Japan’s Uphill PR Battle (Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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.

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