By opening up the debate to the real experts, Hashimoto did history a favor

by Debito Arudou

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto has been busy making headlines around the world with his controversial views on Japan’s wartime sex slaves (or “comfort women,” for those who like euphemisms with their history). Among other things, he claimed there is no evidence that the Japanese government sponsored the program, and suggested these exploited women were (and still are) a “necessary” outlet for a military’s primal urges.

I will say something for this idiot’s provocative behavior: He brought this issue out for long-overdue public scrutiny. He has also presented us with a case study of how to keep people like him in check.

For a person in power, Hashimoto has behaved unusually candidly. Generally, after Japanese politicians or bureaucrats burp up ignorant, bigoted, sexist or offensively ahistorical comments, they backpedal by claiming they were somehow misunderstood (which Hashimoto did), or even try to excuse their remarks by saying they were “for a domestic audience only.” (They seem to think they live on an isolated debate Galapagos, and that the Japanese language is a secret code.)

Then Japan’s media plays along by ignoring or downplaying the events or, if pressed, lobbing the ideologues a few softball interview questions. Most reporters lack the independence (due to editorial constraints and incentives not to rock the powerful press club system) or the cojones to hold elites’ feet to the fire.

However, when their statements make the foreign media (particularly the BBC or New York Times) they get serious domestic traction, because now Japan’s international image — vis-a-vis countries Japan’s government actually cares about — is being tarnished.

In the bad old days, blunderers would then tentatively apologize and tender a snap resignation — without effecting any real change in how Japan’s elites “really think,” or sufficient debate on the issues they resuscitated. It feels like lopping off one of the heads of a hydra — you just know more noggins will pop up shortly.

Nowadays it’s worse, because the hydra often stays unlopped. Bona fide bigots (such as former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara; see JBC, Nov. 6, 2012: If bully Ishihara wants one last stand, bring it on) remain boldly unrepentant or tepidly sorry, hunker down at their posts and wait for the public to swallow the issue before the next media cycle begins.

The result is a toxic aftertaste regurgitated in the region: Japan seemingly rewrites a pretty awful colonial past, and former colonies see this free pass from historical purgatory as a product of Japan’s special political and military relationship with hegemon America. Asia’s acid reflux thus sours other international relationships.

This time, however, Hashimoto is doing something different: He’s actually cooking up an international debate. A marathon press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last week exposed some juicy bones of contention.

Hashimoto reiterated his denial that the government was “intentionally involved in the abduction and trafficking of women” but, more indicatively, he said: “It would be harmful, not only to Japan but also to the world, if Japan’s violation of the dignity of women by soldiers were reported and analyzed as an isolated and unique case, and if such reports came to be treated as common knowledge throughout the world.”

To paraphrase: Japan did nothing all that wrong because it did nothing unusually wrong. Hashimoto is thus rationalizing and normalizing sexual slavery as a universal part of war — as if blaming Japan is wrong because everyone else allegedly did it.

Essentially, revisionists such as Hashimoto want a bowdlerized assessment of history. But remember, every country has shameful periods in their past; the trick is to learn from them, not cover them up (as Hashimoto’s ilk seeks to do, all the way down to a sanitized education curriculum).

They also want a dishonest tone in the narrative. For them, Japan must not only be seen accurately (as they see it); it must be seen nicely. That is simply not possible when addressing certain parts of Japan’s history.

Why are these people trying so hard to be relativistic? They might actually be so thick as to believe that any government would institutionalize sexual slavery in the “fog of war.” It’s more likely, however, that they simply don’t want their “beautiful country” to be the bad guy in their movie.

Fortunately Hashimoto’s posturing has exposed this ugly illogic. He has given people who know better (such as historians and eyewitnesses) the opportunity to correct and inform Japan’s revisionists on a national level.

To be sure, Hashimoto (a lawyer famous for taking extreme stances as a TV celebrity before his election to office) has never developed the “caution filter” that usually comes with public office, which is why he should return to private practice, where his semantic games would be limited to Japan’s petty courts.

But Hashimoto has also inadvertently shown us a way to blunt the rise of Japan’s incorrigible right wing: Reduce their rants to performance art.

As historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki sagely notes: “This is not politics by persuasion but politics by performance. The object of the current performance is obvious. It is to provoke impassioned counter-attacks, preferably from those who can be labeled left-wing and foreign — best of all from those who can be labeled Korean or Chinese nationalists. This will then allow Hashimoto to assume the ‘moral high ground’ as a martyred nationalist hero assailed by ‘anti-Japanese’ forces . . .

