I’m Done Defending Abe: the Japanese Right is getting Genuinely Creepy

protesting-comfort-women-by-bloggerswithoutbordersIf you’ve ever read this blog before, you know I try to avoid the details of the Korea-Japan tussle. It gets so emotional so fast. Like most Americans, I want Japan and Korea to reconcile so they can work together on the larger, more important issues of North Korea and China. I don’t take a position on the Dokdo/Takeshima flap. I refuse to call the Sea of Japan the ‘East Sea’ (do you want to re-name the Korea Strait too?). When Koreans push me about the war, I try to deflect the issue. It is really not appropriate for outsiders, especially Americans, to weigh in on the details of Asian disputes. We can’t be an umpire to local fights, and our intervention would be seen as illegitimate by the losing party anyway. This is also the USG’s position: we have no position other than that we want all the parties to work out the disagreements without coercion or force. That’s the right attitude IMO.

Since Abe came into office, I have been defending him in Korea, which is fairly thankless and annoying to lots of people here. He’s made regrettable and obnoxious noises about revising the Kono Declaration. His cabinet is filled with righties, some of them genuinely unnerving. Catering to domestic right-wing attitudes on the war isn’t really what his PM-ship should be about anyway, but my Japanese colleagues say it’s all just cosmetic or needed baggage to push through necessary economic changes. And then there’s always the Global Timesthe Fox News of China – to reliably exaggerate any Japanese swing to the right as a return to fascism. It’s easy for China and Korea to get carried away.

Hence, I defended the Abe government early on in Korean media. That didn’t win me any friends here, but I thought it necessary to give him a chance. And I figured Abe was smart enough, even if he is a nationalist, to avoid provoking all Asia over Yasukuni yet again. I got that one pretty wrong *sigh*. I have chastised Koreans for fetishizing Dokdo to point of war preparations against Japan. When Newsweek Korea asked me this week for an article on the ‘rise of right-wing Japan,’ I sent in an article instead saying that Koreans and Japanese need to work out their differences and that the US should not play a ‘moral hazard’ role empowering maximalists on both sides to say outrageous stuff. In that same piece, I criticized President Lee Myung-Bak’s trip to Dokdo last year as an embarrassing, flag-waving nationalist gimmick (which it was).

I also thought Abenomics was a great idea. Austerity has pretty clearly failed in Europe, and if a nationalist Abe was what was needed to shake Japan out of its decline, then so be it. Japan is the main bulwark against Chinese primacy in Asia, even if Japan’s erstwhile colonies don’t want to admit that. In the last few days, I made all these remarks, defending both Abenomics in the JoongAng Daily and a stand-offish US attitude toward the details of the Japan-Korea flap in Newsweek Korea. I am about as ‘pro-Japanese’ – in the sense of encouraging a Korean-Japanese reconciliation – as you get in Korea without getting in trouble.

But the comfort women denialism of the last few days is just too much. Jesus Christ. Do we really have to go through why sexual slavery is god-awful and should be apologized for? And don’t tell me it was ‘prostitution;’ almost all these women were coerced and not ‘paid’ – except that they were given a place to sleep and something to eat. This is a real WTF moment after months of creepy talk from the corners of the Abe coalition. This endless re-writing of the Pacific War in Japan really needs to stop. Abe needs to say something. The respectable right in Japan needs to contain the revanchists, as it does in Germany.

My friend Dan Pinkston of the International Crisis Group here in Korea is a much tougher critic of the Japanese right than I am, but he’s absolutely correct here. If Dan is right that the US could get Japan to lay off the Yasukuni stuff, we should do it. Abenomics is not a blank check for shameless revisionism.

