My Lowy Post on Japan’s Pointless, Self-Indulgent WTH? Review of the Kono Statement

This is a re-print of a post for the Lowy Institute on the recent Japanese review of the Kono statement on Imperial military sexual service during the war. (That’s Kono in the picture.)

What the point of the ‘review’ was, I can’t figure out. The GOJ ran the review, predictably found the answer Abe wanted – that Koreans pushed Japan into historical concessions in the 1993 debate – but then Abe said he won’t change the statement anyway.

Wait, what? Why run the review if it serves no purpose? What was the point? Just to prove to us all once again that Japanese conservatives can’t give-up their creepy fascination with the war? That the Japanese old guard still looks at Korea as ‘lucky’ to have been modernized by Japan? Why the hell run the Kono review if you aren’t going to change the statement? It was a total nationalist self-indulgence. Bleh. I like Abe some of the time, especially when he talks about China and economics; but when it comes to the war, he sound like David Irving. Yikes.

Here’s that essay:

“The Korea-Japan dispute over history is back, yet again. The Japanese government this week released a ‘review’ of the drafting of the ‘Kono Statement.’ That statement is the 1993 Japanese admission, by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, that the Imperial military during the Pacific War organized military brothels in which Korean women were often forced to serve. The Japanese euphemisms for this are ‘comfort women’ and ‘comfort stations’; in reality, this was enforced prostitution that inevitably included beatings and other abuse. As the Japanese empire expanded, the practice spread across Asia, including women in Japan’s southeast Asian holdings as well.


Much of this is well-known already and widely accepted outside of Japan. There is a fairly substantial literature on it, especially in Korea where the practice was widespread; here is a good place to start in English. Even within Japan, it is really only hard-right conservatives who dispute this history, insisting that all these women were prostitutes. (For a colorful example of the sort of hate-mail I get on this, try here). Kono himself says there is nothing to add to the previous statement, and even the US has urged Japan to leave it alone.

But of course, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly returned to war-time remembrance in his career. Although elected this second time to the prime minister-ship for economic reasons – the much hyped ‘Abenomics’ – Abe just can’t seem to resist the siren-call of nationalist revisionism. Hence this ‘review’ of the Kono Statement, which determined that Korea and Japan bargained over the text of the 1993 statement. The implication is that Japan made concessions to Korea over the interpretation of history for political reasons; had Japan acted alone, it might not have come to the same finding. But Abe has said he will not alter the statement.

Predictably this has led to a sharp response from South Korea. Seoul has insisted that the findings and wording are Japan’s alone. This is just the beginning. If there is one thing that infuriates all Koreans, North or South, right or left, it is Japanese historical revisionism. Predictably, here is Korea’s most widely-read newspaper, the Chosun Daily, referring to Abe’s government as no less than a “gang of revisionist thugs.” (Chosun is the Korean proper name for the long-lasting, much-loved Korean feudal kingdom of 1392-1910.) Relations will fall into a freeze, and we will debating this for months, as we have done in the past (my contributions to this debate are here, here, here, here, and here).

The pathway out of this rut is well-known but bears repeating:

1. Japan Needs to Stop Undercutting its otherwise Admirable Contrition.

This ‘review’ of the Kono Statement is a perfect example of what angers the Koreans and Chinese so much regarding the war. The Japanese do in fact have a long history of apologizing for war-time brutalities. And Korea and China should be more cognizant of this. My Korean students, for example (I teach in Korea), regularly tell that Japan has not apologized, while China very obviously cynically manipulates the war to regionally isolate Japan. In my own experience with Japanese diplomats, scholars, and journalists (I write for Newsweek Japan), I have routinely found them aware of and embarrassed by the Imperial Army’s behavior. Most have genuinely confused feelings about the Yasukuni Shrine, think the Kono Statement should stand, and so on.

But Japanese contrition is routinely undercut by post-hoc partial walk-backs, outbursts from important officials or public figures in the media, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, claims that the atomic bomb drop made Japan a ‘victim,’ and so on. This is something of a pattern now and sends very confused signals to everyone, including the Americans. Japan’s war guilt is pretty well-established now. The idea that Japan ‘had to’ invade China, ‘modernize’ Korea, or bomb Pearl Harbor is laughable.

This most recent ‘review that isn’t really a review’ captures this maddening ambiguity. Abe launched the review for no obvious reason, because he has said it will not alter the Kono Statement. So what was the point? A sop to his conservative base? But they vote LDP no matter what. To pointlessly infuriate the South Koreans? A sheer vanity project for his own nationalist fascinations?

Whether or not there was ‘bargaining’ on Kono, Japan did sign it. And most people think this was the right thing to do; even Abe said he will not change it. Reopening this debate, while disclaiming any intent to alter the statement, serves no purpose, other than to signal once again that the Japanese right is caught in a time-warp.

2. Korea needs to recognize the Liberal Democratic character of contemporary Japan.

There is movement to be made on the Korean side as well. It is long overdue for Koreans to recognize the inherently liberal and democratic of modern Japan. Since the war, Japan has been a model global citizen. It has shown great restraint in the development of its military capabilities; it has been generous in development assistance, including to Korea; it has supported multilateral institutions and solutions robustly.

