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Female foreigners are OK in Japan, so long as they’re not Asian


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s refusal to apologize anew for Japan’s sex-slave policy during World War II has a different meaning in Japan than it does abroad. The issue has come around again because the U.S. Congress is considering a resolution to demand that Japan clearly accept responsibility for the policy. Abe has said the government will stand by a 1993 apology issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, but has stressed that there is no evidence that the Japanese military “used coercion” to force women into frontline brothels.

Overseas, Abe’s remarks made headlines and has provoked anger from those who say that the Japanese government has yet to own up to the sex-slave policy and is backtracking into denial. In Japan, Abe’s remarks have been buried in articles about Diet business or stuck at the end of TV news reports. The media see them as part of a strategy for Abe to appear more assertive in response to weakening public support for his administration.

These reports rarely address the sex-slave issue itself. The Japanese media continue to use the euphemism “comfort women” to describe the sex slaves and have generally stopped discussing it as anything except a point of historical contention between Japan and certain groups outside of Japan. To the Japanese public it’s a nonissue.

Abe can split hairs over the definition of “coercion” and claim that there is no evidence of government involvement in the forced recruitment of sex slaves because he knows the local press won’t challenge him. During that famous mock tribunal held in Tokyo in 2000, where international legal experts put the wartime government on trial for its sex-slave policy, plenty of testimony and evidence was given to show that the government had indeed forced women from Korea, Taiwan and other Asian countries into frontline brothels. But that episode has since been turned into an entirely different matter of coercion — one having to do with whether or not the ruling party put pressure on NHK to water down its coverage of the tribunal. In other words, it was turned into a local issue.

Knowing what it knows about the behavior of soldiers and the suffering of innocents during wartime, the world looks upon Abe’s remarks as being cold and cynical since they intensify the pain and humiliation of the surviving sex slaves, who couldn’t care less about the semantics of “coercion.” The Foreign Ministry has said that Abe’s remarks were “incorrectly conveyed” to the world and will attempt to educate the overseas media on “the real meaning of Japan’s position.” This transparent stab at spin control will fail because, in the end, Abe cares less about what the world thinks than about what his supporters think. And the media is willing to go along with it.

That’s because media companies are squeamish about anything having to do with Asian females. The popular TV Tokyo variety series, “The Wife is a Foreigner,” enthusiastically celebrates the assimilation of non-Japanese women into Japanese life — just as long as they aren’t Korean, Chinese, Filipino or Thai. Those four nationalities together represent the vast majority of expatriate wives in Japan, but for some reason they never appear on the program. Are they not “foreign” enough?

These women now constitute substantial minorities, but minorities tend to become invisible when the government pushes the idea that Japan is one big happy “homogeneous” family. For years the United Nations has been pressuring the Japanese government to conduct a survey of its minority women to find out how they fare in Japanese society, but it hasn’t.

It fell to nongovernment organizations to carry out the survey, and they found, unsurprisingly, that so-called “compound discrimination” against minority women in Japan is profound. Poverty, unemployment, domestic violence and divorce are higher among minority women than among women in the general population.

This survey did not target foreigners, but rather Ainu, Burakumin and Koreans who were born here. According to one of the NGOs interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun, these women “don’t make their problems heard because they’re afraid of attracting attention to themselves” as members of minorities.

So if women who have lived here all their lives and know only Japan can still feel like outsiders due to some arbitrary aspect of family heritage, how do Asian expatriate women feel? It’s difficult to know. Unless they are involved in lawsuits or crimes, they rarely get mentioned on TV or in periodicals. If there are any tarento of mixed Japanese-Asian parentage they don’t publicize the fact; or, at least, they don’t about it as readily and often as superstar tarento like Eiji Wentz or Becky talk about their Japanese-Western parentage.

Asian women in Japan, whether or not they are married to Japanese men, still evoke unpleasant associations, starting with military sex slavery and continuing with trafficking and sex tourism, issues that have also drawn the world’s condemnation. These associations are by no means dispelled when Abe denies government involvement in the sex-slave business, but in the end his denial mainly reinforces the feeling that he values political expediency over everything, especially given his famous support for the families of North Korean abductees.

Last May, when Shigeru Yokota visited South Korea to meet the mother of the North Korean husband of his abducted daughter Megumi, he was also invited to meet former sex slaves. In a letter to Yokota, a South Korean politician, perhaps advancing his own agenda, sympathized with Yokota’s suffering and said Yokota could gain incalculable goodwill from the Korean people if he acknowledged “the thousands of Megumis” who were kidnapped during Japan’s colonial rule. For whatever reason, Yokota didn’t meet with any sex slaves. Somebody assumed it wasn’t in his interest, or Japan’s.