47 thoughts on “I’m Done Defending Abe: the Japanese Right is getting Genuinely Creepy

  1. Some personal views, not all politically correct:

    This is, frankly, the kind of stuff that happens when you try to hastily decide good and bad, right or wrong with a victor’s court instead of leaving it to the historians. The insistence on pretending that all the territorial ambition is on one side is coming to bite us. If they just went with the intellectually honest pre-WWI conventional formula of, “OK, we won. We won big. We won’t complain too much about what you did when you were winning but we won this round, so now we take X land and Y reparations as victor’s spoils” instead of going “We won. But we are the good guys. So we don’t take any land as victor’s spoils. Instead, you will nevertheless give up X land to us because they were grabbed by ‘greed’ (as if it were possible to have *any* territorial expansion without *some* greed…)!”, this kind of thing would be a lot less…

    Now, about Yasukuni, I’ll have to back Abe and Co on it. For one thing, it is X million souls and 14 war criminals. For the second thing, it is an internal affair. The Japanese’s biggest mistake was to accept interference on this matter, and if they hadn’t, it would be so unimportant most of those parliamentarians would have gone to play golf or catching up on porn instead of wasting a perfectly good day on it.

    As for the Japanese Right, first, these positions are not new. In fact, they’ve always been there since the end of WWII, so it is not “endless rewriting” so much as a completely different but more or less static position that gets expressed every now and then. “Endless rewriting” would be what China is doing with Okinawa and Senkakus. Or maybe Koreans with “East Sea”…

    And ironically, their position makes their statements on comfort women less offensive, at least to me. When Hashimoto talks “comfort women”, he really isn’t talking about sex slaves, at least in his mind. As your own writing implies, it’ll be substantially less offensive if we were talking about prostitutes. If that’s so, then your biggest difference with Hashimoto is that you have accepted “comfort women” = sex slave, and he doesn’t. That may well make you more cognizant of correct history, but that’s about it.

    To be blunt, I’m much more concerned about the subtle rewriting of the proposed amendment to the Constitution over time. The new wording is truly sinister and worrying, much more so than some wierd views on history.

    Finally on the “respectable right in Japan”: I’m not sure what you mean but if you meant a theoretical Japanese demographic that basically shares the global historical view of WWII but nevertheless agrees it might be good time to revise Article 9 and put a little more meat into Japan’s military … unfortunately I have yet to meet that group. In my experience, for some reason Japanese (those that think about such issues and profess their views) come in sets.

    The “best” you can get with pro-Article 9 changers is someone who ‘officially’ states his abstention from the whole historical issue (he would still be likely to at least somewhat agree with the continued visits to Yasukuni), ranging down to of course, Ishihara and Hashimoto. I’ve never met a guy who spends the left side of his webpage agreeing with Nanking and Comfort Women and the right side of it saying Japan should nevertheless change Article 9 because that’s what the times demand. No, if his left side agreed with Nanking the right side will be a tract proclaiming that if we change Article 9 Japanese troops will become mercenaries for the Americans…

    We find this strange because in many ways we are that “respectable right”, but if the respectable right exists in Japan, they are silent which means they won’t be much of a political force. It may be hard to accept, but it seems to be the truth.

    So if you want progress on Article 9, you will have to back up nutjobs until the Article gets changed then throw your weight behind the “left-wing” to abort the move before they wipe out all human rights (which is much more worrying than a view of history…)


    • I digress that Yasukuni is an internal issue. I don’t care if it’s XX million non-war-criminal souls and 1 war criminal, it still contains a goddamn war criminal. Even Hitler’s parent’s gravestones were removed because it became a neo-Nazi shrine, and Osama Bin Laden’s body was dunked at an undisclosed location. And cultural or religious relativism is irrelevant here, as 1.it presumes that other cultures don’t have a custom of honoring the dead (some of them just avoid it in the case of war criminals) 2.it actually makes it worse due to the “worshiping” part.
      Another reason it’s not an internal issue is because it also contain the names of non-Japanese soldiers of its former colonies, who were drafted and forced to serve in the Japanese military. Perhaps the Japanese who interred them thought they were paying a great service to their previous colonial servants, but it’s just plain insulting. Some Taiwanese, Korean and pacifist Japanese families who became aware (this wording is because the families weren’t notified, and a lot of people aren’t even aware their families are interred in Yasukuni) that their fathers or husbands were interred in Yasukuni along with class-A war criminals are still protesting (and suing, though unsuccessfully) that their names be removed. Japanese politicians and mainstream media frame it as an internal issue And I don’t think the controversy would have gone away if Japan hadn’t “accept(ed) interference” from its victims, because interference is an act of “hindering, obstructing, or impeding,” which doesn’t usually seek the receiver’s permission. They’ll protest whether Japan gave them a say or not, as they have a right to do so.
      I’m personally weary of South Korea’s and China’s (ab)use of nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiments to divert attention from domestic problems, but Japan as a past aggressor should try to minimize and control the amount of fuel that its lawmakers are dishing out. I too shared similar views on Abe as Robert did, but now I’d have to agree with Dan Pinkston. This is getting way out of hand.


