Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto has been busy making headlines around the world with his controversial views on Japan’s wartime sex slaves (or “comfort women,” for those who like euphemisms with their history). Among other things, he claimed there is no evidence that the Japanese government sponsored the program, and suggested these exploited women were (and still are) a “necessary” outlet for a military’s primal urges.
I will say something for this idiot’s provocative behavior: He brought this issue out for long-overdue public scrutiny. He has also presented us with a case study of how to keep people like him in check.
For a person in power, Hashimoto has behaved unusually candidly. Generally, after Japanese politicians or bureaucrats burp up ignorant, bigoted, sexist or offensively ahistorical comments, they backpedal by claiming they were somehow misunderstood (which Hashimoto did), or even try to excuse their remarks by saying they were “for a domestic audience only.” (They seem to think they live on an isolated debate Galapagos, and that the Japanese language is a secret code.)
Then Japan’s media plays along by ignoring or downplaying the events or, if pressed, lobbing the ideologues a few softball interview questions. Most reporters lack the independence (due to editorial constraints and incentives not to rock the powerful press club system) or the cojones to hold elites’ feet to the fire.
However, when their statements make the foreign media (particularly the BBC or New York Times) they get serious domestic traction, because now Japan’s international image — vis-a-vis countries Japan’s government actually cares about — is being tarnished.
In the bad old days, blunderers would then tentatively apologize and tender a snap resignation — without effecting any real change in how Japan’s elites “really think,” or sufficient debate on the issues they resuscitated. It feels like lopping off one of the heads of a hydra — you just know more noggins will pop up shortly.
Nowadays it’s worse, because the hydra often stays unlopped. Bona fide bigots (such as former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara; see JBC, Nov. 6, 2012: If bully Ishihara wants one last stand, bring it on) remain boldly unrepentant or tepidly sorry, hunker down at their posts and wait for the public to swallow the issue before the next media cycle begins.
The result is a toxic aftertaste regurgitated in the region: Japan seemingly rewrites a pretty awful colonial past, and former colonies see this free pass from historical purgatory as a product of Japan’s special political and military relationship with hegemon America. Asia’s acid reflux thus sours other international relationships.
This time, however, Hashimoto is doing something different: He’s actually cooking up an international debate. A marathon press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last week exposed some juicy bones of contention.
Hashimoto reiterated his denial that the government was “intentionally involved in the abduction and trafficking of women” but, more indicatively, he said: “It would be harmful, not only to Japan but also to the world, if Japan’s violation of the dignity of women by soldiers were reported and analyzed as an isolated and unique case, and if such reports came to be treated as common knowledge throughout the world.”
To paraphrase: Japan did nothing all that wrong because it did nothing unusually wrong. Hashimoto is thus rationalizing and normalizing sexual slavery as a universal part of war — as if blaming Japan is wrong because everyone else allegedly did it.
Essentially, revisionists such as Hashimoto want a bowdlerized assessment of history. But remember, every country has shameful periods in their past; the trick is to learn from them, not cover them up (as Hashimoto’s ilk seeks to do, all the way down to a sanitized education curriculum).
They also want a dishonest tone in the narrative. For them, Japan must not only be seen accurately (as they see it); it must be seen nicely. That is simply not possible when addressing certain parts of Japan’s history.
Why are these people trying so hard to be relativistic? They might actually be so thick as to believe that any government would institutionalize sexual slavery in the “fog of war.” It’s more likely, however, that they simply don’t want their “beautiful country” to be the bad guy in their movie.
Fortunately Hashimoto’s posturing has exposed this ugly illogic. He has given people who know better (such as historians and eyewitnesses) the opportunity to correct and inform Japan’s revisionists on a national level.
To be sure, Hashimoto (a lawyer famous for taking extreme stances as a TV celebrity before his election to office) has never developed the “caution filter” that usually comes with public office, which is why he should return to private practice, where his semantic games would be limited to Japan’s petty courts.
But Hashimoto has also inadvertently shown us a way to blunt the rise of Japan’s incorrigible right wing: Reduce their rants to performance art.
As historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki sagely notes: “This is not politics by persuasion but politics by performance. The object of the current performance is obvious. It is to provoke impassioned counter-attacks, preferably from those who can be labeled left-wing and foreign — best of all from those who can be labeled Korean or Chinese nationalists. This will then allow Hashimoto to assume the ‘moral high ground’ as a martyred nationalist hero assailed by ‘anti-Japanese’ forces . . .
“This makes a careful and considered response to the Hashimoto phenomenon particularly important. Above all, this phenomenon should not be ‘nationalized.’ Hashimoto does not speak for Japan, and to condemn Japan because of his comments would only be to boost his demagogic appeal.
“The best reply from those who hope he never will speak for Japan is to allow his words to speak for themselves. Those outside Japan who are alarmed or offended by these words should seek out and lend support to the embattled peace, human rights and reconciliation groups in Japan which also seek a different future, so that their voices too may be heard at the national level.”
So, I encourage readers to understand what’s behind maintaining these narratives. Japan’s Hashimotos want to channel Japanese society’s innate cautiousness towards the outside world (JBC, Oct. 2, 2012: Revisionists marching Japan back to a dangerous place) into domestic support for their xenophobic populism. When they make their venomous statements, take them up and calmly point out the illogic and inaccuracies therein — stress on the word “calmly.” Use their tactics against them.
It’s a bit ironic, but Japan needs more Hashimotos to make a hash of contentious issues. The clearer they spout stupid stuff, the clearer our corrections will be. And, with sufficient attention and pressure, the shorter their political lives will be.
Debito Arudou’s updated “Guidebook for Relocation and Assimilation into Japan” is now a downloadable e-book on Amazon. See www.debito.org/handbook.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community pages of the month. Send comments and ideas to email@example.com.