Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Korea-Japan and the End of the '65 System - Part IV: The '65 System's Decline


The most hopeful case in favor of the '65 System can be stated as the following: it was the politics of the possible. No, the core historical issue of whether Japan's colonization was legitimate was never addressed—but it was not possible to resolve that issue in 1965 at any rate. Why not begin the bilateral relationship with Japan and South Korea, and build a strong tie based on economic and security cooperation? Then later, the strong bilateral tie between the two countries could be leveraged to find true resolution on the historical issues when the wound from history is less raw. 

Until around 2010, with prime minister Kan Naoto's moving statement, this hopeful case seemed to be well under way. But looking back, it was right around this time when the '65 System began running out of runway. As it turned out, Japan's reckoning with history was skin-deep, limited to a small circle of liberals who held the top offices of the government without being able to hold onto the the structure underneath them. The success of Japan's liberals was a flimsy one, only serving to cause a backlash.

Abe Shinzo visits Yasukuni Shrine, in which Class A war criminals
from World War II are memorialized. c 2013 (source)

In reaction to the 1995 Murayama Statement that apologized for Japan’s colonial rule, more than 160 Japanese legislators formed a group called the Alliance of Legislators for the 50 Year Anniversary of the End of War [終戰 50週年 國會議員 聯盟] to oppose the statement. Taking the center stage of the group is a young politician named Abe Shinzo, grandson of war-criminal-turned-prime-minister Kishi Nobusuke. So vocal was Abe against Japan’s recognition of its imperial past, some at the time thought Abe was not looking to be a prime minister in the future, because his stance was utterly beyond the pale. When Kan gave his forthright statement of apology in 2010, Abe cursed at Kan on live television.

Abe has had ties with the far-right group Nippon Kaigi, which believes Japan began World War II to defend itself and protect Asia, Imperial Japan’s war crimes like the Comfort Women or the Nanjing Massacre were fabricated, and the Tokyo War Tribunal was illegitimate. The overriding goal for Nippon Kaigi, which Abe shares, is to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution to a constitution that allows for standing military and emphasizes obligations to the society over individual rights. 

There is little doubt that Abe has faithfully subscribed to Nippon Kaigi's mission statement. As the prime minister, Abe questioned "whether Japan had committed aggression" against anyone during the war, indicated he would not uphold the 1995 Murayama statement, and refused to accept the judgment of the Tokyo Tribunal. To top it off, Abe Shinzo visited the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, 2013, to pay respect to the Class A war criminals on the anniversary of the end of World War II, and again on December 26, 2013. By early 2014, Abe administration was flirting with the possibility of withdrawing the Kono Statement that acknowledged Japan's use of wartime sex slaves during World War II.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.



It only took 11 years since the Murayama Statement for Abe Shinzo to be the prime minister of Japan, succeeding Koizumi Junichiro in 2006. When the far-right factions in Europe gained some measure of political power, the alarm bells went off around the world. The world freaked out when Alternative fur Deutschland barely missed the cut to join Germany’s Bundestag in 2013, or when Marine Le Pen came in third in France’s presidential election in 2012. But few in the Western world cared when a blatant history-denier like Abe Shinzo became the prime minister of Japan in 2006, and again in 2012. The fact that 15 out of the 18 members of Abe’s 2014 cabinet were members of Nippon Kaigi received virtually no attention. 

The only Western observers who recognized Abe as a far-right revisionist were his ideological bedfellows. Donald Trump’s alt-right advisor Steve Bannon has called Abe “Trump before Trump,” drawing parallels between the nationalistic agenda between the two leaders. But that’s wishful thinking on Bannon’s part, for Abe is incomparably more competent than Trump. The better US analogue for Abe, instead, is Richard Nixon. 

Like the way Nixon failed to win the presidency in 1960 after serving as the vice president for Dwight Eisenhower, Abe’s first run as the prime minister barely lasted a year, and his LDP turned over power to the Democratic Party that held government from 2009 to 2012. Then, just as Nixon positioned himself as a candidate of stability in the midst of the disastrous Vietnam War, Abe’s LDP promised a return to normalcy after the catastrophic Tohoku earthquake in 2011, which raised the specter of a nuclear disaster as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant suffered three nuclear meltdowns.

Japanese right-wing groups protest in the Shin Okubo neighborhood, the Koreatown of Tokyo.
Man in the center holds up a sign that says "Korean whores". c. 2013 (source)

Abe Shinzo shares yet another tendency with Richard Nixon: penchant for racist dog whistles. Just as Nixon pursued his “Southern Strategy” by attracting racist white voters with thinly veiled issues like busing, Abe exploited the Japanese’s increasing hatred toward Zainichi Koreans—Japan’s second class citizens created by John Foster Dulles and Yoshida Shigeru. By mid-2000s, the social fallout from Japan’s “lost decade” of the 1990s was becoming visible, just as much as the outward of expression of racism in the United States built up over years since the 2008 financial crisis. The far-right group Zaitokukai began in 2007, sending thugs to terrorize Zainichi Koreans and other immigrants from Asia. 