      • Wow. Is it really true that Hitler’s parent’s gravestones were removed because neo-Nazis were visiting it? Creepy.

        I think this reply captures my own thinking pretty well too. I think it is rather duplicitous to say that Yasukuni’s just an internal affair. The Pacific War was simply too destructive and Japanese ideology in that war simply too racist and supremacist for that to be tolerable. Earlier wars like WWI or Imjin are less controversial, because they look like ‘normal’ raison d’état expansionism for gain. But the Axis in WWII was terrifyingly fascistic and eliminationist, and that needs to be admitted.

        Finally, I must say I am fairly upset that Abe won’t tamp this stuff out. One of the important roles of legitimate conservative parties is that the write-out of respectability the nut-job racist, anti-Semitic, conspiracy theorists that populate the black helicopter right-wing fringe. The CDU-CSU does this in Germany. Bill Buckley explicitly said the National Review was to do this in the US (delegitimizing nut-jobs like the John Birch Society and the American Mercury). The LDP needs to do the same in Japan, and it’s not. That is bad for history, bad for Japan, and bad for East Asia


  2. “… if a nationalist Abe was what was needed to shake Japan out of its decline, then so be it.”

    Flashback to 1932 Germany and the closing days of the Weimar Republic!

    “… if a nationalist like Hitler was what was needed to shake Germany out of its decline, then so be it.”

    Cutting cards with the devil there a bit, huh Robert?


    • Yes, that’s apt description of the process. However, IMHO it would seem that the social engineering pioneered by the Americans after WWII and carried on by local educational establishments thereafter (which the Japanese rightists sometimes call a leftist conspiracy to weaken Japan) had some intentional (given the original American goal) but undesired (in the Cold War and thereafter policy) consequences, polarizing the Japanese (at least those who would speak out and thus influence policy) into those polarized sets that I describe in my comment above.

      Perhaps if America in the start had gone for a set of social engineering to teach the “responsible use of force” rather than “no force”, this won’t have happened, but America made its choice and now eats the consequence.

      I won’t be too concerned about it, though. The biggest mistake then (and here I talk solely from the security perspective, not a human rights perspective) is the lack of vigilance on the part of other powers. A policy where (for instance) Germany is freed from Versailles’ ridiculous 100,000 men, 6 ancient predreadnaught limit (I actually consider that much more “unfair” than the reparation stuff that’s usually pranced around) and other related measures to restore some pride while making it through action (rather than bluff) that territorial “readjustment” would not be tolerated may well have avoided the whole farce that was the European part of WWII (of course, that leaves the Jewish problem, but again I focus on the security part here). Here, everyone is overvigilant, and let’s face it Japan will face enormous counterpressure both inwards and outwards if it tries to build up to the point it can begin to repeat 1895-1945 all over again.


    • Is this intended to be snarky? Because if it’s meant honestly, it’s simply irresponsible – a typical example of the ‘Goodwin’s Law’ hyperbole that infects the Sino-Korean discussion of Japan. It hardly needs to be argued that Abe is not Hitler and that Japan today is not Germany 1932. Among other things, Japan has a pacificist constitution deeply ingrained in the national psyche, has been allied to a democratic superpower deeply wedded to democracy-promotion for 60 years, and has had free elections for 60 years as well. Exaggerated commentary like this is precisely what gives Japanese historical revisionists political cover to simply blow off criticism.


  3. I am relieved that your title describes the Japanese right, and not Japan as an entity. I see many expatriates here who in their early days believe they fit in by endorsing every Korean position, and others who become quite embittered by Korean jingoism after years spent here and end up spitefully defending Japan. I think the specification ‘right’ is important, just as I appreciate bloggers who qualify that ‘some’ Christians do stupid things. There are likely millions of Japanese who are embarrassed by this gear and mortified by the mayor of Osaka encouraging soldiers to use brothels.

