On April 4, Japan’s ambassador to South Korea finally returned to his post in Seoul after a three-month hiatus. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government recalled him in a diplomatic pout over two bronze statues depicting “comfort women”; one is placed close to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, another adjacent to the consulate in Busan. There were expectations that Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine would return sooner, but reportedly Abe insisted on prolonging the absence to make sure Seoul got the message about moving the statues.
Instead, Abe face-planted by sending the ambassador back without resolving the statue issue, one that should never have been made into such a big deal in the first place. Not having an ambassador in Seoul during a leadership transition amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula was woeful diplomacy that was never going to solve the problem to Abe’s satisfaction, so he set himself up for this embarrassing pie-in-the-face moment.
By sheer chance I was flying into Seoul the same day, but because I was flying on Korean Airlines, where the maps identify Takeshima as Dokdo and the Sea of Japan as the East Sea, I suspected he was not on my plane. Close to my hotel is the infamous comfort women statue, which I don’t believe violates the Vienna Convention — as some in Japan have claimed — because it has not impaired the peace or dignity of the embassy. As was the case well before Japan’s ambassador left in a huff, there is in fact no embassy at the site. The previous building was demolished and work continues on building a replacement. So the comfort woman statue peers silently across the street at a tall white fence that encloses the construction site, fronted by a phalanx of police buses.
Next to the statue is a transparent tent where young activists mount a 24/7 vigil to prevent its removal. Behind the statue there is almost always a policeman, often with a video camera to record the various visitors to the statue, and a table where people can write notes of support and attach them to an adjacent wall. The statue has a serene expression and it is a peaceful site of remembrance. Her presence might annoy some die-hard revisionists who want to erase the memory of the comfort women system of wartime sexual servitude from the annals of history, but Japanese tourists, students and activists are regular visitors, and many write messages of support on the yellow butterfly-shaped note paper provided.
Pity poor Ambassador Nagamine, who had trouble finding a top official who would agree to welcome him back. Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn was too busy, as was the foreign minister, so he had to settle for Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam. When they met they exchanged views about Japan’s statue concerns in addition to tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but the latter seems of a different magnitude and far more urgent given U.S. President Donald Trump’s dangerous game of chicken with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
So what to make of author Yasutaka Tsutsui’s undignified blog posting calling on Japanese patriots to go ejaculate on the statue? Calling the statue “cute” and urging others to engage in a disgusting act of public indecency is a far greater affront to the dignity of the Japanese people than the statue ever could be. It is tempting to dismiss the sleazy ravings of a doddering octogenarian as PR hucksterism, but he became an online sensation and says that he has previously tried to stir up controversy with similar rants, so he is a repeat reprobate.
Tsutsui, with his depraved fantasies about desecrating the statue, is as reprehensible as those revisionists who try to rewrite the history of this sordid system or airbrush it out altogether, as has happened in Japan’s secondary school textbooks on Abe’s watch. The Kono Statement of 1993 committed the government to teach about this history, but now it is backtracking from that promise. And the government has violated the 2015 agreement with Seoul on the comfort women by filing an official brief in support of a lawsuit seeking the removal of a similar statue in Glendale, California. The accord called on both governments to refrain from hassling each other internationally over the comfort women, but by supporting the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and justifying this action as a way to get Japan’s official views known in the U.S., Tokyo broke another promise. The Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.
On April 5, I attended the Wednesday demonstration held every week since 1992 at the site of the statue in Seoul. Banners proclaim it the “Wednesday Demonstration for the Resolution of the Japanese Military Sexual Slavery Issue.” Many of the former comfort women used to attend, but frail health prevents almost all from doing so now. Despite a drizzle, the rally was larger than usual because on the day of Nagamine’s arrival the oldest surviving comfort woman, Lee Soon-deok, 99, died, and now only 38 remain alive. It was a raucous crowd of hundreds, with drumming and dancing, that included several groups of students, ranging from elementary to high schoolers, and even an actor’s fan club. Many held up various signs protesting the 2015 accord in Korean, English and Japanese; one declared, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.”
The star of the rally was Lee Young-soo, 89, a former comfort woman whose dynamic energy and sonorous voice belied her years. She dismissed the 2015 agreement as nonsense and deceitful, and called on the mostly young, rapturous audience not to let this history be forgotten. Some students then took the stage to voice their anger at their impeached president, Park Geun-hye, for betraying the nation by agreeing to abandon the comfort women issue, and to denounce the prevalence of denigrating attitudes towards women in contemporary South Korea. At the end of the rally they flocked around Lee, many overcome with emotion as they posed for pictures with this powerful witness to history.
I accompanied her to the funeral of Lee Soon-deok, where throngs waited to pay their respects, including former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who sat down briefly with Lee Young-soo for some snacks. Later, as I rode in a van with her to visit the House of Sharing, where 10 comfort women now live about 90 minutes outside Seoul, Lee mentioned how she was outraged when Ban initially praised the 2015 accord and then, upon returning to run for president this past January, expediently denounced it before withdrawing from the campaign due to a lack of support. Next week I’ll report more of what she told me about her saga and her views on contemporary events.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.