Friday, September 22, 2017

Don't make me remember

Statues near Japanese consulate in Hong Kong
Jun Yamada, the consul general of Japan in San Francisco, has an opinion piece in today’s San Francisco Chronicle which puts my teeth on edge. “Memorials are alienating Japanese public” the headline reads. He’s referring to the statue that went up in Hong Kong this last July to commemorate the sex slaves in the Second World War which the Japanese pressed into service chiefly from their Chinese and Korean subjects.

I heard one Japanese official declare that Japan actually did the world a favor by creating brothels for their troops. Without them, he suggested, there would have been far more rapes. It’s an interesting argument. Logic suggests he has a point. But who seriously wants to be making that kind of argument, that it’s OK to destroy the lives of some women to protect the lives of others.

In any case, most Japanese, like most people everywhere thinking calmly and rationally, are offended by any defense of a policy of forced sexual slavery. And, to add insult to injury, the use of the term “comfort women” is particularly egregious, I think, since it allows the perpetrators to frame the discourse from their perspective. I doubt “comfort” is the first word that comes to mind when the women – girls – pressed into sexual slavery sit and reflect on those early years in their lives.

statue near Japanese embassy in Seoul, Korea
Where Mr. Yamada gets under my skin is his claim that “this has all been dealt with.” That, it seems to me, very much depends on what kind of skin you have in the game. It has been dealt with by modern-day governments, perhaps, who have a clear interest in moving on to good relations between Japan and Korea. Who set this whole thing up as a Japanese/Korean confrontation.

To be fair, Mr. Yamada has an even stronger argument when he says that two-thirds of the “surviving former comfort women” (his term, again, and not mine) have accepted a 2015 agreement between Japan and Korea on how to settle the claims the women have against Japan for the wrong done to them. In that agreement, Japan made (yet another) apology (there was one in 1993) and set aside $8.3 million to provide care for the women still alive. Significant is the fact that this time the funds come directly from the Japanese government. Previously, the government found a way to fund this care program privately, thus avoiding any suggestion of a recognition of official responsibility.

It’s been a long time coming, this recognition of a particularly hideous crime against women. For many years there was no mention in the schoolbooks of even the term “comfort women.” So it’s not surprising that the turnaround is not a clean one. There is still lots of resentment in the air.

But Mr. Yamada’s claim that this should now all be put to rest because “memorials are alienating (the) Japanese public” just pours more kerosene on those flames of resentment, it seems to me. “Alienating the Japanese public,” you say. “Alienating the Japanese public?” Is that the concern here? Seems to me the Japanese public needs to get the hell out of the way. This is not their picnic.

When the Second World War came to an end, the Axis powers could not be expected to all stop marching in one direction and march in another overnight. It took years and years for Germany to “denazify” and many worry the process was never totally completed. But the point is, when the fiftieth anniversary of war’s end came around, Der Spiegel did a survey among Germans and found that a majority of them had come to the view that the Germans benefited in the end from losing the war. The defeat of the Nazi thuggish regime cleared the way for the model democracy Germany has become among nations today. Germany has excellent relations with all nine of its neighbors and is admired around the world for its accomplishments, as well as for its government. And central among the reasons for its success has been its ability to disassociate itself from the fascist ideology that held sway in the middle of the last century. It's not the same place.

Japan, too, has become a successful democracy, but compared to Germany, it has its head in the sand, as a visit to the semi-official Yasukuni Shrine will attest.  Although a majority of people are opposed to the right wing institution, where war criminals are honored along with ordinary soldiers, Japanese prime minister Abe showed up there to pay his respects as recently as last December. Just as you walk in the door, you are faced with a map of Asia and the explanation that World War II was fought to free China and the rest of Asia from European imperialism.  For some reason, perhaps because it believes it important to stress the fiction of a single unbroken imperial line and the ancient nature of Japanese tradition, the Japanese seem to be less interested in staking out that difference. “Focus on the future, not on the past” sounds like a great idea until you come to realize that it’s just another way of avoiding responsibility for past actions. To tell Jews to forget the Holocaust and think only of happy days to come may be good advice on a personal individual level, but on a national level, it is the beginning of a false interpretation of history, and weakens the struggle to uproot anti-semitism worldwide.

Perhaps an even better example of what’s wrong with forgetting is what’s going on in the United States today where a new level of consciousness about the wrong done to the descendants of slaves has people in the south trying to claim that the American Civil War was fought for states’ rights and not in order to free the slaves. And that Robert E. Lee was a great leader (and gentleman) to be remembered with statues in the public square, instead of as the leader of the military forces of the states that broke away from the United States and went to war to defend the institution of slavery. The fact that the Confederacy was founded primarily to maintain the institution of slavery is to be found in black and white in their founding documents, and to deny this fact is a slap in the face of any American of African ancestry – and, in my view, any American period. Here again, to call this "a difference in perspectives" is to dishonor the goals of the American striving for democracy and human rights for all, and not just white supremacists.

The now clichéd Santayana aphorism is apt – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." 

"There are widely conflicting views," Mr. Yamada claims. Yeah, right. Let's have a debate between wife-beaters and non-wife-beaters and get all points of view. A big part of the problem is the tribal behavior of both Japanese and Koreans, so that it becomes sets of "Japanese" views on the one hand and "Korean" views on the other, rather than the views of people (both Japanese and Korean) who see the actions of the Japanese militarists as despicable and people who don't.  If you could get that kind of divide, the people who support the militarists would eventually dry up and blow away. Unfortunately, we're stuck in a "my country, right or wrong" mentality, which Mr. Yamada, as consul, has done absolutely nothing to chip away at.

What Mr. Yamada fails to note is that some views are historical and some are bogus. Dig a little. Mr. Yamada suggests this is all a plot generated by the Koreans and Chinese to squeeze more money out of the Japanese treasury.  Whether there is political opportunism involved (and I believe the jury is still out on that) doesn't change the fact of the slavery. Those facts have been corroborated even by Japanese sources. In any case, the money issue has been put to rest now; it's not about money any longer, and many women say it never was, for them - it was always about restoring dignity.

The statues commemorating the sex slaves of the Pacific War are there because the women deserve to be remembered and honored. Whether modern-day bourgeois sensibilities find that unbecoming is of absolutely no concern. Mr. Yamada ought to know that.

Photo credit: Korean statue 
Hong Kong statue


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