Friday, March 02, 2007

Intrepid Norimitsu Ohnishi Claims Japanese Government about to Reject "Kohno Statement on Comfort Women". Not So Fast, though That Is Not My Point

"Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied Thursday that Japan's military had forced foreign women into sexual slavery during World War II, contradicting the Japanese government's longtime official position.

Mr. Abe's statement was the clearest so far that the government was preparing to reject a 1993 government statement that acknowledged the military’s role in setting up brothels and forcing, either directly or indirectly, women into sexual slavery. That declaration also offered an apology to the women, euphemistically called "comfort women."

"There is no evidence to prove there was coercion, nothing to support it," Mr. Abe told reporters. "So, in respect to this declaration, you have to keep in mind that things have changed greatly."
(Norimitsu Ohnishi; Mar. 2, New York Times)

Mr. Ohnishi is up to his usual self, hitting Japanese nationalists where it hurts. Of course, if he had waited a day or two to write his article, he may have been less certain that "the government was preparing to reject [the] 1993 government statement".

Yesterday (Mar. 1), Mr. Abe did repeat his view that "the fact is, there was no evidence to support ‘coercion' as it had been originally defined", but he also stated that "it must be taken into consideration that the definition of 'coercion' was changed (to a broader one since that time the [Kohno Statement] was issued)." That looks an awful lot like Mr. Abe's way of reconciling his right-wing (and I use the term "right-wing" sparingly, including for Mr. Abe) views on this point and his need as a prime minister to avoid taking Japan back into international pariah status over it (stylistically reminiscent of his "don't ask, don't tell" Yasukuni policy). Seen in that light, Mr. Ohnishi seems to have misinterpreted Mr. Abe's Feb. 27 claim that "in respect to this declaration, you have to keep in mind that things have changed greatly" in a way that sexed up the story. (I'm giving Mr. Onishi a pass on that, though, since he has been, generally speaking, a conscientious chronicler of Japanese ills and misdeeds.)

In any case, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the embattled Chief Cabinet Secretary, has continued to deny that the Japanese government will seek to revisit the Kohno Statement, and it would be a huge embarrassment to the Abe administration if he has to eat his words. Moreover, on March 1, the Committee to Consider Japan's Future and History Education (chair: Mr. Nariaki Nakayama), a group of LDP Diet members dissatisfied with the Kohno Statement and other elements of our modern historical narrative, convened to adopt recommendations for revising the Kohno Statement, but that session ended without reaching any conclusions due to serious disagreements among its members.

This, I think, gives a more accurate picture of where the Abe administration, indeed, the revisionists are, than Mr. Ohnishi's narrative.

Having said that, though, what is this twaddle about "no evidence"? Since when has oral testimony ceased to be evidence? Even our Constitution places only this one restriction: (Article 38 paragraph 3) No person shall be convicted or punished in cases where the only proof against him is his own confession. In fact, as you can see, "shoko" in "the original" is unofficially "translated" as "proof". I think Mr. Ohnishi's preference, "evidence", is more accurate, but let us give Mr. Abe the benefit of the doubt and assume he merely meant that the case for military and other official involvement in the coercion had not been proven.

True, human memory is frail and fraught with faults; one need not accuse the women who have come forward of prevarication to challenge their versions of the truth. But when a good number of women from different nations come forward to relate their ordeals, then at least some of the burden of proof would seem to shift to the shoulders of the deniers.

As for me, I have no way of knowing enough to pass judgment on the veracity of the testimonies of the women who have come forward. But one recounting of an incident, given by a woman who did not become a "comfort woman", willing or unwilling, sticks in my mind. It is an interview, in a BBC program, of an elderly, apparently well-to-do Indian woman, a teenager at the time of the Japanese occupation of Singapore. She tells the story of a Japanese military officer coming to her house one day. He returns again, this time to convince her to serve him in his quarters. She refuses. The officer slaps her, but she is otherwise unharmed. He leaves, and that is the end of that story. This story rings particularly true because of its simplicity and, more importantly, its lack of lasting trauma and suffering that causes us, knowingly or not, to so often edit our memories. And it leaves me to wonder, how many other women were approached and treated in a similar manner, or worse?

Then, one remembers the wanton lack of regard for the lives and well-being of our soldiers and civilians, as well as the brutality that the military chose to inflict on them, as they saw the occasion to warrant and particularly as our military fortunes deteriorated. And how can anyone deny that "the other" must have fared worse, perhaps much more so, at its hands than our own people?