Abe latched onto the most perfect dog whistle to attract this demographic: North Korea’s abduction of the Japanese. In the 1970s and 80s, North Korea abducted as many as 17 Japanese civilians, to steal their identity for its spies and use them as Japanese language tutors. North Korea did not admit this crime until the early 2000s. In a large part, the fuel for Abe’s political rise that resulted in his first run as the prime minister was his strong stance on the North Korea abductee issue, with a boost from Nippon Kaigi that invited the families of the abductees as guest speakers to its conferences. It was unimpeachable for Abe and the LDP to denounce North Korea for this terrible crime—so unimpeachable that few in Japan protested when the LDP also smeared Zainichi Koreans for having been complicit with these crimes. After all, one of the reasons why Zainichi Koreans came to existence was because they were suspected of being friendly to North Korea.

The dog whistle was not limited to North Korea, however. With increased visibility in Japan thanks to its export of pop culture, South Korea also became a target of Japanese right wing’s racist campaign. A manga series named “Hating the Korean Wave” cumulatively sold more than a million copies. Since 2012, right-leaning current affairs magazines of Japan began covering South Korea more extensively than North Korea, nearly rivaling the coverage of China at one point. Major bookstores in Japan began having an entire section dedicated to the popular kenkan (“hating Korea”) books. In 2014, the kenkan books were the first, seventh and 17th-best selling books in Japan in the category of current affairs nonfiction. In 2017, a former ambassador of Japan to South Korea, Muto Masatoshi, published a book unsubtly titled “Fortunately, I Wasn’t Born a Korean.” 

With the combination of deft bureaucratic maneuvering and the call for stability laced with racism, Abe Shinzo would once again become the prime minister in 2012. After having won two re-elections since then, Abe is set to be the longest serving prime minister of Japan, where an average prime minister’s term is around two years.


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The political story across the strait appeared to be similar as of 2012. South Korean liberals’ ten year run from 1997 to 2007 ended with the election of Lee Myung-bak, former CEO of Hyundai. His approval tanked toward the end of his term thanks to his all-around corruption and venality, to a point that Korea’s liberals were toasting Lee as the fairy godfather of democracy. But Korea’s conservatives pulled off the 2012 presidential election by rallying around Park Geun-hye, whose sole political asset is the fact that she is the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee. (It also helped that Korea’s spy agency ran a domestic psy op against voters, in the style of Russian intelligence agency assisting Trump’s election.) From the jaws of defeat, Korea’s conservatives snatched victory by going all-in on retrograde dictator-worship. 

On the night of Park Geun-hye's election, her supporters celebrated by holding up
a portrait of her father Park Chung-hee. c. 2012 (source)

Like a strange joke, Japan and South Korea were simultaneously re-enacting the 1960s, with Kishi Nobusuke’s grandson and Park Chung-hee’s daughter respectively at the helm. Even the Cold War dynamics was re-enacting itself, with China as an emerging hegemon replacing Russia’s role. Just as much as Kennedy pushed a shotgun marriage that resulted in the ’65 System, Barack Obama was nudging Japan and South Korea to put an end to the historical issues in order to strengthen the US-Japan-Korea trilateral alliance as a part of his “Pivot to Asia” program.

Just like 1965, the historical issue loomed large for Abe and Park. South Korea’s Supreme Court had already ordered the Korean government to do more for the former Comfort Women, and the powerful testimony of the wartime sex slaves were resonating around the world to a point that was damaging Japan’s international reputation. Meanwhile, the former slave laborers, buoyed by the victory against Mitsubishi, were pursuing another action against Nippon Steel. As the substance of that case was the same as with the Mitsubishi, another court victory was all but certain. 

Abe Shinzo administration approached these issues just as the Japanese government approached the negotiation of the ’65 treaties—with total disregard to the people hurt by Japan’s imperialism. In September 2013, Ihara Junichi of Japan’s Foreign Ministry met with Park Jun-yong of Korea’s Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, to deliver a barely disguised threat: Korea must “respond appropriately” to the Supreme Court case between wartime slave laborers and Nippon Steel, or “this issue may get serious to a point it’s beyond control.” It was an absurd, offensive request, arrogantly demanding a foreign country to override its independent judiciary. 

Luckily for Abe, however, Park Geun-hye was like her father and had little regard for separation of powers. She ordered her Foreign Ministry to intervene with the Supreme Court. Seeing that it would be absurd for the Supreme Court to issue a contrary opinion on the same issue within a year, the Foreign Ministry instead lobbied the court to delay ruling on the case, on the cynical hope that the very old plaintiffs would die off. 

