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Diplomatic blundering on hostages and history

by

Special To The Japan Times

Japan’s latest hostage crisis has exposed shortcomings in Japan’s public diplomacy and raises questions about the advice Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received in publicly announcing $200 million in humanitarian aid to help those displaced by conflict with the Islamic State group.

Understandably, the prime minister wants to demonstrate solidarity with anti-Islamic State forces and make clear that proactive pacifism is not just empty rhetoric, but prominently throwing Japan’s hat into the ring proved a high-risk strategy for the hostages. Japan has long earned goodwill in the Middle East by discreetly working in the background rather then grandstanding, but maybe Abe thought he might get some kudos from Washington for the gesture.

Even though he did not secure the release of either Kenji Goto or Haruna Yukawa, it is clear that Abe was trying to cut a deal, using Jordan as a convenient cover.

Washington will get over it, but given the large number of Japanese businesspeople working in the Middle East, and the many NGOs involved in a massive humanitarian aid program in Afghanistan, much is at stake for a Japan that has just abandoned four decades of “omnidirectional” diplomacy in the region and taken sides. Islamic extremists have taken note and the recent incidents in Brussels, Paris and Sydney are cause for concern: Terrorism may not remain a taigan no kaji (fire on the other side of the river).

Nancy Snow, a leading American scholar on public diplomacy now in Japan on an Abe Fellowship, is incredulous about Abe’s posturing.

“I just can’t understand why Abe made such a high-profile visit to the Middle East at this time,” Snow says. “The Middle East is not a place for Japan to go and get ensnared in the (Islamic State) field of vision. Japan was coasting along quite well outside the global ‘war on terror,’ maintaining its low profile, and then Abe had to increase the testosterone.

“How naive to think that he couldn’t be walking into a perfect trap with his $200 million in nonmilitary aid to countries fighting Islamic State.”

Despite the deaths of both hostages, I expect Abe’s popularity will rise because he has been the picture of a resolute leader in crisis and Islamic State has to answer for their murders.

Drawing on a “rally around the flag” syndrome in the Diet, Abe will use the hostage crisis to push for much more in terms of bolstering Japan’s military capabilities and lifting constitutional constraints, perhaps even arguing for special commando forces that could mount a rescue operation in the future. He will encounter pushback and as he has adroitly done on many occasions, will pull back a bit, relying on his Reagan-esque Teflon to shrug off flak while letting the opprobrium die down. In doing so, he slyly stretches the envelope for his security agenda despite public misgivings.

Down the road, however, Abe will likely face some tough questions about the hostage crisis that could complicate his efforts to pass several bills related to collective self-defense, the controversial reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution he made last July that most Japanese oppose and very few support. Overall, the crisis has been an opportunity to stand tall, but it has also shown the public the risks of doing so. Most Japanese have misgivings about the wisdom of the prime minister’s proactive pacifism and now their doubts have been vindicated. Being America’s deputy sheriff is a high-stakes game-changer.

Aside from Abe’s ill-timed announcement about humanitarian aid, there have been other cringe-worthy diplomatic gaffes. Last month, government officials visited the New York offices of publisher McGraw Hill to complain about descriptions of “comfort women” and the disputed territories in one of its textbooks.

What were they thinking? The publisher responded that evidence and scholarly consensus is on its side and questioned why the Japanese government was meddling. The international media had a field day, skewering Japan for being in denial about its past and trampling on hallowed values and rights.

Surely the diplomats should understand that deft public diplomacy means understanding what battles can be fought and how to effectively fight them. Poking its nose into U.S. textbook content was a losing proposition especially over controversies involving wartime Japan. While the Japanese government may have grounds for grousing, its intervention has been a public relations disaster.

There really is no way government officials can win on touchy history issues because no matter how delicately they phrase their demands, a backlash is almost guaranteed, and Japan winds up looking like it is shirking war responsibility and encroaching on academic freedom and freedom of expression. So, quibbling about exactly how comfort women were recruited and treated, and how many there were, looks unseemly because fundamentally it was a sordid system operated at the behest and with the active participation of the Japanese military. There is no good way to spin this and no odds in minimizing it. The same holds for squabbling about the Nanking Massacre, mistreatment of POWs, Unit 731 or forced labor. Surely Germany could also gripe over some details about what is written concerning the Nazis’ record, but by not doing so it has been far more successful in overcoming the past.

