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

Japan’s Uphill PR Battle


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.

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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.

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