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Tillerson tells ‘frenemies’ Japan and South Korea to heal ‘comfort women’ rift

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There have been a lot of questions about whether Rex Tillerson is up to the job of U.S. secretary of state. On his recent trip to Japan, South Korea and China in his new role, he answered some of them, generally not in his favor.

He tested, with little success, the proposition that amateurs have something to offer in the exercise of diplomacy. To be fair, he was thrust into a very complex situation. To be kind, the reviews have been mixed as he rattled sabers, pointedly remarking that the military option is on the table as a means to deal with North Korea while reassuring Pyongyang that it need not fear the U.S.

In dismissing as a failure the past 20 years of carrot-stick diplomacy aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, he was stating the obvious and offered no fresh proposals. He snoozed his way through Seoul and found the Chinese uncooperative as Washington and Beijing insist the ball is in each other’s court. Pyongyang flipped him the bird with another missile test.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Tillerson suggested that Japan and South Korea adhere to the 2015 agreement on the wartime “comfort women.” Significantly, Japan has withdrawn its ambassador from South Korea over the placement of bronze statues of a young comfort woman near its embassy in Seoul and consulate in Busan. There are actually three dozen more statues and memorials around South Korea that have been installed by various groups since the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery placed one outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Dec. 14, 2011. This commemorated the 1,000th rally by comfort women survivors held there weekly since 1992.

Critics of the Seoul and Busan statues argue they violate the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, but that is a big stretch. The Seoul statue radiates serenity and doesn’t disturb the peace or impair the dignity of the Japanese Embassy, even if it represents a memory that is awkward for some Japanese. In my view, rather than hunkering down in Tokyo, the Japanese ambassador to South Korea could help heal the bilateral rift between these “frenemies” and enhance Japan’s dignity by paying his respects at the statue and honoring the memory of the women who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels.

Instead, the Abe government is doubling down on the statue wars and taking the fight to the U.S., where it has filed a brief in support of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court involving a lawsuit against the town of Glendale, California. Plaintiff Koichi Mera is seeking the removal of the statue, but he lost in both the state and federal courts of California. He is a leading revisionist propagandist in the U.S. and author of the intriguingly-titled self-published book “Whose Back was Stabbed? FDR’s Secret War on Japan,” due out in April.

Tomomi Yamaguchi, an anthropologist at Montana State University, says that the statue movement in the U.S. is a reaction against the revisionist whitewashing of the comfort-women issue championed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Indeed, Abe signed an infamous ad placed by revisionists in a New Jersey newspaper in November 2012 inveighing against the placement of a small comfort-women memorial in Palisades Park, New Jersey. This was six months after the town declined an offer of cherry trees and books for the public library from Japanese officials in exchange for removing the memorial.

Yamaguchi attributes this campaign to “deeply rooted racism and sexism of the Japanese government and the right wing,” and singles out the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for opprobrium. “MOFA, often criticized by the right wing for not doing much for the interests of Japan, has been actively involved in the attempts to stop building those memorials in North America.” How is that in the interests of Japan?

“The Japanese government shot itself in the foot on this one,” says Mary McCarthy, a Drake University political scientist. “It was the response to the memorial in Palisades Park (two years after installation) that led to the press attention. That led to the grass-roots movement to build memorials across the U.S.”

Linda Hasunuma, a professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College, explains: “The monuments fit into this greater strategy to regain control of the narrative about Japan’s wartime past, and that effort exists not only between Japan and South Korea but Japan and Korean-Americans as well. Among the Korean-American community, this was seen as an aggressive act by the Japanese government against Korean-Americans and Koreans, and an attempt to silence and bully local U.S. governments into removing the memorial.”

In her view, “It felt like censorship about the comfort women was being expanded to the U.S., and it activated deeply held resentments and outrage over how the Japanese treat Koreans even to this day.”

McCarthy comments: “The comfort-women issue itself has become a lightning rod for identity wars because the narrative is disputed. Each side is vying to have its narrative become the dominant one. Issues of historical justice have become part of identity creation.”

Contextualizing the movement, she notes that after the LA race riots of 1992, “Korean-Americans began to realize the importance of unity and political activism in the U.S. The comfort women were an issue that could unify across generations. Also, violence against women in conflict-ridden areas began to become a valid international cause in the 1990s.”

“Identity creation among Japanese-Americans is a different animal because of the internment experience and the divisions in the community between those born in the U.S. and those born in Japan,” she adds.

Yamaguchi believes that “MOFA interventions are exacerbating serious divisions within the Japanese-American and other Asian-American communities.”

McCarthy agrees, pointing out that, for American-born Japanese-Americans, “The fight for recognition and reparations after internment also led to a view towards civil rights that encourages them to champion others seeking historical justice.” In contrast, “Those Japanese who emigrated more recently tend to be more tied to Japan and without the experience of that civil rights fight.”

Historical justice is what’s missing from the 2015 comfort women agreement that Abe negotiated with now-impeached President Park Geun-hye. Tillerson supports this diplomatic deceit because he wants America’s allies to cooperate more extensively on security matters.

Alas, with Seoul in the midst of a leadership transition and heightened tensions on the peninsula, Japan’s ambassador to South Korea remains in Tokyo. And all because of some statues? Welcome to Asia, Mr. Secretary — there’s a steep learning curve ahead.

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