National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Sifting through the rubble of Hashimoto's political ambitions

In 1995, the late University of Illinois professor David G. Goodman observed that when serious disagreements arise between Japanese people and foreigners, the former invariably internalize the debate among themselves.

Eighteen years later, it would appear that Goodman’s dictum still holds true. Viewing coverage of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s controversial remarks regarding the necessity of sex slaves (euphemistically referred to as “comfort women”) who serviced the Japanese military in World War II and his subsequent suggestion to the effect that the American military on Okinawa patronize local sex businesses as a way of reducing the rate of rapes and other sex crimes, the crux of the debate has largely been of, by and for Japanese, with foreigners confined mostly to the margins.

True, Shukan Bunshun (May 30) invited American diplomat Kevin Maher to comment on the issue (“Hashimoto’s crazy” headlined his response) and a reporter for Shukan Shincho (June 6) attended Hashimoto’s “longwinded” session at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (“The foreign reporters were yawning,” he wrote), but most of the print media devoted space to remarks from native critics.

Writing in Shukan Asahi Geino (June 13), political journalist Norio Nishikawa fired a scathing salvo, stating Hashimoto’s clear inability to harness the art of persuasion to deal with his counterparts meant he had failed as a politician.

“He’s neither a real politician nor an amateur who delves in politics, but the next lower stage — he makes politics his personal preserve, and then uses vested interests to shape his political perspective,” said Nishizawa.

Hashimoto nevertheless had his defenders. One was Yoshiko Sakurai in Shukan Shincho (May 30), who cited several researchers at U.S. institutions whose findings on the comfort women issue tend to support claims made by Japanese conservatives.

In Shukan Asahi Geino (June 6), retired ASDF General Toshio Tamogami — whose publication of a revisionist magazine article resulted in his dismissal in November 2008 — wrote that “the assault on Mayor Hashimoto is just an attack on the Abe government in a different form.”

“Just as if there’s an upstream there must be a downstream, unless there’s someone in the background willing to soil his hands things don’t happen,” he observed. “The existence of sex shops (in Okinawa) is something of an open secret, and it’s a fact that these establishments are recognized by the law and women work therein.”

Nikkan Gendai (May 16) saw things from a diametrically opposite viewpoint. While Hashimoto’s remarks came under severe criticism from such LDP bigwigs as Administrative Reform Minister Tomomi Inada and Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, Hashimoto’s original inspiration, claims the tabloid, was none other than Mr. Abe himself.

To wit, when Abe formed a group called Young Diet Members for Consideration of Japan’s Future and History Education in 1997, he was quoted as saying, “There were kisaeng (entertainers similar to Japan’s geisha) houses in South Korea and it was common for many women to engage in that (prostitution). Therefore it was not such an unlikely activity and I think it had become well integrated into daily life.”

During his previous stint as prime minister in 2007, moreover, Abe showed an intractable stance toward the issue, remarking to the previous U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer that “the U.S. doesn’t have voters who support the sex slave issue.”

“Abe has issued revisionist guidelines to the effect that ‘the Kono statement (the apology over comfort women made in August 1993 by then-chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono) did not carry the authority of a cabinet decision,’ ” political journalist Hajime Yokota is quoted as saying.

Weekly Playboy (June 10) sees another factor in the rapidly shifting political picture. The newly formed Japan Restoration Party that Hashimoto heads together with former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara is already showing signs of “internal rot.”

“Not all, but a surprisingly high percentage of the candidates fielded by the party in the local election have low educational levels,” an unnamed member of the Restoration Party confided. “They have a psychological complex and feel if they can just get elected to the Diet they can turn their entire lives around.”

Those wondering what impact, if any, Hashimoto’s remarks will have on the voters won’t have to wait much longer. Political analyst Tetsuo Suzuki, writing in Yukan Fuji (May 31), claimed that a secret poll conducted by the Liberal Democratic Party suggested that in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections slated for for June 23 — two weeks from now — the Japan Restoration Party was projected to win one to two seats.

Considering that the party confidently predicted just six months ago that it would carry as many as 14 seats in the assembly, this suggests a huge collapse in voter confidence, which Suzuki attributes mainly to voter disgust over Hashimoto’s blunders.

Is Osaka’s heretofore unflappable mayor finally showing signs of discouragement? Sunday Mainichi (June 16) claims that just prior to his May 27 appearance at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hashimoto told a confidant, “Seijika wo yametai” (“I want to get out of politics”).

After a brief intermission, the performance will no doubt continue.

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