Friday, February 27, 2009

Paradise Road

In 1997, Glenn Close starred in a drama, Paradise Road, about a group of women who survived the sinking by the Japanese of the ship taking them out of Singapore, which had been overrun by the Japanese army. They ended up in a Japanese POW camp in Sumatra facing all the horrors and depravations one now knows happened in these camps.

The story is partly true. Many of the women did organize a choir that helped them endure the unendurable. What is unsaid is that others made a choice given to them: if they wanted to eat, to be beaten less, to survive, they would have to "serve" the Japanese soldiers.

Maybe this "choice" is how many Japanese apologists/deniers allow themselves to say that the Comfort Women were not coerced into prostitution. This "choice" is a matter of opinion, however. This sort of choice also fits the traditional legal definition of coercion.

On Java, the POW camps for civilians were full of Dutch women, children, and the elderly. The young women there were not all given a "choice" if they wanted to "serve" Japan. Officers of the Imperial Army would arrive at the camps and ask for all the 17-28 year old girls to be lined up. First there was "Sophie's Choice" where the mothers tried to decide who among their daughters would be able to survive what they knew was ahead. Then the girls presented themselves. The officers walked down the frightened line of virgins and chose who they liked.

One survivor of this selection, is Jan Ruff O'Herne. In the early 1990s, after 50 years of silence she finally told her daughters of how she lost her virginity to a very angry Japanese officer who threatened her with his samurai sword unless she submitted and how she was repeatedly raped in the military brothel. Then she told the world.

This week, Jan who is now an Australian citizen gave another interview to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. She is speaking out again to encourage the Australian Parliament to pass a motion calling upon Japan to unequivocally apologize to the Comfort Women, to offer honest compensation for their trauma, and to reprimand publicly any who denied that the Comfort Women system existed.

Her words are moving and inspiring as she recounts what happened to her and how she has lived with the memories. She is in the process of writing a new memoir and was energized by her testimony to a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. It was the first time a government acknowledged what had happened to her and the other Comfort Women.

As she said, "the truth is [now] winning."

The true story of "Paradise Road" HERE.

Reporting the Aso Visit

Out in Hawaii, there is a great little organization that supports PacCom (that is kool language for US Pacific Command) called the Virtual Information Center or the Vic. It hosts one of my favorite websites. These hard working folks scan the English-language literature on all of Asia and publish daily a listing of all relevant news articles with links to the complete articles sorted by country. They also publish country primers and compilations of news articles on specific events and issues. And even better, they will email all these to you.

Today, they published their compilation of news articles on the Aso-Obama Summit. It is 15 pages. Who knew that the summit even generated that much news in any language, let alone in English. It is a great keeper for those who thought the meeting had some significance or don't want to forget that it happened, or just have too much time on their hands.

As with each issue-specific VIC product, there is a summary/assessment:

President Obama’s decision to host PM Aso as the first head of State to visit the White House under his administration symbolizes the continuing importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance for both Northeast Asia’s regional stability but also for the world’s, especially in view of the two country’s standing as the top world economies. For Aso, it provided an opportunity to boost his sagging domestic ratings by showcasing Japan’s status and value to the U.S. Detracting from the visit was the lack of any associated activities (state dinner or even a joint press conference). Receiving mixed reviews in Japan, the visit is unlikely to help Aso as he struggles to maintain both his position and his party’s hold on power. This may not bode well in the long-run, especially should the Democratic Party of Japan, which may not be as cooperative with the U.S. in future security issues, wins the upcoming Lower House elections and gains control of the government.

To access the full report, see HERE.

Not in the VIC report is the Washington Post interview with Prime Minister Aso. Nothing extraordinary, but ends with a let's "railroad," which you can take any way you want.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Well, I Have Nothing To Say Too

PRIME MINISTER ASO: Do I have to say something? Well, first of all, thank you very much for inviting me as a foreign official, a foreign guest, to the White House. On behalf of not only Japan but as a nation, we are very honored to be here as the first of foreign guests.

--To the press as he meets US President Obama, 2/24/09.

Noting the importance of stabilizing Afghanistan, President Obama expressed appreciation for Japan’s extensive contributions to date and strongly welcomed Japan’s intention to play a greater role in assisting Afghanistan as well as Pakistan to improve security and economic development.