    Something that’s really interested me lately is the psychology, linguistics, and cultural practice of apologizing. I’ve had a spate of cheating lately in my classes, and it seems there’s a clear difference between students who honestly regret their actions and apologize with the intention of expunging their own shame–and the others who give pro forma apologies which to me seem more a performative act; they will then ask for a break on their grades. One of my favorite books lately is Nisbett’s “The Geography of Thought.” Nisbett would probably argue that western apologies involve the individual and eastern ones attempt to bridge or heal a social rupture to heal community. I suppose the problem with a western apology is that it could be narcissistic, and an eastern one could be insincere.

    I’m grappling with the idea of apologizing here, because there must for certain be western problems with apologizing–the current cult of corporations making empty apologies for what are sometimes very trivial PR missteps, for example–but is there something problematic with the individual acceptance of wrong in an eastern and face-saving culture? The Japanese have paid money to Korea and dismantled much of their post-war military, but to me there doesn’t seem to be a compelling and national sense of admission of guilt as there is in Germany. Is such even culturally possible, or am I being unfair and stereotyping?

    I had a nasty argument with a coworker who claimed that Japan owes Korea nothing after settling its debts. But emotions mean something in IR. Would it be possible for Germany to enjoy the present trust it has in Europe without Willy Brandt kneeling, or their making Nazi salutes illegal, or other various tiny steps which demonstrate a sincere conviction of regret, if Germany had just offered money and made a performative apology? I’m puzzled by why the Japanese cannot see this, and by how costly their face-saving has been to east Asia and can only conclude there must be other reasons. To hedge or deny that there were invasions and forced prostitution seems so incredibly stupid and blind to the rage it will cause–it attracts me to the explanation that there is a cultural basis. My apologies myself for a long, long response post.


  4. just as I appreciate bloggers who qualify that ‘some’ Christians do stupid things. There are likely millions of Japanese who are embarrassed by this gear and mortified by the mayor of Osaka encouraging soldiers to use brothels.
    online casino asia


      • Robert, I wrote this. The spammer simply auto-inserted some text from my post. The same spam is on the Kaesong complex thread. Ken :>


  5. I might come of a bit as a Japanese apologist in this post, but so be it. In my opinion the public(!) discussion is too much in favor of Korea and Japan and ignores the reason of Japanese actions.

    I mentioned Korea’s small man syndrome on another post of yours (http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/my-comments-to-al-jazeera-on-park-ghs-inauguration-as-sk-prez/#comment-8938). That time I only talked about Europeans but said that it might also be true for Japanese. This might be the time to engross the thought.
    Alll the below also referes to China in a different degree.

    The abstract of the Korean narrative of the Japanese role in WW2 is: They were evil and they overran us. This sentence consist of two parts, (1) they were evil, (2) they overran us. (1) is the motivation and (2) is the action. But how does one actually pursue one’s motivation? By having the capability. And that is a point that is often ignored. If Korea had wanted to invade/colonialize Japan, they couldn’t have done it because they lacked the capability to do so.
    Now we don’t need to discuss that is no excuses for Japan’s actions, but it is important in the context of East-Asian face culture.
    In my experience Koreans only focus on (1). As soon as I start talking about (2) they get very uncomfortable and try to evade because it leads to the question of how Japan could do what it did.
    The problem is not that Japan had superior capabilities. The problem is that it rubbed it into Korea’s face and let the whole world know about it. I don’t know how or when this immense loss of face can be restored or forgotten. Certainly not by any excuse by any Japanese. The Japanese know that and I think that is the reason why they are so hesitant. They are afraid that if they give them a finger they will take the whole hand. And to be honest I don’t think that fear is too unreasonable.
    Here I also speak as a German born in 1991. Germany always gets mentioned a lot in this discussion as a positive example and I agree with that notion. The question is where does it start and where does it end. As you can currently see as soon as Germany stopped apologizing and paying non-stop the complains started again. I’m aware this sounds very BILD but that doesn’t means it’s not true.