The government should not be in the business of promoting self-serving views of history because it will only reinforce negative perceptions of Japan. There is no nobility in self-exoneration. Problematically, the current government is challenging the long-standing mainstream consensus in academia, here and abroad, on Japan’s wartime past with blunt propaganda and clumsy revisionism that is more embarrassing than convincing. If there is substance to the government’s arguments and revisionists’ assertions, then credible academics will have to make the case in peer-reviewed publications. Historians are constantly revising our understanding of the past based on fresh, convincing analysis and new sources, so if indeed Japan has been unfairly maligned, reputable scholars hold the key to redemption, not government propagandists.

Revisionists can get away with bullying the Asahi Shimbun and work up a sanctimonious ire about the injustice of Japan’s villainous image and the indignities of what they view as masochistic history, but surely diplomats should know this jingoistic swaggering won’t win Japan any friends overseas and will embarrass and alienate those it has.

The online version of this commentary was updated to reflect the turn of events Sunday morning. 

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.


Full coverage of the Islamic State hostage crisis

  • Richard Solomon

    Good point about Abe’s being naive. If he wants to ‘play with the big boys’ in world diplomacy and politics, he had better make the Japanese people ready for more hostage crises. His flexing Japan’s muscles more publicly on the world stage will, in all likelihood, result in terrorist attack(s) of some kind. How will the Japanese public respond to that?!?

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    “Problematically, the current government is challenging the long-standing
    mainstream consensus in academia, here and abroad, on Japan’s wartime
    past with blunt propaganda and clumsy revisionism that is more
    embarrassing than convincing.” If there is such a consensus, I’d like to know what it is.

  • Bruce Chatwin

    Lincolnman asks “Did ISIS decide to ransom the Japanese hostages because of Abe’s pledge of $200m or merely because they know Japan is a country with the resources to pay, and a history of doing so?”
    I would say that the answer is both.

  • Dipak Bose

    Obama-Kerry-Clinton have no intention to destroy ISIS; they are playing with fire.
    Only Putin can save the world. Russian Army should go to Syria and destroy ISIS both in Syria and Iraq. There is no other way.
    Japan should develop good relationship with Russia. USA is not helping Japan.

    • Hitokiri 1989

      Indeed an alliance with Russia and Iran would be beneficial to Japan. It can get oil and weapons technology without having to worry about the adventurism of its allies

  • Roan Suda

    In my youth I was farther to the left than, I would suppose, Jeff Kingston is. But then I went to graduate school and concluded that if lunatic lefty academics ran the world, we would all be in serious trouble…Kingston is himself an academic, but this article is, even by non-scholarly standards, just another example of snarling, incoherent, Abe-bashing drivel.

    • Hitokiri 1989

      not exactly. Japan wants to revise a historic term because ONE guy lied. Should we reexamine the Holocaust because Simon Wesenthal lied about his experiences?

      • Roan Suda

        It’s Wiesenthal…Comparisons are hazardous. No reasonable person denies that many women served the Japanese military as prostitutes, and I would hope that reasonable people would dismiss the notion that men sent to fight and kill “deserve” some sexual release…The question is to what extent coercion was involved–and by whom. And then there is the nasty question of motivation. Those who engage in Holocaust studies are or ought to be interested in the terrible truth–not simply in a chance to bash Germans. As anyone who has lived in South Korea knows, Japan-bashing is a cottage industry. Historical truth is entirely secondary to national myth. Chinese nationalism feeds off similar reinforced hatred. I am no apologist for “we-noble-and-innocent-Japanese” revisionism, but playing along with whatever the Japan-bashers (including leftwing Occidental historians) churn out will only lead to more of the same.