Who knows, perhaps the Committee has enough evidence of its own to leave reasonable doubt at to the veracity of the testimonies of the women who have come forward. That, perhaps, would acquit the Japanese military in a criminal court of law. Others have discovered, however, that the rules of evidence are more relaxed in other courts. And it is in the court of public opinion, the easiest one of all and the only one that counts in this instant, that the Committee will miserably fail. Mr. Ohnishi's claims to the contrary, Mr. Abe, for all his lack of knowledge of rules of evidence, seems to have always been aware of this and acted accordingly. Let us hope he continues to do so.

(Sidebar 1) Field commanders, officers, common soldiers, made it up as they went along, as the situation, in their minds, warranted. There was no systemic effort sustained over time to perpetrate atrocities. (Unless you judge involvement in prostitution itself an act whose perpetrators are beyond redemption. But these were different times, and the world was at war.) This is where the Japanese experience separates, like so many other acts of moral desolation, from the Holocaust. Needless to say, to the victims, this distinction matters not one whit.

(sidebar 2) I hope Congressman Honda ceases and desists with his ideas of a resolution, though. If passed, I predict that the shoe will be on the other foot in the Japanese body politic. There will be a strong desire to revisit many other scenes in our wartime history where we will be able to heap anger and scorn on the acts of the Allied Forces (the Soviets not excepted), including and beyond the familiar litanies over the two atomic bombs and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians with weapons, among other things, that drew the wrath of the international community during the Vietnam War. We may also want to reopen debate on history that, in the community of nations, properly belongs to others.


Durf said...

Of course, any discussion of Abe's "need as a prime minister to avoid taking Japan back into international pariah status over it" should note that the best way he could have done this would be to keep his damn fool mouth shut. This is the Homer Simpson "Marge, we're past all that!" defense, I believe.

Ken said...

I'm not sure why Onishi is given any credence at all, anywhere. This guy plainly hates Japan and never has anything reasonable to say about it. Howard French caught a lot of slack in his role as Onishi's predecessor, but at least he spoke out against the press club system and tried to make some rational attempt at reporting on Japan. Onishi, on the other hand, is hard to take seriously.

This is not the first time Abe has made such comments. He has strafed against what Kono said for years, as have many members of the aristocracy/government.

I agree with your Sidebar 1. I think what you're saying is true in that there is no...wait, I can't get into this now. There was a feeling of, "other Asians are lesser." Was this a government policy? Not like Hitler's...but...tough question.

None of us can judge the veracity of the women who have come forward...but we both know how difficult it is for, say, rape victims in Japan to come forward...and for 'comfort women' in Korea to do so? I don't see any benefit to be gained from lying here...I don't want to believe: but in my personal experience with the US DOD, I hardly see a reason to doubt...war does horrible things to ways of thought in young men.

Don't forget, there is no treaty yet with the Soviets over WW2, so we might have to drag them back up to beat the stuffing and take our northern lands back (I say we as a taxpayer, it's our gas up there after all).

Jun Okumura said...


Not being a regular viewer of The Simpsons, I'm not aware of the "Marge, we're past all that!" defense, and I'm not sure that I'll be any happier for knowing.


I am sure you are right that Mr. Abe, when asked, has repeated that assertion. That is a well-known position of seemingly all the LDP Diet members who wish to revisit the Kohno Statement.

There are many differences between Nazism and the ideologies that drove Japan at the time. One difference (in theory at least) that is relevant here is that the Five Races were supposed to live in harmony, and Japan was supposed to be Big Brother. It was never the intent to eliminate any of the other races. There were no genocidal overtones in this hierarchical world view.

As for the women who have come forward, I can think of several ways in which some narratives may differ from what actually transpired, even without accusing them of lying. I won't go into them here, since my point is that casting doubt on the individual merits of their cases on the basis of generalizations about the human mind or the motives of indviduals will not make the case for a revision of the Kohno Statement, particularly as interpreted (seemingly) by Mr. Abe.

One little known episode in Japanese history that will be reopened if we are to truly revisit the post-war acts of the Soviets is that Japan had a reverse "comfort women" issue under Soviet occupation in Manchuria. It was of shorter duration, covered a much smaller population, and was better "managed" (for want of a better word) than the situation in East Germany, but there was certainly coercion. If my memory serves me correctly, you should be able to find this in a 1990s (80s?) Asahi article. In Donald Keene's "Chronicles of My Life in the 20th Century", there is a description of an brief encounter with an American pilot who blithely relates acts which, if the shoe were on the other foot, would surely have been prosecuted as a war crime. There are many other stories of non-systemic, C-Type acts that even a casual observer like me is aware of, but we do not revisit, or at least do not stop our lives to reconsider them.

However, history has greater resonance for others. Perhaps for Koreans, the presence of the national divide forces them to continuously relive their past, and that is why the "comfort women" issue (beyond the relative numbers) resonates most strongly in the Korean nation.