Yet I rarely see cognizance of this in South Korea. Instead there is an obsession with the war and the colonial period (or the Imjin War). I see this in class frequently, but I find the media astonishingly inflammatory. If all you read were Korean newspapers, you would think that Japanese expansionism is waiting to burst out at any moment; that the Japanese are just a few aircraft carriers or nuclear missiles away from invading Asia once again; that Japanese behavior in Korea was akin to the Holocaust; or that Japan has invaded Korea dozens, if not hundreds, of times in the past. That Chosun Ilbo quote is fairly typical, and outlandish conspiracy theories get far too much play. (My favorite is here.)

Much of this ‘Japanophobia’ (my term), I have argued, stems from Korea’s national division. The Republic of Korea (south) should be the anti-DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; North Korea); it should be the successful capitalist twin competing North Korea into illegitimacy. But it cannot be, because North Korea manipulates the language of Korean nationalism to delegitimize the South – e.g., it instrumentalizes its control of Mr. Paektu, the mythic birthplace of the Korean people, and plays to Korean race-nationalism by regularly indicting South Korea as the globalized, bastardized ‘Yankee Colony.’ Pyongyang also enjoys enough sympathy in the South that an aggressively anti-DPRK foreign policy is impossible. The South Korea left often if confusedly excuses the North, and South Korea’s most ‘progressive’ president, Roh Moo-Hyun thought Japan and the US were a greater threat to South Korean than North Korea. This creates a weird dynamic: South Korea conservatives are ‘internationalist,’ i.e., they support the US alliance, while the left (or ‘progressives’ in local jargon) are the nationalists. Strangely then, North Korea and the South Korean left are more nationalist than the South Korean right.

Japan usefully resolves these topsy-turvy national identity tensions. If the RoK cannot be the anti-DPRK, because of Pyonyang’s cynical manipulation of Korean nationalism, then the RoK can legitimate itself as the ‘anti-Japan’ instead. Japan as historical villain avoids a painful intra-South Korean debate on the legitimacy of North Korea, the appalling human rights record of a fellow Korean people, and its seductive nationalist race ideology. But if South Korea wants a normalized relationship with Japan, it will eventually need to jettison Japan as a political identity whipping boy. To elevate the comfort women above North Korea’s vastly worse human rights record for nationalist reasons guarantees continued Japanese recalcitrance.

One final thought deserves mention. Revisiting Kono is an indulgence made possible by the US security shield – much like the Korean obsession with Dokdo and the comfort women – despite a very dangerous neighborhood that cries out for Japan-Korea cooperation. Barry Posen’s recent book Restraint points out that US allies free-ride on US power, and the Korea-Japan case strikes me as a perfect example. Despite neighboring North Korea, China, and Russia, Japan and South Korea, both liberal democracies and US allies, put enormous effort into demonizing one another and competing for American favor against the other. This is yet another way that America’s alliances generate large dysfunctions that few want to recognize.”

6 thoughts on “My Lowy Post on Japan’s Pointless, Self-Indulgent WTH? Review of the Kono Statement

  1. Generally, I agree. Both sides’ leaders should come to recognize that domestic politics cannot rule them or that they need to find a new political cleavage on which to base domestic political power. This will require inspired and courageous leadership. It is questionable whether either political system can produce that kind of leader. One is reminded of Nixon “going to China.” Abe could be that kind of leader, as perhaps could Park, given both have good conservative credentials. But neither seem willing to cash those credentials in for the greater good. I do continue to take issue with your argument that the US makes this behavior possible, implying that, without the US around, these states would have to get along better, even ally. Not because I am sure you are wrong but because I think you are too sure that you are right. Your argument is very structuralist = alter the structure and these two states will behave differently. But, structure is not the only force that drives states. As you know well, the (mis)perception of China, the historical animosity, the SK identity issues which you point to would all still be there. You put forward a kind of false consciousness argument about the state of K-J relations. Engels put too much stock in that concept, and I think, perhaps, you do as well. Maybe these other forces really do matter to these people and the U.S. is the finger in the dike.


  2. >I like Abe some of the time, especially when he talks about China and economics; but when it comes to the war, he sound like David Irving.

    Economics aside, you will notice this is very much the case in Japan as a whole. Even on the blogs and forums, people that are “serious” and outspoken about defense also tend to have at best ambivalent views on comfort women, the role of Japan in WWII … etc. It might be difficult to comprehend in America, but in Japan, these views seem to come in packages.

    In a sense, perhaps this proves that China, Korea and Japan’s right wing are correct on the one thing they can agree on – history is not some boring subject that is forgotten by most after the exams, but something that shapes your worldview to a far greater extent than is commonly recognized by say Americans. Thus exactly what is taught is important, and to an extent surprising to Americans you can’t have a Japanese leader who combines a high degree of acceptance of the world’s common interpretation and a serious attitude on defense, much as that would please them.


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