    Bottom line: As cynical as it may sound, but no matter what Japan does Korea and China will give it shit and keep demonizing them (meaning focusing on (1)) for decades to come. That is no reason to glorify war criminals or to be unconcerned, but this discussion has to be brought down on a sober, rational level. To be very specific I think there has to be one treaty that settles all these quarrels in one strike once and for all.
    Korea-Japan relations have to improve for the sake of both of them.
    This feud is a luxury they can no longer afford!


    • OK, let me join you in some more unPC sentiments.

      >As you can currently see as soon as Germany stopped apologizing and paying non-stop the complains started again.

      Is that so? I honestly thought the Europeans will be a bit better than this.

      I’ll be even more cynical and suggest that a major reason why Germany got off is because of the Cold War. The other European countries need Germany economically and militarily and so they actively assist in fanning down the flames. All Germany has to do is provide a catalyst in the form of an apology. If even in such circumstances the complaints can still flare up again …

      China and Korea’s strategic interest is in delaying Japan’s regrowth into a “balanced” power, and their best weapon is to constantly fan up memories of Japanese imperialism. 1990-2010 was actually a golden window of opportunity for Japan. Imagine an alternate timeline where Japan actively exploits this period to prepare for the upcoming rise of China, without having to worry about any other major military threat (with a low military threat, the US also loses one of its bigger levers). It reallocates some resources from public works (pork barrel of minimal true productivity) and welfare into the military, say 2% of GNP, and carefully cultivates relationships with India, Russia and various Southeastern countries.

      Fast forward to today and the politico-military correlation of forces looks much more adverse for China, doesn’t it? Korea is also much more dominated by Japan than she currently is. One can easily see how the Chinese and Korean simply have their interest in making the most of the past and making sure Japan is militarily weak and dependent on the US for its foreign policy.

      Their strategy is successful, and partially due to their efforts, Japan essentially wasted the entire turn. Now we are out of time.


    • fmoelk, your comment is silly and incomprehensible; it is the Japanese pride and its refusal lose face that causes the rewriting of history, not the other way around.

      I do not doubt that for some Koreans, the history of the the Japanese occupation is merely an issue of pride and keeping face. But for most others, it is much more than a just source of national embarrassment. Many Koreans have deep-seated resentment toward the Japanese because they know of the horrific war crimes that the Japanese committed during the occupation. Surely, you understand that resentment arising from the history of mass murder is distinct from your “small man syndrome” theory. Without knowing and considering the truly appalling details of the Japanese occupation, you cannot cavalierly suggest that the Koreans give shit and demonize the Japanese merely because it lost its face. That is an absurdly twisted view of the situation.

      Unlike China and Korea, which suffered immeasurable loss, the Japanese were the perpetrators. Hence, for the Japanese at least, the refusal to apologize for the past war crimes cannot be an issue of resentment. It’s not. Japan rewrites history because it does not want to lose face. It does not want to admit that it committed horrific crimes in the past face. The “small man syndrome” is better reserved for the Japanese politicians.


      • Ok, maybe I kept my post too short.
        I agree that the Japanese rewriting of history is irresponsible and disgusting and that they do this to save face. Especially as a young German I am disturbed by their handling of history. I didn’t emphasize this as it wasn’t my main point. I see how this can be misunderstood.
        The question I wanted to answer was: What is going to change in the Korea-Japan relations if Japan honestly faces history? For that I have drawn the parallel to Germany and Europe because that is something I can speak on from my own experience.

        When Germany was divided, not having an opinion and paying European Euphoria was at its height. As the famous saying goes: “The European project was created to hide France’s weakness and Germany’s strength”. It was not Europe that should be German, it was Germany that should be European. The former perpetrator was weak, silent and obedient towards the former victims. And that was the key to reconciliation.
        Then Germany unified. After tough reforms it regained its natural strength. That alone might have been alright, but now it also demanded a say in European and International matters according to its strength. And to top all of that it now refuses to pay for everyone else. Germany stopped being weak, silent and obedient. Instantly it is being accused of trying to create a fourth Reich. The rest of Europe is digging up all that what they had said was forgiven.