      • Scott Reynolds

        Why do you claim that “leftwing Occidental historians” support all the questionable Korean claims? Are you referring to Jeff Kingston specifically? What he wrote was “So, quibbling about exactly how comfort women were recruited and treated, and how many there were, looks unseemly because fundamentally it was a sordid system operated at the behest and with the active participation of the Japanese military. There is no good way to spin this and no odds in minimizing it.”
        I agree entirely with this statement, and it is in accord with what professional historians who specialize in this area, such as Yoshimi Yoshiaki, have written in their books. I am unaware of any actual historians (as opposed to politicians and the like) who dispute that the ianfu system was “operated at the behest and with the active participation of the Japanese military.” I think this is pretty well undeniable, which is why attempts to finesse the subject by arguing about exact numbers or the like completely miss the point and just make Japan look bad.

      • Roan Suda

        No, I am not referring to Jeff Kingston. And I am not saying that any “leftwing Occidental historian” supports “all the questionable Korean claims.” But the fact remains that it’s both politically correct and safe to dump on Japan. Japanese militarism was brutal–and disastrous for all, including, of course, the Japanese. And the worse the Japanese military looks, the better the firebombing and nuclear bombing of Japan by the Americans appears. Very few Japanese wish to demonize either the Koreans or the Chinese, whereas many Koreans and Chinese gleefully make ogres of the Japanese… Prostitution was taken for granted throughout East Asia. In a highly hierarchical society such Korea’s, it was thought that “good girls” (i.e. girls from wealthy families) should be protected by “bad girls” (i.e. those who wind up as prostitutes). Where are the statues in America commemorating the Korean women variously “bought,” raped, and murdered by American soldiers? I’m not saying that there should be any; after all, thousands of American men have died fighting for the freedom of South Korea. But history is full of such unpleasant ambiguities…If I thought that wallowing in a genuine sense of guilt over the ianfu would make for better relations between Korea and Japan, I’d say: fine, do it. But I think the entire issue is kept alive largely into order to stoke the fires of hatred.

      • Scott Reynolds

        Okay. Thanks for clarifying. I think it is important to keep in mind, though, that it is Japanese conservatives who have turned this comfort women thing into a political football at this very late stage, and they are reaping the consequences as the Koreans and Chinese use it to their own ends. That doesn’t mean that what the Koreans and Chinese are doing is right, But it all could have been avoided if the Japanese revisionists had just had the decency to keep their damn mouths shut.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        “looks unseemly because fundamentally it was a sordid system operated at
        the behest and with the active participation of the Japanese military.” Any more sordid than the comfort women Korea provided for US troops? Any more sordid than the massive sex industry that surrounded Subic Bay? Some Philippine sources claim direct US military involvement. Any more sordid than the systems run by the German, the French and the British (in India)? That some Japanese try to downplay or even deny their own system is no excuse for other countries not to face up to what they have done. How many who condemn the Japanese for their comfort women system know that last year Korean women who claim they were coerced into providing sexual service to the American military brought a suit for damages against the Korean government?

      • Scott Reynolds

        All of the cases you cite are similar in some respects to the Japanese system. Attempts to whitewash such abuses, especially where coercion is involved, should be condemned across the board. I certainly do not think that the Japanese should be held to a higher standard than the Americans (or the Germans, the French, or the British).
        The key difference here is that we do not see American (or German, or French, or British) politicians getting up and repeatedly claiming that the abuses you referred to above didn’t occur or that those complaining of them are just lying whores out for the money.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        “Sex slaves?” It’s not a historic term. It’s a political term. Also one used by porn sites.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    “If there is substance to the government’s arguments and revisionists’
    assertions, then credible academics will have to make the case in
    peer-reviewed publications. Historians are constantly revising our
    understanding of the past based on fresh, convincing analysis and new
    sources, so if indeed Japan has been unfairly maligned, reputable
    scholars hold the key to redemption, not government propagandists.” Credible American and Japanese academics have already done this for the “Nanking massacre,” the “comfort women,” and other issues. Jeff Kingston has either not read their work or choses to ignore it.

    • Scott Reynolds

      Really? Credible historians have provided support for Abe’s view that there was no large-scale massacre of Chinese POWs and civilians in Nanjing after its capture by Japanese forces in 1937, or that the “comfort women” were all professional prostitutes who voluntarily signed up either out of patriotism or for monetary gain?