“This makes a careful and considered response to the Hashimoto phenomenon particularly important. Above all, this phenomenon should not be ‘nationalized.’ Hashimoto does not speak for Japan, and to condemn Japan because of his comments would only be to boost his demagogic appeal.

“The best reply from those who hope he never will speak for Japan is to allow his words to speak for themselves. Those outside Japan who are alarmed or offended by these words should seek out and lend support to the embattled peace, human rights and reconciliation groups in Japan which also seek a different future, so that their voices too may be heard at the national level.”

So, I encourage readers to understand what’s behind maintaining these narratives. Japan’s Hashimotos want to channel Japanese society’s innate cautiousness towards the outside world (JBC, Oct. 2, 2012: Revisionists marching Japan back to a dangerous place) into domestic support for their xenophobic populism. When they make their venomous statements, take them up and calmly point out the illogic and inaccuracies therein — stress on the word “calmly.” Use their tactics against them.

It’s a bit ironic, but Japan needs more Hashimotos to make a hash of contentious issues. The clearer they spout stupid stuff, the clearer our corrections will be. And, with sufficient attention and pressure, the shorter their political lives will be.

Debito Arudou’s updated “Guidebook for Relocation and Assimilation into Japan” is now a downloadable e-book on Amazon. See www.debito.org/handbook.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community pages of the month. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Fight Back

    Well said Mr Arudou! You have put clearly into print what all right-headed NJ have been thinking over this issue.

    I think it will be very hard for the Apologist camp to put any kind of positive spin on this because of the international scandal it has become. They will be seen on all sides as collaborating with the enemy if they try to defend this awful man.

    A point to note is that Debito has been tracking this guy for a long time. It’s thanks to him that we know a lot of the background information on this guy and when this scandal broke he had already done of lot of the legwork for the international press to pick up on.

    And yet I have heard nothing from the so-called Japan academics about Hashimoto, not a peep. Again more evidence that Mr Arudou is leading the NJ charge from the front lines as always.

    • Eoghan Hughes

      You realize the “apologist camp” have been commenting on this issue for a month now, right? Debito is just late to the party this time. And by the way, neither I, nor anyone else, approve of what Hashimoto said.

    • Eoghan Hughes

      And do you actually read anything by the “so-called Japan academics”? Have you EVER read anything by them?

      • Fight Back

        I think the fact the many so-called ‘academics’ try to downplay Debito’s influence is proof of the fact they don’t have anything as real to say as Debito does.

        Also if you check Debito’s website, you will see that he has been informing the world of Hashimoto’s misdeeds for a long, long time. Just because the world media are riding on Debito’s coattails now, I think you are trying to confuse the issue. Debito Arudou is today, the pre-eminent voice on the darker side of Japan and what that means for human rights for NJ. With both words and action, Debito leaves the ‘academics’ scrambling in his shadow.

  • Sam Gilman

    Finally Debito manages to write a column that does not drop the ball. Hashimoto’s statements clearly are intended to diminish the severity of Japan’s actions during the war by “normalising” them. His original comments about US soldiers in Okinawa reveals his general attitude towards the exploitation of women.

    It’s also better in that Debito makes some effort (via quoting Suzuki-Morris) to distinguish between people like Hashimoto and Japanese society in general. Too many foreigners have sought to treat Hashimoto as representative, when in fact his statements have caused serious damage to his party and his standing within Japan.

    Hashimoto will still have many supporters for other reasons. Some people like his image as a “strong”, straight-talking, anti-centralist iconoclast, (including many foreigners before his views on comfort women, which he has aired before, became better known.) However, his method of governing (he tried (and thankfully failed) to have all public officials in Osaka vetted for their political beliefs, for example) should make everyone mistrust his democratic credentials. It is not simply good that the comfort women issue is confronted, it’s also good in general that Hashimoto’s sheen is diminished while talk of his role in national leadership is still just talk.

    But what of the comfort women issue? Simply to angrily deny all of the issues that Hashimoto and others raise would be counterproductive. Although I don’t believe for a minute that Hashimoto cares about women’s welfare overmuch, perhaps this would be a good opportunity to honestly address the charge that US and other armed forces have also used comfort women systems, including trafficking and coercion. This is not to normalise what Japan did, but the reverse: to de-normalise what many western militaries have done. It is also not to make countries morally equivalent (which is Hashimoto’s game), but to invite sunlight and openness to see what has actually happened. There has, sadly, been myth-making on both sides, and deep political investment has been made in alternative versions (one muddied, one black-and-white) of history. This does not help the cause of women who have suffered or who are still being exploited and brutalised.

