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Trade deals trump sex slave issue for Osakans

When Osaka Mayor and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) co-leader Toru Hashimoto uttered his infamous remarks last May that Japan’s wartime sex slave system was necessary at the time, he was roundly — and rightly — condemned at home and abroad.

It was clear then, and clearer today, that the real reason he got in trouble was because he was caught saying out loud what many Japanese of his generation, and not a few elders in the government — including, perhaps, at the highest levels — truly believe but refuse to say directly.

However, recent events have loosened the floodgates of candor. Today, Abe’s government is locked in a tense standoff with South Korea over the “comfort women” issue. Every ambitious right-wing politician in Japan who can find a microphone is now repeating at full volume what Hashimoto said 10 months ago. Compared to the spit and venom coming out of sex slave deniers in Tokyo and elsewhere, Hashimoto’s comments last year are increasingly sounding intelligent and restrained.

Yes, that’s how bad it’s gotten.

But what Hashimoto’s critics have never fully appreciated is that while he opened a Pandora’s box with his comfort women comments, it was a topic an entire generation was curious about. Raised on historical revisionist manga, ignorant of either the facts or the morality of the issue, the “Hashimoto Generation” became angry and confused when confronted by a past they never knew and the vague replies of their elders in the political and social mainstream when they tried to learn. Only the historical revisionist camp seemed to have, conveniently enough, all of the “facts.”

The young Hashimoto Generation’s anger warmed the hearts of Japan’s old right-wingers. It also allowed them to now pose as wise, experienced leaders who were — depending on which think tank audience or television camera they or their foreign apologists were addressing — “realists,” “moderates,” or “pragmatists” who would, in the end, rein in the young hotheads so as not to upset the status quo.

Today, however, nobody seems to know how to handle either the comfort women controversy or the younger generation. Hashimoto may have started the current fire. But to lump him in with the crude right-wing politicians now fanning the flames risks misunderstanding the mayor and, more generally, his Osaka followers and how they see the broader relationship with the Korean people.

Nearly 1,000 years before political power shifted to Tokyo in the 17th century, Korean and Chinese merchants were trading in Osaka. In the late 20th century, a strong community of Korean residents led the way in local human rights education. Many Osakans who support Hashimoto’s economic policies grew up with Korean neighbors, friends and colleagues. Of course, it’s not surprising that they feel they “know” Koreans quite well.

Such supporters have little if any true love for all the yelling about the comfort women issue and they are particularly disgusted by anti-Korean hate speech. Those politicians elsewhere banging on about the sex slave issue are increasingly seen in Osaka as opportunists who have no real interest in pursuing a lasting solution or listening to Korean concerns.

Thus, the Hashimoto Generation as a whole may have wanted answers to the comfort women issue and now believes revisionist claims the historical facts are not “settled.”

But in Osaka, you can also find those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that their city’s trade and cultural history with Korea combined with a traditional merchant’s disdain for rigid politics means their odds of success in “doing a deal” — quietly, behind the scenes — with South Korea are better than anybody shouting in the streets of other cities, especially Tokyo’s.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.