--Readout on the President's Meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Aso
, White House Press Office, 2/24/09.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Cornered Rat will Bite the Cat

Japan’s Foreign Ministry whined. The Prime Minister begged. And the right wing press snarled. The US-Japan Alliance was headed for irreparable damage, they warned, if the Japanese prime minister was not among the very first to visit the new American president. After all, Japan is the cornerstone of American foreign policy in Asia. So the White House demurred.

Prime Minister Taro Aso gets his meeting tomorrow: one whole hour of it. Then he has lunch with former Bush Administration Japan hands such as Richard Armitage and his friends.[Our guess is that former MOFA Vice Minister Yachi, who has planned the trip for Mr Aso, is unaware that Bush is out of office.] After this he visits Arlington Cemetery to lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown. Aso and other conservative nationalists like to compare Arlington to the Yasukuni Shrine. There are many differences; not the least being that convicted war criminals cannot be buried at Arlington.

Was this worth all the effort? With the Aso Cabinet supported by less than 10 percent of the people in Japan, Washington is taking a gamble. “Experienced observers” say ‘yes’ as it is not the man but the office Americans need to respect. It is the process of accommodating Japan that matters. Plus, too many prominent Japanese have painted Democratic administrations are untrustworthy, uninformed, and unreliable. The task is to present an image to the Japanese of the U.S. as friend and ally and not a clone of the Clinton Administration.

But will one hour of face-time make Aso a hero and Japan more confident? The visit was pulled together so quickly that symbolism overtakes substance. There was no time for new ideas or initiatives on both sides; nothing that would energize the relationship. Except for things that were already in the works, the meeting agenda looks simply like an effort to get Aso to agree to cooperate more on Afghanistan and other areas important to Washington before there is a change in government in Japan.

Once Aso commits Japan at the summit on several broad and narrow issues, it will be very hard for the next prime minister, LDP or DPJ, to ignore or remove them. Or, so the Obama Japan managers think. This strategy comes off as cornering Aso. It makes the prime minister look even more desperate than he already is, and appear more submissive than America already asks.

More important, Aso satisfies neither his supporters nor the Opposition. His conservative base wants him to show less dependence upon the US. And, Aso’s acquiescence plays into the Opposition’s strategy of highlighting how the ruling LDP has “blindly followed” the United States. The DPJ has emphasized repeatedly its desire for a more independent Japanese diplomacy based on greater international cooperation. Thus, it remains to be seen if the DPJ will feel it necessary or even politically possible to follow through on Aso’s commitments to the US.

DPJ Leader Ichiro Ozawa met yesterday with the visitng Chinese Communist Party International Department head Wang Jiarui. Ozawa told Wang "As I have a special affinity with China, I want to promote a friendship. If our party gets a good result in the next Lower House election, we will reconstruct the Japanese economy and will try more than ever to improve the friendship between Japan and China." Not heartening words for the White House. And as the Chinese proverb says: “a cornered rat will bite the cat.”

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Third Mind

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City has a fascinating exhibition on America's relationship with Asia. All is not trade and security. How we "sense" Asia, how we emotionally interact with things Asian has a great affect on the supposedly more rational political and financial relations. We forget we have a "relationship" with Asia.

The exhibition, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989, runs from January 30 to April 19, 2009. There is an excellent accompanying book and a good online overview.

[From the catalog] This exhibition traces how Asian art, literature, and philosophy were transmitted and transformed within American cultural and intellectual currents, influencing the articulation of new visual and conceptual languages. It explores how American art evolved through a process of appropriation and integration of Asian sources that developed from the 1860s through the 1980s, when globalization came to eclipse earlier, more deliberate modes of cultural transmission and reception. While Europe has long been recognized as the font of mainstream American art movements, the exhibition explores an alternative lineage of creative culture that is aligned with America's Pacific vista—Asia.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Laugh

On Wednesday, February 18th, an assistant to the Japanese Ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki called Lester Tenney. He said that the Ambassador would not be traveling next week to San Diego. The Japanese Prime Minister was coming to Washington. Thus, it would not be possible for the Ambassador to meet with him to continue the quiet dialogue they started on Japan's reconciliation with the American POWs of Japan.

