spite of their U.S. citizenship. The trauma of this humiliating and racist experience led many Japanese-Americans since then to go out of their way to prove their “American identity” and even to take a critical view of the human rights insensitivity of their ancestors’ homeland. It is this complex feeling that led the Japanese-American Union at San Fernando Valley, California, for example, to decide in January to lend its support to the Korean campaign for “comfort women” statues.

In contrast to the Korean-American and Chinese-American communities, which comprise mostly new arrivals, the Japanese-American community consists mainly of third- or fourth-generation immigrants whose “blood link” with Japan is quite diluted. The few modern-day newcomers from Japan are generally business or academic-related individuals who are not interested in U.S. citizenship and even less in U.S. politics. Unlike many Chinese and Korean youth who dream of a better life in America, few Japanese youth are today interested in leaving the comforts of home to settle abroad.

So while Chinese-American and Korean-American communities represent for American politicians a whole new army of wealthy and generous voters with strong ties to Korea and China, Japanese have traditionally been Washington-centered in their ties with the U.S. They also lack a meaningful lobby, especially at local levels. The few attempts at opposing or contesting the Korean campaign in the U.S. were mostly conducted by individual Japanese residents or visiting Japanese officials. But, without voting rights, their pleas fall mostly on deaf ears.

One rare pocket of organized resistance was recently put up by a group of Japanese and Americans in the U.S. Calling itself GAHT. The group brought a lawsuit in February contending that the erection of the “anti-Japanese” statues by the City of Glendale constitutes a violation of the federal government’s prerogatives on foreign policy. The outcome of this lawsuit may influence the pursuit of the Korean campaign in the rest of the U.S.

In October 2013, Japan did score a small victory when a Japanese-American resident dissuaded the Buena Park City council in California from erecting a comfort women statue.

However, the Koreans have recently opened another front in their offensive against Japan in the U.S. At their initiative in early February, the state legislature of Virginia voted to include in its school textbooks the Korean name “East Sea” in parallel to the widely used and traditional “Sea of Japan” in an atlas showing the sea between the two countries. The decision was taken despite the Japanese ambassador’s lobbying effort to stop it. The victorious Koreans are preparing similar initiatives in other states, beginning with Maryland.

Japan’s image in the U.S. has been severely tarnished by its constant association with “sex slaves.” The matter is actually being made worse by the Japanese themselves, with jingoistic politicians and officials in Japan unintentionally helping the Koreans by making well-publicized nationalist statements justifying the shameful practice of “comfort women” as a “necessity of war.” The latest such attempt came from Katsuo Momii, newly appointed president of NHK, in flagrant violation of the public broadcaster’s obligation of political neutrality and in total impunity.

Overall, the odds are still against Japan as the move to build the statue is making its way across the USA.

The European Theater

Europe was not spared this PR confrontation. In January, the Koreans took the fight to France, at the Angouleme International Cartoons Festival, where they mounted a sophisticated exhibition of cartoons depicting Japanese atrocities on the comfort women.

According to Japanese sources, the Japanese apparently had only themselves to blame for the success of this “anti-Japanese” exhibition. First, the Japanese embassy in Paris turned down an invitation for Japanese participation to the festival, leaving the entire field to the Korean campaign. Then, trying to counter the Korean exhibition, a group of Japanese nationalists put up an exhibit of their own cartoons denying the existence of comfort women. However, the Japanese group was ousted from the festival due to the overly jingoistic tone of its exhibit as well as the Nazi swastikas shown in some of the Japanese cartoons. Here again, Japan is paying a price for neglecting lessons from its wartime past in its national education. Obviously, these young Japanese had no idea why Nazi swastikas are taboo outside their own country.

Koreans now plan to erect comfort women statues in European countries such as Germany and to seek an entry on UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” register. Japan finds it hard to counter such moves without risking attracting more attention to the embarrassing subject. Tokyo did set up a task force to deal with it. But how can the bureaucrats and diplomats convince anybody in the world of Japan’s innocence and sincerity on the comfort women issue when, one after another, their own high officials and prominent politicians at home were publicly justifying the repugnant practice and insulting the victims as professional whores?


Besides Korea, Japan is more and more finding China standing in its way in the court of global public opinion, as China shares with South Korea the anger at Japan’s revisionism.

In what is generally seen as a joint slap to Japan, China accepted a South Korean proposal and opened in January a memorial museum honoring Ahn Jung-Geun, much to Japan’s dismay. In 1909, Ahn assassinated Itoh Hirobumi, Japan’s first modern-day prime minister and colonial governor of Korea. Dedicated to a man considered a national hero in Korea but a terrorist in Japan, the memorial is built at the precise spot in China where the assassination took place.

At the just concluded Sochi Winter Olympics, Chinese President Xi Jinping convinced Russian President Putin to jointly celebrate next year in China the 70th anniversary of the victory over fascism. Needless to say that this means “Japanese fascism.” And that agreement was reached only hours before Putin was to welcome Abe to Sochi.

Since Abe’s visit last December to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war criminals among other Japanese war dead, China has stepped up its international PR campaign, mobilizing its ambassadors in different countries to condemn what China sees as Abe’s attempt to revise the postwar world order and the danger of the revisionist path that Japan is taking under Abe’s leadership.

One of Japan’s disadvantages in this PR battle may be its excessive focus on the U.S., in relative disregard of the rest of the world. For example, following Abe’s Yasukuni visit, which drew unprecedented and negative reactions from many countries, China’s foreign minister called up his counterparts in countries around the world, including the U.S., Russia, Europe and Asia, to condemn Abe’s move. To date, there have been no reports of the Japanese foreign minister calling his counterparts in any country other than America.

Still, in America at least, Japan can at least hope that China’s anti-Japanese offensive is less convincing than that conducted by the Koreans, given that China itself has its own image problems there on human rights. For Japanese diplomats though, that thought is likely to be of limited comfort.

Yo-Jung Chen is a retired French diplomat, born in Taiwan and educated in Japan, who has served in Japan, the United States, Singapore and China.