Then-Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae acquiesced, using the case as a bargaining chip to earn more business trips abroad. Yang even met separately with the attorneys for Nippon Steel to fine-tune their legal briefs, and also tried to influence his fellow justices toward overturning the 2012 decision. With Yang running interference, the Supreme Court simply sat for five years on what should have been an easy decision. All but one plaintiffs had passed away when the Supreme Court finally ruled on the case in 2018, after Park had left the office.


Park Geun-hye, Barack Obama and Abe Shinzo at the Nuclear Security Summit c. 2016 (source)

Then there was the matter of Comfort Women settlement, which the Obama administration pushed hard. To be sure, Obama probably did not intend the resulting agreement to be botched like it was. The Obama administration displayed enough sensitivity to the historical issues in East Asia, for example by expressing disappointment when Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in 2013. When Abe repeatedly hinted that he may withdraw the 1993 Kono Statement that admitted the existence of military sex slaves (Abe already had disavowed the Kono Statement back in 2007,) the Obama administration stepped in forcefully and stopped it from doing so.

The Comfort Women Agreement of December 28, 2015 seemed encouraging enough on the surface. In the joint press conference, Japan’s Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio read the statement that Abe Shinzo, as the prime minister, “expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse”. In order to “heal psychological wounds,” Japan would use its government budget to fund a foundation to assist the former Comfort Women. In exchange, “this issue is resolved finally and irreversibly”, as long the two countries faithfully implemented the agreement.

But the Agreement repeated the same flaws of the ’65 treaties, by avoiding central issues, relying on backroom deals and freezing out the actual victims. The former military sex slaves were not at all involved in the negotiations for the agreement; they found out from the news that their government unilaterally ended the fight they led for over 20 years. The Agreement did not address of any of the key demands that the former Comfort Women have been making since the Kono Statement in 1993: that Japan admit the military was not merely “involved” in the establishment of the rape stations, but was the one directing such establishment; that Japan’s head of government actually show remorse and empathy, rather than having one of his proxies read a statement; that the government of Japan accept full responsibility for its war crime without hedging and reservation; that Japan would make the effort to educate the public about its war crimes.

The only meaningful progress in the Agreement was the fact that the foundation was funded by Japan’s government budget, which can be interpreted as the state of Japan accepting legal responsibility. But in the phone conversation with Park Geun-hye following the Agreement, Abe Shinzo repeated the exact stance that UN Commission of Human Rights rejected: that the ’65 treaties settled all claims, such that no legal responsibility remained. Abe went further in his statement to the Diet in January 2016: the claims were all settled in 1965, and in fact, Comfort Women was not a war crime at all, because the military did not directly kidnap the women. Foreign Minister Kishida, who was also in attendance, further claimed using the term “sex slave” to describe Comfort Women was “inappropriate” and “not based on facts”


Former wartime sex slaves protest the Comfort Women Agreement in front of
the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, saying they "absolutely object" to the agreement
that was negotiated without any consultation with them. c. 2016 (source)

Even more offensive was the undisclosed side deals, which only came to light two years later when Park Geun-hye had already left the office. In the side deal, the Abe administration demanded—and Park administration accepted—that (1) the Korean government will handle any dissatisfaction from the former Comfort Women; (2) the Korean government will not support the international establishment of memorial statues or plaques for Comfort Women; (3) the Korean government will not use the term “sex slave” to describe the Comfort Women; and (4) the Korean government will move the Comfort Women memorial statue that was then in place in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. 

In addition to the side deal, the Park administration actively interfered with efforts to recognize military sex slaves. When US Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wanted to hold a commemorative event for Comfort Women in early 2016, the Korean Embassy requested her office to cancel it. When a Korean history scholar was about to give a presentation criticizing the Agreement and the Abe administration, the Korean government shut down the symposium. The government’s internal reports regarding the Comfort Women issue were destroyed. The White Paper project on military sex slave that had been ongoing for more than a year was scrapped.

Ironically, even with all this, Abe faced political costs. After the Agreement was announced, more than 200 right-wing Japanese rushed the prime minister’s office and protested Abe Shinzo “sold out” his country. Yet Abe had reasons to be hopeful that he put the sex slave issue behind him, “finally and irreversibly” as the Agreement said. Only months earlier in August 2015, Abe had declared: “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” It looked like he was on his way to make good on this promise. He succeeded in papering over the historical issues with South Korea by doing an end around the victims of Japan's imperialism, just as Japan did fifty years ago in 1965.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

8 comments:

  1. Have you read the 2 books from William Andrews about the"comfort women" in Korea. Although he takes some liberties to tell a story, they are based on fact. I found them fascinating and can't wait for his third book to be released late this year.

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