    Key to this debate is constantly reminding people like Hashimoto and Abe that whatever actually happened during the war and after, the reason that the Imperial Japanese army needed comfort stations in the first place was because it was a colonial invading oppressor force. Issues of whether there was actually officially sanctioned coercion in the “narrow sense” (Abe’s words) should seen in that light – as fluffing about over words in order to distract from a bigger crime that they both know deep down took place but want to downplay or dismiss.

  • Some corrections need to be made here:

    “Then Japan’s media plays along by ignoring or downplaying the events or, if pressed, lobbing the ideologues a few softball interview questions.”

    Hardly. The Japanese press was making a ruckus over Hashimoto’s comments the same day he made them. When Hashimoto complained via twitter the next day that the press was taking his statement out of context (which is pretty hard to do when they are broadcasting his press conference in near totality), he was not talking about the BBC or New York Times.

    “To paraphrase: Japan did nothing all that wrong because it did nothing unusually wrong.”

    That’s not a paraphrase, because that is not what Hashimoto said. Hashimoto, in his original press conference that started all of this, was perfectly clear that Japan was the aggressor, had caused pain and suffering in neighbouring countries, and had to accept the judgement of history because of that. He has further stated since then that he personally views sexual slavery as unacceptable and an infringement of human rights. Backpedaling, yes, a lot of which would not be needed had he said the existence of comfort women was “unavoidable” rather than saying it was “necessary”. However his larger point is a valid one: Japan did something wrong, so did other countries including the US, let’s call a spade a spade. If what Japan did in China and Korea in the 1930s and 1940s was wrong, and it was, then surely the US military’s policy even into the 1980s of inspecting the “clubs” outside Subic Bay, running health checks on the “dancers” who worked there, and only allowing their troops into premises where the ladies were deemed “clean” was also wrong, for but one example from the shoe on the other foot department.

    “When they make their venomous statements, take them up and calmly point out the illogic and inaccuracies therein — stress on the word “calmly.””

    Agreed wholeheartedly. We should not be escalating things by calling these people names such as “idiots”, “xenophobes”, “hate-mongering racist bigots” “twits” etc. Keep things focussed on the issues, and pay attention to what the other person is actually saying. It is easy to shout down someone who cannot even properly state what it is the other party said that was so offensive.

  • Sato

    Still, the disheartening feeling that the inner-Japanese opposition to Hashimoto is not so much against what he says, but more against the fact that says out loud what the majority thinks about their neighbouring countries, remains.
    Like Debito says, it is ironically a good thing that the world gets to see the real Japan, the ugliness behind the friendly facade.

    • Eoghan Hughes

      That’s a pretty sick assessment. I have not met a single Japanese since this Hashimoto mess started who actually agreed with him. Where is your source that “the majority” of Japanese think that comfort women were “necessary”??

  • Toolonggone

    Debito’s right on the spot for identifying Hashimoto as the one for creating the venue for defense against political controversy. Hashimoto is indeed the first politician who successfully performed ‘apologia’–or defense of his position on comfort women. In other words, there were no predecessors who did the same thing as he did, because none of them were capable of defending themselves for their gaffe. All they did was to apologize in front of the media and disappear out of the scene– but allowed to reside in a secret chamber of political arena. Ishihara is one of the very few exceptions.

    One thing about the article: Debito seems to underestimate cultural context for Japanese political system that provides shield for those under public accusation. I am not very convinced, as he is, that articulation of political
    gaffe will instigate rhetorical act for the expectation of shortened political career for those being accused, especially, in a country like Japan. Hashimoto was able to restore his ethos since 1) he’s a local politician and has yet to set his foot in the National Diet; and 2) his controversial remarks came out of an ordinary time–not in a critical period such as mayoral or gubernatorial race.

  • Matthew Vetrini

    Not that Hashimoto would allow it, inferring his views on women,but I’d be curious to know what Mrs. Hashimoto would have to say about “comfort women” or even Mr. Hashimoto.

  • R_Sinmun

    Hashimoto’s reckless remarks insulting women as an outlet for men’s sexual desire have come under fire by the international community, led by Debito, as a grave abuse of women’s rights. Debito is at the forefront of the voices which are running high worldwide blasting the Japanese ultra-right conservative forces for justifying such monstrous crimes committed in the past after forcing 200 000 Korean women into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese Army. Japanese women, too, criticized Hashimoto as a villain bereft of an iota of humanity, demanding him retract the remarks and resign from office.