        But back to Japan. Looking at the formula above Japan has to become weak, silent and obedient towards Korea for Korea to forgive Japan. That is not going to happen. Simply because Japan is twice as powerful as Korea. Germany was in the middle of Europe, surrounded and overwhelmed by its many victims. Japan only has a sea border to little Korea. China was affected on a completely different level. Besides that uncle Mao said Japanese occupation was the best thing that ever happened to China because it unified it.
        But let’s pretend Japan would be weak, silent and obedient towards Korea. Then we would have to go back to the question from my first post: “where does it start and where does it end?” The answer as you can see above is: it starts when you kneel down and it ends when you stand up.
        So for Japan to be forgiven it would have to kneel down for the rest of its entire existence. If you ask me that is not a good deal.

        What has to happen for true reconciliation?
        Japan has to sincerely face history. Not only for Korea but for itself. Denying your past wrongdoings does not only hurt the people you have wronged, it stops yourself from evolving to a better you.
        Korea has to accept that Japan was, is and will be stronger than Korea. That is simply its natural place. They don’t have to like it, but to accept it.

        Applying the reconciliation formula to Europe, Europe would have to accept that Germany isn’t simply one amongst equals.

        Just my 50 Pfennige…


      • About the small man syndrome:
        It means that Korea thinks that Japan thinks that Korea is inferior. Which is accurate in my view.
        However Japan does not think that Korea thinks that Japan is inferior.


  6. These are interesting comments. Robert remarked that it’s not generally good advice to become involved in Korean politics, as people will resent the outsider’s involvement. I think another danger is that being outsiders it is maybe easier for us to take nuanced opinions. I don’t think any of us believe Korea is totally innocent, or that it hasn’t exploited the martyr card to maximize its position and encourage unity on it. The Japanese apologies have been accused of being rather passive-aggressive– they announce apologies, but not necessarily to the right people, and then undermine them– but the Japanese also have a point in feeling suspicious that no amount of apologizing would ever be enough and that some (some) Koreans have an agenda in being permanently aggrieved.

    How can these countries get past this? I don’t know. I didn’t think of the argument that Japan is in a stronger position and can’t simply strike a pose of weakness as Germany supposedly did. But–I’m no expert on this– are there no examples of states in positions of relative power making peace with past oppressed minorities- the New Zealanders and their aboriginals, for example, or European Jews generally–? Again, to me if the Japanese were more committed to tamping down extremism and having a more thoroughgoing education program and commemoration of its war past (e.g. a national day of remembrance), I think this and the passage of time would certainly reduce hostilities, even if they would remain in part. I repeat the point that the small acts matter.


  7. This train of comments is both good (well-written, interesting, intelligent) and the very reason I don’t write on this topic. It gets fatiguing quickly.

    I’m not sure I have much to add other than that:

    1) the Japanese need to stop pussy-footing around on how awful they were during the war and just say it unequivocally

    2) the Korean government relentless manipulates local Japanophia for its own purposes

    3) the CCP is so corrupt and illegitimate, that I don’t listen to them at all on Japan (or anything else) anymore; when I read the ‘Global Times,’ it’s for laughs

    4) if Korea was unified and Mt. Paektu could resume its normal place as the geographic focal point of Korean nationalism, we wouldn’t be talking about Dokdo


    Thank you. REK


  8. The idea that President Obama could force the Japanese to stop visiting Yasukuni “in one minute” is amusing.

    How exactly does Obama get a political faction in a foreign country to stop a longstanding tradition when he can’t even get the Republicans in his own country to sign off on a budget deal?


      • Ideally Japan would just kick all the war criminals out of Yasukuni–I dunno, hold an exorcism or something. The shrine’s stated purpose, to the souls of those who have served the Emperor, I have no problem with. Add in war criminals, and I have a problem. Add in regular visits by the LDP and I have a greater problem.

        It would be great if the living Emperor were to state that Yasukuni was only for those who have served the emperor honorably. Boom, problem solved. But either it doesn’t work that way or it’s because the Emperor is a pussy.

        Still, all of this is moot because Obama could fix this WITH ONE PHONE CALL.


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  23. The comfort woman issue I believe was made up decades after the war by right wing Koreans. Where is the evidence? As far as I know, only a few women saying it happened will prove nothing. The issue never existed at least 30 years after the war, it was invented later, which proves it is fiction.


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