Dr. Pacifist and Mr. War Crime?

The consequences of Prime Minister Abe’s indiscretions on the comfort women question continue to unfold, with this editorial in Korea’s Chosun Ilbo, suggesting that Abe may have completely undone all of his diplomatic efforts with his remarks.

Key paragraph:

…Abe is not listening. He is listening to the recommendations of nationalistic lawmakers and considered launching a new investigation on whether the mobilization of sex slaves was forced. He is trying to buy time by starting another long and tedious investigation, while overturning the apology made by former Cabinet secretary Yohei Kono in 1993. Not satisfied with simply lobbying to block the passage of a U.S. House of Representatives bill demanding an apology from Japan, Tokyo is seeking the right to refute the critical reports by U.S. media. These are the faces of Japan under Abe, who came to power with the support of an increasingly right-wing public.

Now, I don’t doubt that the LDP’s “study group” plan is intended to buy time and defuse the issue slightly. But I think the idea of an “increasingly right-wing” Japanese public more than slightly exaggerated. Undoubtedly, since the end of the cold war and the emergence of a new generation of leaders there has been a more pronounced nationalist streak in Japanese public discourse, but I don’t think that explains Japan’s reluctance to account fully for its historical mistakes, nor do I think it explains the supposed “hawkish” turn in Japanese foreign policy in recent years.

First, on the latter, one cannot understate the fact the contemporary Japanese society is profoundly insecure. Japan has been deprived of the security and predictability (and dullness) of the “1955 system,” of competent management by politicians and bureaucrats, and of an unassuming position internationally; it now struggles to return to normalcy economically, watches its position in East Asia erode as China surges, and faces a multi-dimensional threat from North Korea just across the Sea of Japan, in addition to a government that appears to be completely unable to tackle the host of troubles at home (most notably an alarming rise in inequality). So if the government is increasingly driven to cut a more prominent figure in the region and globally — and if public opinion appears to have taken a more belligerent turn on some issues — observers should be less quick to attribute it to some kind of latent, militaristic tendency and try to understand the situation in which Japan finds itself at present.

Insecurity is also a factor in the comfort women issue, because undoubtedly the Japanese government and people look abroad and see riled-up nationalists in China and Korea, as well as in the Korean- and Chinese-American communities, and feel ever more alone, hemmed in by frightening circumstances. Images of anti-Japan rallies in South Korea and China, on this issue and others, serve as a constant reminder to Japan of the changing balance of power in the region.

Meanwhile, to play amateur sociologist briefly, Japan’s being a “shame” society makes it difficult for Japan to account for its past mistakes to the degree that, say, Germany has, as suggested by Gregory Clark in this opinion piece from October 2005. Without defending Japan’s actions, Clark tries to outline what Japan’s past looks like to the Japanese. His Japan undoubtedly has a lot of work to do accounting for its past, but Clark implies the need for empathy from foreign countries: “Arguments that Japan as a shame society cannot admit past national mistakes make little impression on us foreigners brought up in guilt societies.” If other countries are judging Japan out of good-faith, genuine concern for historical justice and not because interest groups (or the ruling party’s interest) demands justice for self-serving ends, then they should at least try to empathize with Japan.

I don’t doubt that the “shame” versus “guilt” question is relevant here. Japan does approach responsibility for one’s actions differently: it’s the common thread connecting the comfort women issue, the scandal surrounding the use of expired ingredients by Fujiya, and this recent story about cover ups at Japanese nuclear plants. Passing a congressional resolution demanding that Japan own up for crimes committed before the current prime minister was born will not reverse this tendency to shy away from unpleasant truths.

If the US Congress truly feels the need to interject itself into the morass of Asia’s history problems, it should act less as an instrument of interest groups and more as a concerned observer, offering the good offices of the US to help resolve a thorny issue multilaterally — coaxing rather than goading Japan to accept the monstrous crimes committed by Imperial Japan fully and unequivocally. Doing so might counter the impression of Japan’s being “Dr. Pacifist and Mr. War Crime” that has formed due to the unfortunate connection between Japanese history and contemporary Japanese foreign policy.

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