    We must join with Debito and those inspired by him, such as the the more than 100 Korean counsels from across Japan who accused Osaka Mayor Hashimoto, an ultra-rightist, of his remarks negating the sexual slavery crime of the past Imperial Japanese Army. These fearless counsels thrust a statement issued in demand of the apology of Hashimoto to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, saying the remarks of Hashimoto, who is also a counsel, are against the counsel’s obligation of advocating human rights and the above-said federation must punish him for delinquency.

    During the Second World War, Japan committed a state-sponsored crime of forcing sexual slavery for the Japanese army upon a great number of women of many countries. At that time, the Japanese army instructed its soldiers to kill all pregnant women in enemy countries. In particular, they drafted as sexual slaves more than 200 000 Korean women, including teenagers. They even burnt to death those drafted women when they were infected with diseases.

    Enraged at this heinous crime, parliaments of various countries including the United States adopted resolutions critical of it and the world people have lifted their voice demanding an apology and reparation for the crime.

    Nevertheless, the reactionaries of Japan have not yet repented and apologized for it, far from making reparation. Instead, its high-ranking officials vie with each other in embellishing the crime-woven past. This is a revelation of Japan’s wrong mode of politics as well as the view of its politicians steeped in militarism to the marrow.

    Japan should lend an ear to Debito and the voices of world community and honestly settle its crime-woven past.

    • Sam Gilman

      A large part of this message is copied from the North Korean news service KCNA.


      It illustrates the extreme myth-making on the opposite side to Hashimoto. Sadly, R_Sinmun’s post maybe an attempt at satire. What actually happened, even on the best historical accounts, isn’t actually funny.

      • S_Thomas

        If North Korea’s news service says 2 plus 2 is 4, would you dispute that too? They happen to be right.

      • Sam Gilman

        North Korea’s news service is right about what exactly?

        “they drafted as sexual slaves more than 200 000 Korean women”

        This is incorrect. 200,000 is the usual high-end estimate for ALL comfort women of all nationalities – Korean, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Filipina, Dutch and others. A certain proportion of these women were straightforwardly prostitutes earning money. Not all “comfort women” were press-ganged, kidnapped or deceived, although many clearly were.

        Among those that were forced into being comfort women, on the Korean peninsula, local civilian Korean traffickers were also involved in kidnapping and deception as well as Japanese. Of course, as I said above, the fact that these women would not have been coerced to serve Japanese soldiers had Japan not been an invading imperialist power to me implies overall Japanese responsibility for their suffering. Abe and Hashimoto are trying to manipulate details and words when the bigger picture makes what they say irrevelant except to historians. Exactly what path of coercion these women experienced does not remove the coercion.

        The thing is, the story of the Japanese occupation of Korea and China is bad enough. When you exaggerate what happened, all you do is give a gift to nationalists like Hashimoto who can point out the errors in what you claim and paint themselves as people telling uncomfortable truths. You’re helping him. Let’s look at another one.

        ” the Japanese army instructed its soldiers to kill all pregnant women in enemy countries”

        So during the occupation, no Koreans, Chinese had children? There were certainly atrocities committed where soldiers would bayonet pregnant women, but it was not policy across the Japanese empire to kill all pregnant women. Why exaggerate again? It’s almost as if you want to make people defending the rights of women during wartime look crazy and unreliable. Why would you do this?

        Here’s perhaps the most serious falsehood, because it applies to people today who took no part in the war:

        “the reactionaries of Japan have not yet repented and apologized for it, far from making reparation”

        The Kono statement in 1993 (made following revelations about the extent of and involvement of Japanese imperial forces in comfort stations) was a very clear statement of apology. It was reaffirmed in 2007. The Asian Women’s Fund delivered reparations to individuals in various countries. These are well-known facts. You’re not complaining that they are insufficient – you’re engaged in denial that they ever occurred.

        Why would you tell flat-out lies about the reconciliatory actions of Japan fifty, sixty, nearly seventy years after the war? There’s only one purpose – to get people to hate Japan now. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the welfare of women in war, and everything to do with a very sad, deformed form of nationalism.

        Hashimoto wants the world to believe that everyone who dislikes him is a wild exaggerator like the North Korean News Service. Do you really want him to end up looking good?

        Why would you do that?

  • kyushuphil

    Still missing (including “comments” posted so far): the role of schools.

    Especially high schools across Japan. How are educators now seeing and continuing to use their banal, bowdlerized history textbooks?

    And: How are teachers across the info-cramming high schools now seeing and realizing the need for kids to write more themselves — for kids to learn more to touch varieties of passions in them and around them and handle these with expository intelligence?

  • Jim and Judy Miho

    nothing is more terrible to see ignorance in action [goethe]