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‘Japan Lobby’ takes the gloves off in PR battle

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Special To The Japan Times

The Sankei Shimbun advocates a more aggressive diplomatic stance on history issues and this dovetails with the mission of Japan Conference, a reactionary organization that includes numerous lawmakers. From their perspective, Japan has been too reticent and polite on the world stage and the gloves need to come off.

It never seems to occur to them that this might be a counterproductive strategy and that on history issues it leaves Japan vulnerable to criticisms of promoting an exonerating narrative that glorifies wartime and colonial excesses.

But Japan is not exactly a public-diplomacy wallflower. The Japanese government, foundations and firms have developed an influential network in the United States that dates back to the 1970s. That era of acrimonious trade frictions spawned what American scholar Robert Angel has dubbed the “Japan Lobby,” a multipronged public- and private-sector effort to shape U.S. policy and attitudes. ProPublica estimates that total Japanese spending on lobbying and public relations was a whopping $4.2 billion in 2008, putting Japan third behind the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, while South Korea ranked eighth with $2.9 billion.

Like many of my university colleagues in Japan and the U.S., in September I was sent copies of two books from Liberal Democratic Party Upper House lawmaker Kuniko Inoguchi — “History Wars: Japan — False Indictment of the Century,” which was compiled and published by the Sankei Shimbun, and “Getting Over It! Why Korea Needs to Stop Bashing Japan,” by Takushoku University professor Sonfa Oh. It turns out that this thinly veiled attempt at propaganda was also sent to the foreign press corps in Tokyo, but it’s not clear which organization paid for this extravagant gesture. The U.S.-registered nonprofit Global Alliance for Historical Truth, however, claims credit for the distribution of “History Wars” on its website.

It is unlikely that these polemical jeremiads will convince anyone to change their mind. The tone of the Sankei book is closer to unhinged ranting rather than reasoned argumentation and stretches credulity in asking to be taken seriously. It trots out the familiar assertion that there is no documentary proof of coerced recruitment of “comfort women,” but undermines its own case by acknowledging that Dutch women were coercively recruited by force. The soldiers involved were convicted solely on the testimony of these white comfort women while testimony by Korean comfort women about coercive recruitment is dismissed outright — an unseemly double-standard that speaks volumes about Sankei’s bias.

The Sankei book also points out that in 1993 when the Kono statement acknowledging state responsibility for coercive recruitment of comfort women was issued, the government clearly defined coercion as including threats and intimidation. This is an awkward point given the Sankei’s disingenuous efforts to downplay the comfort women issue by focusing exclusively on denying coercive recruitment involving physical force. The Sankei apparently thinks that if it can redefine coercion and convince everyone that there were no comfort women recruited at bayonet point, then Japan can wriggle off this hook of history as if the entire sordid system is not the issue.

Korean scholar Park Yu-ha, who is often cited by Japanese conservatives, refers to archival documents that prove private recruiters, including Japanese civilians dressed in military uniform, recruited comfort women through intimidation and deception at the behest of Japanese military authorities. She believes the Korean women who testify that they were coercively recruited, and also maintains that Chinese women and others across Asia were pressed into sexual service through coercion. Park also wants the Diet to issue an apology to the comfort women.

Moreover, scholar C. Sarah Soh also found that in battlefront areas wherever Japanese troops were stationed, local women were forced to serve in improvised comfort stations. It is also documented that the military transported the comfort women to the comfort stations on military bases where they were denied freedom of movement. So what exactly is the Sankei’s point?

The Sankei is also up in arms about China’s alleged backing of a comfort woman statue and Pacific War Museum in San Francisco, apparently misunderstanding the local politics that drive these initiatives. It conveniently overlooks how, in 2013, Toru Hashimoto, as mayor of Osaka, sister city of San Francisco, drew the ire of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and city residents with his apologist comments about the comfort women system.

Raising the alarm about ongoing “History Wars” being waged in the United States, the Sankei asserts that China is orchestrating discord between the U.S. and Japan over history. If so, Beijing is doing a lousy job as more Americans by far distrust China: Only 38 percent of Americans have a high opinion of China while 74 percent have a favorable view of Japan. Tokyo’s best bet here is just to get out of the way and enjoy China’s self-inflicted wounds. It’s time Tokyo grasped that attacking criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his historical views as anti-Japanese, makes it look both paranoid and malicious.

San Francisco Bay Area activists assert that before the board unanimously approved the comfort women memorial in September, the Japan Lobby was vigorously working behind the scenes to kill the resolution. Locals privately assert that there was an anti-statue campaign of disinformation, and that local Japanese-American organizations were pressured to lobby against the resolution, with continued Japanese corporate funding hanging in the balance.

The board disregarded allegations about incidents of discrimination and bullying targeting ethnic Japanese children in Glendale, California, after a comfort woman statue was erected there. Glendale authorities dismissed these unsubstantiated claims by opponents to the statue, pointing out there were no reports to schools or police at the time. It seems that Japan would do better to shrug off these comfort women statue and memorial initiatives because intervention seems to backfire, throwing fuel on the fires of recrimination over the shared East Asian past thereby ensuring that more will be built.

So what should we make of the newly established organization Voices of Vietnam, a well-funded group that has hired former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman to serve as point-man in demanding President Park Geun-hye apologize for Vietnamese comfort women who served some 320,000 South Korean soldiers fighting at the behest of Washington in the Vietnam War? This organization held a press conference on Oct. 15 in connection with Park’s summit with U.S. President Barack Obama. In a Fox News op-ed published on the eve of the summit, Coleman demanded Park apologize to the Vietnamese victims of Korean sexual predations: “Failing to make such an unequivocal apology would only undermine President Park’s moral authority as she presses Japan to apologize for the sexual violence perpetrated against South Korean ‘comfort women’ during World War II.”

Apparently whacking Park is the main mission of an organization that seems, rather curiously, to have sprung up out of nowhere, according to sources in the Vietnamese diaspora in the U.S.

Certainly, amends to these women — there are an estimated 800 survivors — and the thousands of children of mixed ancestry born to them, are in order, but why hasn’t Coleman spoken out about the far larger, similar problem involving U.S. soldiers? And, given the expense of hiring ex-senators to be lobbyists, as the Japanese government has already done with Tom Daschle, who is paying the bills here?

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