Dr. Tenney,88, Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, has tried for 65 years to get recognition and an apology for his and other POWs of Japan's forced labor for Imperial Japan's military and private Japanese companies. Strangely, the Japanese have offered apologies to and created a Peace, Friendship, and Reconciliation Initiative for all the other Allied POWs. Only the Americans were excluded. No answer why has ever been given.

Dr. Tenney then asked about the possibility of meeting with the visiting Prime Minister to discuss resolving this sore on US-Japan relations. After all, Mr. Aso had just admitted that his family company used POWs in his mines during the war.

The Japanese diplomat laughed at him.

The young man's blunt response resurrected a bitter memory in Dr. Tenney. He flashed back to end of the Bataan Death March. Starving, exhausted, and sick the surviving POWS stood at attention in Camp O’Donnell while the Japanese Commandant told them [the POWs] that they were “lower than dogs” and “they [the Japanese] would treat them that way for the rest of their lives.” Then the Commandant said, “We will never be friends with the piggish Americans.”

Dr. Tenney is only asking for fairness for the American POWs. He wants the American POWs and their descendants to be included in a new Japanese government initiative to fund visits and research on the POW experience, and to help former POWs to overcome and cope with their negative wartime experiences and to promote a spirit of reconciliation with Japan and the Japanese people.

After all these years of goodwill and friendship between the US and Japan, is this too much to ask?


Today is February 19th. Today is the day I reflect upon loss, more than usual. Today, it is 25 years since my mother died barely six months after my father.

Today, I light a candle just like the one above and think about all those I have lost over the years. And I dwell on the memories of ones from the recent year. Some were people who I had lost touch with, one was a second father, and one was not because he died but because he had me die. None could I prevent and all left me wondering of what could have been. And this is what the historian confronts everyday. We are always missing someone.

The Yahrzeit candle only burns for 24 hours

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Saving Her Aso

Prime Minister Taro Aso who has less than a 10 percent approval rating is coming to Washington February 24th. What!? Conventional wisdom, “mature reflection,” in Washington calmly notes that “that of course the Prime Minister of Japan (regardless of who or his poll numbers) WILL be invited...invited meet the new President of the United States. The primacy of the alliance...political, economic, strategic at ALL levels... mandates nothing less.”

What nonsense. With a cautious Asia team in place and second string Armitage players soon to arrive, the Obama Administration is bending over backwards to assure official Japan that nothing will change. And nothing has. Americans still cave in to incessant Japanese whining. Japan remain the “cornerstone” of our Asia policy.

Although Administration officials say (privately) that they could no longer stall on a meeting with Aso, the invitation to the White House is read as a transparent effort to rescue the Aso Administration and the LDP. That probably means that the Obama Administration prefers Aso over opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa. There is too much fear among Washington’s Japan managers of an untested opposition party DPJ led government in Tokyo. They see Ozawa as a bigger threat to US-Japan relations than an ineffectual LDP government.

I think that the invitation will ultimately be a mistake. This show of support for a failing regime undermines the goodwill that Obama has regenerated with the Japanese people. In some ways, Obama’s election represents a repudiation of the corrupt and jingoistic politics as practiced by the LDP. The Japanese dismiss Aso and the LDP for a good reason. Now they have a new reason to dismiss the US.

Ozawa was right to avoid meeting with Secretary Clinton. His election strategy is to distance himself from anything LDP and that includes clearly the United States. Before the Aso invitation, there was some ambiguity as to how the Obama Administration felt. Now there is none.

Clinton’s meeting with him was mere show to assuage Washington that they “reached out.” Ozawa correctly judged that the new White House was no more imaginative with the US-Japan relationship than that of the old one. Clinton’s too-long stay in Tokyo pandering to the usual mystic Japanese cultural icons—the Meiji Shrine, the Empress, the Abductees families—simply reinforced that conclusion.

One can make the argument that Japan is not in a situation favorable to changing the prime minister or to having an election. But that is an admission that Japan is not a stable democracy. And it is never a good idea to alienate an increasingly popular opposition party. However, the whole effort by Aso to force a meeting may backfire.

The February 24 fly-in might accentuate the contrast between the world's most vigorous president and the unpopular empty-headed and empty-handed prime minister. Frankly, the Aso meeting is a mere pause in a very busy day for a President who will spend his evening outling his economic agenda to a rare joint session of Congress. It is hard to see how Aso's visit is helpful to anyone.