“Sisters never quite forgive each other for what happened when they were 5.” — Pam Brown
It is not often that Toru Hashimoto has a warm, grateful smile for a journalist’s inquiry about “comfort women.”
“That question was unusually fair,” the Osaka mayor conceded in a parting remark at a recent news conference, after I’d asked if he had been misunderstood. “Even for Japanese media, my position is hard to understand,” he had admitted earlier.
In the spring of last year, Hashimoto was pummeled over quotes appearing to justify the sexual enslavement of Asian women by Japanese soldiers in World War II. Joining in the condemnation was Osaka’s sister city, San Francisco.
“The cities themselves have a good relationship,” insisted Hashimoto at the news conference, “but there is no communication, no trust, between the San Francisco mayor and me. He completely misunderstood me. I will not go to San Francisco as long as I’m mayor of Osaka.”
As with a family feud, the situation is more complex than a single gaffe. It is a story about equality between nations, about how we judge each other through cultural lenses and blinders, and how we have to keep finding ways to address grievances from our past.
As a man who adores women and grew up among alpha males, I’ve always idealized the concept of sister cities. In Europe they are often called “twin towns” or “partner cities,” but isn’t it more romantic — and truer to differences and emotional ambivalence — to be tied to another culture in sisterhood?
Sister cities came into vogue after World War II, promoting friendship and reconciliation, as well as trade. Some cities have surprising siblings: Vancouver, British Columbia, is sisters with Odessa, Ukraine, and Chicago bonded with Warsaw over its famous Polish community. And then there is Boring, Oregon, connecting with Dull, a village in Scotland. (“Dull and Boring? Sounds exciting!” was the slogan to further tourism.)
Osaka and San Francisco seem a perfect match. Both have a passionate, vivacious populace — outspoken and feisty, and obsessed with food. But San Francisco, Osaka’s first sister city, is a bastion of liberal values. And just as sisters can get into spats, sister cities become proxies in wars of culture.
When Hashimoto made his comment on the “necessity” of prostitutes for combat soldiers, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, a Chinese-American, advised him not to visit the city as an official, as it would cause protests and raise security concerns.
In a statement the following week at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Hashimoto attempted damage control , speaking unequivocally about the victims of sexual enslavement: “We must express our deep remorse at the violation of the human rights of these women by the Japanese soldiers in the past, and make our apology to the women. . . . Japan must remorsefully face its past offenses and must never justify the offenses.”
Although humble and sincere in tone, the statement avoids mention of government complicity in the wartime brothel system. This was pounced on by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which responded with a nonbinding resolution condemning Hashimoto altogether.
Introduced by Supervisor Jane Kim, a second-generation Korean-American, the screed is a sweeping settling of scores, a show of well-intentioned pomposity. The mayor is branded as “the shame of Osaka” — a war-crime denier who has “shocked the world” with his “contemptible and repulsive” statements.
The resolution demands that the Shinzo Abe administration apologize for wartime atrocities and compensate victims of Japanese aggression. It is not explained what Hashimoto has to do with this. Next, like a spiteful sister, the authors warn they are involving Daddy — i.e., telling President Barack Obama and Congress — for the purpose of further scolding. The resolution invokes trust and understanding between cultures, yet the tone shows a keen sense of rank, of the authors’ moral superiority in deciding who has to answer for what. The big sister, make no mistake, is America.
Shaming others is seldom progressive. It leads to entrenchment, perhaps more denial, resolving nothing. Like Hashimoto and his accusers, you end up negotiating about numbers and the level of coercion applied to prostitutes.
Perhaps shocked by the castigation, Hashimoto started a dialogue, sending an open letter to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. More remorse and explaining followed, yet the response since last year has been nil. Hashimoto’s defense was ignored, save for media exploiting the fault lines. (SF Weekly called him a “sex slave apologist” and NBC crowed “The comfort mayor is fighting back — and one of his targets is San Francisco.”)
As most sisters know, a spurned apology is a form of revenge. Hashimoto went out on a limb, making himself vulnerable in an honest attempt to explain. His letter shows that, since the initial tactless remark, the man has done a lot of reflection. The San Francisco politicians — who have shut down communication until their demands are met — have hardened into petty unforgivingness, controlling the exchange through silence.
Supervisor Kim declined to comment for this article, despite the authority of her resolution.
“I am disappointed,” Hashimoto said at the recent news conference. “America’s strength is open discussion. Even if people disagree, they can talk — it’s one of the best things about America. I never tried to excuse Japan’s past, but I voiced my opinion, and there was no response. To me, this does not seem very American.”
Misako Sack, executive director of the San Francisco-Osaka Sister City Association, insists that relations suffered no harm, divorcing the cities from their elected officials.
“The incident gave us a greater urge to foster an even stronger friendship between the cities,” she says. “It’s based on a true people-to-people grass-roots friendship.”
But the association’s website still features a note from May 2013 condemning the Osaka mayor and urging he take “proactive steps” to address the negative effects of his statements. Asked whether they thought Hashimoto had done so, the association declined to comment.
Sometimes we don’t want our villains to redeem themselves.
In his book “Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World,” the noted historian John W. Dower makes a point that Hashimoto would applaud.
“To an American who came of age during the Vietnam War and has witnessed the official and popular whitewashing of this carnage in the United States in the decades since, the finger-pointing penchant for calling attention to historical sanitization in Japan is not only misleading but also hypocritical.”
Throughout the “comfort women” imbroglio, Hashimoto kept asking why Japan is singled out for censure, when many other countries — including America and South Korea — have abused women’s rights in wars, occupations and in the vicinity of military bases (for a study of prostitution, at times forced, around U.S. bases in South Korea, see Katherine Moon’s book “Sex among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations”).
Keeping balance sheets is a risky business. Still, the universal links between soldiers and prostitution were never addressed by Hashimoto’s critics.
In war especially, some things that men do to women are so grotesque, so irredeemably shameful and vile, that no one knows how to deal with them. Hashimoto is wrestling with demons, and it is difficult. Both humble and defiant, he mainly demands that all nations put in the same work, that Japan stop being a model of war-crime deniers.
“Wherever we turn,” writes John Dower, ” ‘repentance’ rarely holds a candle to self-righteousness or victim consciousness or parochial loyalties, or indeed, indifference to the sins of the past. The situation of Japan, on either side of the ledger, does not really seem exceptional.”
We mustn’t stand for actual denial, but should let others repent in the best way they can. This means graceful engagement — and humility about our own wrongs.
In the end, it isn’t difficult to make Hashimoto smile. As for San Francisco and America, if the big sister is setting the terms, she might as well be the bigger person.
Nicolas Gattig is a teacher and writer from San Francisco. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: email@example.com