In a 1989 essay, “Coming Down Again: After the Age of Excess,” from a newly edited collection of her writings, the late American critic Ellen Willis discussed a dilemma the women’s movement faced in the ’70s. With the advent of the ’60s counterculture came so-called free love, a throwing-off of social mores that stifled sexual expression, and Willis welcomed it. But when feminism arose in tandem, she realized true sexual liberation couldn’t happen without confronting the male mind-set, because many of the men who embraced the free sex ethos didn’t appreciate women’s interpretation of it if it meant challenging their own impulses.
“There were all those ‘brothers’ who spoke of ecstasy but f-cked with their egos,” she wrote, “looked down on women who were ‘too’ free, and thought the most damning name they could call a feminist was ‘lesbian.’” Though Willis didn’t say gender trumped political will, she suggested it was more basic to her outlook, that solidarity starts with anatomy before it extends to sensibility.
This dilemma informs the new book by Minori Kitahara and Park Sooni, “Okusama wa Aikoku” (“The Wife is a Patriot”), which looks at the current right-wing movement as advanced by women, specifically married women. Last January, an Asahi Shimbun reporter accompanied Kitahara, a prominent essayist on women’s issues and the owner of a shop, Love Piece Club, that sells sexual paraphernalia, on a visit to Yasukuni Shrine. She talks about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent “surprise visit” to the shrine and how it enraged China and South Korea, who see Yasukuni as a sanctification of Japanese aggression during World War II. Abe insists they misunderstood his intentions, that he goes there to pray for peace, but Kitahara thinks that if Abe believes this he is fooling himself, because what is diplomacy if not the ability to “sense the internal logic of one’s counterpart?” Kitahara sees Abe’s “inability to communicate” as being “characteristic of Japanese men,” which is why his administration was shocked when the U.S. expressed disapproval of the visit, despite the fact that the Americans had tried to talk him out of going beforehand.
Some would say Kitahara’s distrust of male intentions disqualifies her as an effective social critic, but it also gives her insight into the phenomenon of patriot wives, which she finds counter-intuitive. In the preface she theorizes that the recent rise in nationalism and accompanying incidence of hate speech, mainly against Koreans, is a reaction to the disaster of March 2011, specifically the media’s handling of it. She was overwhelmed by the blanket coverage in Tokyo, oppressed by the disapproving gaze of fellow citizens and intimidated by the media’s admiration for “the people’s stoicism,” as if it were something everyone had to display in order to be considered Japanese. In a panic she boarded a shinkansen for Hiroshima, just to get away from the “atmosphere,” and then was made to feel guilty for doing so. “It was during that summer that I became aware of the patriotism movement,” she says.
After writing critically about the people who picketed Fuji TV for showing dramas from South Korea her shop’s website was bombarded with antagonistic emails. She started having anxiety attacks and developed an acute “hatred for my country.” But what really perplexed her were the patriot wives, the women who expressed their love of Japan as enmity toward anyone they believed held Japan in contempt.
Kitahara and Park interrogate the logic of patriot groups for wives such as Soyokaze, Hana-dokei and Gendai Nadeshiko Club, who mimic male nationalists in their denunciation of “masochistic” educational policies and the mass media for being “biased against Japan.” More significantly, they address issues they think women are interested in. They bristle when the media talks about Korean figure skater Yuna Kim at the expense of Japanese figure skater Mao Asada. They speak out against “traitorous” left-wing celebrities such as lawmaker Mizuho Fukushima and women’s studies professor Yoko Tajima. But their main target is Korean “comfort women” who say they were forced to sexually service Japanese soldiers during World War II against their will. The patriotic wives call them “lying old women” who only want money.
At one point Kitahara overhears a foreign journalist interviewing the leader of Hana-dokei at a rally. She admits that comfort women were necessary to help soldiers at the front lines. “A chill went down my spine,” she writes. “Are they really the same sex as me?”
Later she realizes that patriot wives hate Korean comfort women because they talked publicly about their ordeal. A Japanese woman would keep such information to herself. She recalls that when the first self-professed sex slave came forward in 1991 she thought, “Of course, that’s something men would do,” and notes that South Korea’s male-dominated government only supported them after women’s groups made an issue of it. She didn’t need proof they were telling the truth because she had always lived in thrall to male whims and resented it. Her reaction was visceral, not intellectual, but it wasn’t necessary to “reinvestigate history.” All you had to do was look at those anti-AIDS posters being distributed at the time: a besuited man hiding his face with his passport above the words, “Have a good trip, but be careful of AIDS.” The corporate warriors of the bubble era needed their Asian sex tours as much as the Imperial warriors needed their comfort stations. But it’s not an incontrovertible fact of life as Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto implied when he defended the comfort women system. It’s a cliche.
Arguments over evidence and who coerced who are beside the point. Patriot wives say a true Japanese will “naturally” not believe the Korean comfort women, but according to Kitahara’s thinking any woman will, because she knows “that’s something men would do.” The world, knowing what it knows about war, probably believes them, too.