      I suspect that what you are really saying is that the more exaggerated claims made about the above two issues (that the number of victims in Nanjing was 300,000 or more, or that all the “comfort women” were captured and led away at bayonet-point by Japanese soldiers) are not supported by the work of credible historians.

      I think it is truly unfortunate that historical truth is so often obscured by the loud assertions of people who do not care about what really happened and only want to push a political or ideological agenda. But in this article Jeff Kingston has it right: Abe and those like him are making fools of themselves (and damaging Japan’s reputation) by pushing their own historical distortions. The fact that there are others who push equally extreme distortions on the other end of the spectrum does not alter this fact.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        Yes, it is your second paragraph that reflects what I was thinking of in my comment about what credible historians have written. As for Abe, as far as I have been able to determine, he has not actually made any concrete assertions about any of the hot button issues although there is no question that some associates and appointees have made some seriously off the wall remarks. “The fact that there are others who push equally extreme distortions on the other end of the spectrum does not alter this fact.” I would rephrase this. “The fact that some Japanese deny everything is no excuse for others to wildly exaggerate everything.”

      • Scott Reynolds

        I agree with you. What is truly unfortunate is that it is the people at the two extremes who make most of the noise. Anyone who tries to point out that things are not entirely black or white gets shouted down immediately.

    • Bruce Chatwin

      Could you give us the names of some of the credible American and Japanese academics who have supported the revisionists’ assertions in peer-reviewed publications regarding the Nanking massacre and comfort women?

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        You’ll have to specify explicitly what you mean by revisionists and what statements you are thinking of. For example, if a “revisionist” says something like “yes, there was an atrocity at Nanking but the Chinese have wildly exaggerated the numbers for political purposes,” then it is quite easy to give you credible academics who agree. Similarly, if a “revisionist” says something like “yes, there were some women forced into prostitution but a much larger number went in voluntarily or because of family or economic pressure,” again there are credible academics who say this. If you want credible academics who say there was no atrocity at Nanking or who say that every single one of the comfort women was an enthusiastic volunteer, I know of no such individuals. So, specify the particular “revisionists” you are thinking of, tell me what they have specifically said on either of these issues, and I’ll tell you if there are credible academics who agree.

      • Bruce Chatwin

        You clearly stated that “Credible American and Japanese academics have already done this for the “Nanking massacre,” the “comfort women,””.

        Again, who are the credible American and Japanese academics who have supported the revisionists’ assertions in peer-reviewed publications regarding the Nanking massacre and comfort women?

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        And, I’m telling you “revisionist” is NOT a well-defined category. Kingston wrote “If there is substance to the government’s arguments and revisionists’
        assertions, then credible academics will have to make the case in
        peer-reviewed publications.” I would NOT assert that every single statement ever made by anyone in government and every single statement ever made by anyone that Kingston or others have labeled “revisionist” has credible academic support. But, some points made by some people who have been labeled “revisionist” do in fact have credible support. For example, people who would be called “revisionists” condemned the Yoshida reports on the “comfort women.” Credible historians demonstrated the reports to be false. Decades later, the Asahi admitted the reports were false. Some Japanese “revisionists” say the war crimes trials in Japan were “Victor’s Justice.” The term actually originates with a credible American academic. Some revisionists say the 9-10 March firebomb raid on Tokyo was an atrocity. Some revisionists say the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime. Many credible historians say the same thing. Let me tell you again, “revisionist” is NOT a well-defined category inhabited by people who think and say exactly the same thing. Some things they say are complete and utter rubbish. Other things they say have some credible support. Is that really so difficult to understand?

      • Bruce Chatwin

        Is it really so difficult for you to understand that if you are going to make assertions, then you should be prepared to back them up?
        More bull flinger than bull fighter it seems.

  • Toolonggone

    Quite. It’s so dumb and naïve if Abe and diplomatic leaders think they can demand whatever they want on US textbooks. Did they really think they can win sympathy from a giant textbook company(a.k.a. education capitalist) like McGraw-Hill? Absolutely ridiculous.