The Consequences of Shaming Politics in East Asia

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The Consequences of Shaming Politics in East Asia

In disputes over history and territory, the PR fight is intense … and damaging.

The Consequences of Shaming Politics in East Asia
Credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Recently, media outlets have paid a great deal of attention to territorial disputes between Japan and its neighbors, China and South Korea, fueling considerable animosity in East Asia.

Simultaneously, another heated battle is being waged, one over historical authority and the hearts and minds of the international community. Specifically, these nations have engaged in emotion-laden public relations campaigns over possession of the islands, the naming of the Sea of Japan/East Sea, and the comfort women issue. The intensified effort to fight the public relations battle is due to the closing window of opportunity for aging victims of World War II to voice their story. Additionally, the alleged rise of Japanese nationalism, epitomized by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent decision to reexamine the Kono Statement, in which the Japanese government admitted its role in coercing women and antagonistic remarks trivializing the issue by conservatives have further invigorated the opposition.

Subsequently, China and South Korea have engaged in a highly organized and sophisticated public shaming campaign with the hopes of garnering international sympathy for their causes. This campaign has included high-production state-sponsored videos staking claim to the disputed territories. Japan has only recently recognized that it is losing the PR battle and has begun to fight back. For example, minister in charge of Ocean Policy and Territorial Issues, Ichita Yamamoto, plans to launch a website (in English) articulating Japan’s position because as he claims, “as China and South Korea have actively transmitted information, we must also enhance our transmission to the world.”

Although each state has the right to seek public support for its cause, in their present actions they are threatening long-term reconciliation prospects for the region. The public shaming strategy forgoes tempered discussion in favor of total victory, which risks alienating the other side and third parties.

Sea of Japan Naming Dispute

In the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami there was a great outpouring of support for Japan from the international community. American apparel brand, J. Crew, ran a “Love Save Japan” t-shirt campaign, in which 100 percent of the profits would be donated to the Japanese Red Cross to assist in disaster relief efforts. This seemingly innocuous goodwill gesture quickly raised the ire of many East Asians who found the t-shirt’s design and use of the term “Sea of Japan” an offensive reminder of Japanese colonial rule. J. Crew immediately removed the t-shirt from their online store and offered an apology on its Facebook page. The move led to heated arguments on the company’s Facebook page with many accusing “East Sea” proponents of hijacking a charity to promote a political agenda. Coincidentally, “East Sea” proponents have distributed t-shirts promoting their preferred naming convention. The controversy has also drawn in other private companies, such as Google and major Korean telecommunications carrier KT.

Traditionally, states have gone to international bodies such as the UN and International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) to voice their concerns. However, international bodies have either ruled unfavorably for China and South Korea, such as the IHO’s recent affirmation of the “Sea of Japan” naming convention (at least until 2017), or abstained, such as when the UN requests the parties to settle the dispute amongst themselves. Consequently, “East Sea” proponents have looked for success in other arenas.

In April 2014, Korean-American campaigners, with the backing of the South Korean government, found victory when the U.S. state legislature of Virginia passed a law requiring that the term “East Sea” be used in new textbooks. The Virginia case is the first of several similar initiatives in the future. New York and New Jersey may also follow suit with similar legislation.

For “East Sea” proponents, a victory would simply be normalizing the idea that the term “Sea of Japan” is disputable in the international arena. The Japanese response has been limited to much more modest lobbying efforts in the U.S. and critical statements from the Japanese government.

Comfort Women Dispute

Japan faces even more pressure when it comes to the comfort women issue. Although the Japanese government established the Asian Women’s Fund to compensate women forcibly coerced by the imperial government to work at comfort stations, the private status of the fund as well as antagonistic statements by Japanese politicians have led many in Asia to question the sincerity of Japan’s apologies.

Chinese and Koreans have pursued a campaign of raising awareness about comfort women, most dramatically through the creation of “comfort women” statues and monuments across the globe. Such statues have been bitterly contested, but ultimately erected in Glendale and New Jersey. The model for these statues can be found in South Korea, particularly notable because it sits right outside the Japanese embassy. Plans for a statue are also being pursued in Australia and Germany. In France, the South Korean government supported an exhibit at a comic festival depicting the sexual slavery of Korean women by the Japanese military. Japan has also been stung by statements made by high-ranking American officials about the comfort woman warm crimes, most notably by Congressman Mike Honda, Secretary of State Clinton, and President Obama.

Defensive remarks and criticisms lobbed by the Japanese government have been met with strong resistance from local officials uninterested in being intimidated by a foreign state. Japanese politicians have not helped their cause, routinely making trivializing remarks about comfort women, a position not supported by the vast majority of the Japanese public.

The Consequences of Shaming

This article does not seek to question the merits of the claims made by each side, but the implications of shaming politics for long-term reconciliation. The current approach presents several problems.

First, the very public and embarrassing battle prevents meaningful discussion on the issues between the interested parties. For many Japanese who have little connection to World War II, the public shaming has led to apology fatigue and indifference to the concerns of Chinese and Koreans. More alarming are the defensive and nationalistic reactions that seek to deny Japan’s war atrocities altogether, reaffirming Chinese and Korean preconceived notions that Japan is not genuinely sorry for its war history. The Sea of Japan and comfort women issues are just a small part of a long history of Japanese war history criticism. One can expect similar complaints to take center stage at sporting events where the Japanese flag is called into question. Coincidentally, while social media has allowed for highly effective and cost-efficient public relations campaigns, it has also bred unfiltered and hate-filled rhetoric among the general public. A quick glance at the comments section of the majority of articles about the various disputes can only confirm the damage these PR battles cause.

Second, the shaming approach risks angering and harming third parties. The U.S. has grown frustrated with demands to pick sides on the issue and would prefer the parties to settle their domestic dispute outside of American politics. City officials are also weary of being drawn into disputes that have little to do with local politics, as seen by the decision not to erect a comfort woman statue in Buena Park, California. Students have also suffered, whether through cancelled exchanged trips between sister cities or school bullying. Businesses residing in states supporting legislation for either side are also risk. In a not-so-thinly veiled warning, the Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae reminded Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe that Japan and Virginia’s economic ties could be damaged. The Korean government responded by sending their own ambassador to plead their case. One could call attention to the legality of foreign states lobbying in the U.S. and the harm it can cause.

Third, the nationalistic character of the PR battle obscures important lessons that could be drawn from the issues, namely the gendered consequences of war. As Tessa-Morris Suzuki argues, the comfort women issue is a human rights issue that highlights the suffering of women during war. The fact that there is little coverage about the Korean and Japanese government coercing their own citizens into working at comfort stations in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War highlights the lack of attention of the suffering of women due to government war policy.

Unlike physical confrontations over islets, where states may be more willing to refrain from being overly antagonistic out of fear of escalation, punches are not being pulled in the PR battlefront. The embarrassing nature of the PR battle has reinvigorated nationalistic movements, reaffirmed age-old biases, and prevented the public and government from pursuing meaningful reconciliation.

Tom Le is a PhD candidate of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine and Non-Resident Sasakawa Peace Foundation Fellow.