As for Mr. Ohnishi, I think this is where you and I will have to agree to disagree. There are many occasions on which I object to the angles he takes, and I wish he would write with a little more panache. (Lighten up, man.) However, his articles do go into some depth with their characters, and are usually something more than conventional wisdom mash-ups or familiar tropes dressed up as Japan-Is-Funny essays. I think as a reporter he holds his own. In this one, though, I think he got it wrong.

Anonymous said...

How can you talk so casually about something you cannot know nor experience. The worst of the deniers of the Holocaust like to parse the words of the victims and turn them into the aggressors. You are dangerously close to this.

The bottom line there was a Japanese governmental policy of establishing comfort stations for the miitary which involved all levels of the Imperial government. The Foreign Minister issued the travel visas until they thought it was too taudry task for them.

In sum there was a governmental policy that condoned a certain type of behavior. This not just a series of acts by sociopaths who were sent to war.

Honda's resolution inadvertantly exposed the dark ugly side of Japanese politics to the world. It also exposed Japanese men's twisted views of women. No matter how you try, the Japan presented is not in step with other industrialized, modern democracies. This is the problem, not the memories of violated women.


Bryce said...

Actually Shrinegirl,

Jun and Ken are not "parsing" Abe's words. Onishi has translated them incorrectly, no doubt to fit his own particular world view. Read the original Japanese. This (taken from the Nikkei and translated correctly by Jun Okumura above) seems to be the text that Onishi is using:

「強制性については従来から議論があったところだ。当初、定義されてた強制性を裏付けるものがなかったのは事実ではないか」と述べ、同議連の主張に一定の理 解を示した。ただ、河野談話の見直しに関しては、「(強制性の)定義が変わったことを前提に考えなければならない」と語った。

The way I read it, what Abe said is exactly the opposite of what Onishi has him saying. I've gone over this at some length at Mutantfrog:


what statement did Abe make on the 27th? The Nikkei and the Japan Times put Abe's statement on March 1st, and its clear that Onishi is quoting from the same
statement, given the progression of the badly translated sentences in the AP/NY Times article.

Jun Okumura said...


I think you are a real person with a heart and mind of your own. ANd you are no worse (though not much better) than when I was your age. So, I am going to give you some advice, which I hope will come in handy when you decide to speak in your own name.

1) Don't say something that can be thrown right back at you.
"How can you talk so casually about something you cannot know nor experience." How can we know that you are not casually talking about what the women who came forward know, or experienced?

2) Address the specifics.
Your judgment has no more value than the claims that I, or any other nameless blogger makes. Your voice will merely rattle around in an echo chamber of the converted, unless you are willing to refute your enemies on the merits of the case.

3) Do not use racial slurs other than in irony. (And only when it works.)
No, I am not talking about this comment of yours, but your comment on another blog. Think about it.



I will definitely look in on Mutantfrog. "Statement" is a little strong. I got it off the Yomiuri, which should be the same source as the other JMSM, presumably one of those burasagari, scheduled impromptu interviews that Mr. Abe does every day. (Now twice? Enlighten me.)

Anonymous said...

Trust me, Jun, you are way whiter than I am.

And I fully appreciate and empathize with your situation. Your society has not been kind to you. You are not alone. You have a part of my heart.

No matter how you cut it, however, you are missing the political intent of Abe's very carefully said words. He felt he could get away with it and that his supporters would be appreciative. He poked Korea in the eye on their March 1 commemoration and spit at the US just as the USG was trying its darnest to defend him.

Now, what kind of political culture are you and your charming cohorts defending here?

Bryce said...

"No matter how you cut it, however, you are missing the political intent of Abe's very carefully said words. He felt he could get away with it and that his supporters would be appreciative."

Except, of course, that what Mr.Abe said is *the exact opposite* of how Onishi and others are reporting his comments.

"Now, what kind of political culture are you and your charming cohorts defending here?"

We (or at least I) are not attempting to defend a "political culture", we are showing how select quotes have been taken from their original language and distorted to fit a widely held but erroneous view of Japanese political behaviour in order to sell more newspapers. I could cite numerous other journalists and even academics who have done similar things. Far be it from me to defend Abe. In fact, I think he's not fit to hold the office for other reasons. However, the question here should be "what kind of *media* culture are *you* defending?"

"Trust me, Jun, you are way whiter than I am. "

Oh. I see, you're an idiot.

Jun Okumura said...

Sorry if anybody's been waiting for my response. I've been preoccupied this week and haven't had time to think.


If you want people to take you seriously, read more carefully, and try addressing the points they raise, instead of throwing slurs and supercilious remarks against something that is in your mind only.


I agree with you. Including, sadly, with your assessment of our prime minister. Unfortunately, the Japanese electorate is leaning more than ever towards None-of-the-above. As a Japanese citiaen and resident, that's where I think I deserve a little more appreciation and empathy.