Eyes wide shut: The media and the Abe-Bush press conference
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 29, 2007
BEFORE HIS VISIT to the United States this weekend, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a CNN interviewer that he thought North Korea’s Kim Jong-il is “a person who is capable of rational thinking”. He added, “I believe that the direction North Korea is headed is wrong.”
In their story, the Associated Press noted, “Abe’s aides could not be immediately reached to confirm his comments.”
Forging boldly ahead with their coverage of the vital issues of the day, the AP referred to the joint Abe-Bush press conference this weekend in the U.S. as a “show of friendship”. They reported that President Bush told Shinzo he “married well”, and invited him down to the ranch. In return, Prime Minister Abe said that he and his wife and George and Laura had a very wondsdfffffffffhtujoi
Oops, sorry about that. I fell asleep and briefly passed out on the keyboard.
After staring at all that irrelevancy, can you blame me? Besides, I nodded off for just a few seconds, but the entire American news media, including CNN and the AP with their millions of dollars in resources and equipment, sat stupefied while one of the biggest stories of the postwar Japan-US relationship sailed over their heads. Yet the AP thinks it’s necessary to confirm that Mr. Abe believes North Korea is headed in the wrong direction?
Why do they have to confirm what every sentient being on the planet knows except some addled South Koreans? And what difference does it make? Why are they even bothering?
Meanwhile, as they’re working the phones, their sources, and shoe leather, they’ve missed the bigger story staring them in the face. In the past two days, Prime Minister Abe and the government of Japan just issued its Declaration of Independence from the legacy of World War II, and in effect told Mike Honda, the U.S. Congress, and the rest of East Asia that if they don’t like it, they can take a hike. But the AP is spending its time trying to confirm that Prime Minister Abe thinks Kim Jong-il is rational.
Perhaps Shinzo should confirm with George whether the President thinks the AP is rational.
To be sure, the Japanese delivered their message subtly and in a non-confrontational way, but the Japanese are nothing if not the masters of telling people to bugger off in subtle and non-confrontational ways.
It started with Mr. Abe’s initial statement at the Camp David press conference:
I explained to the President that as the mission of my administration I will strive to move Japan beyond the post-war regime. As part of this endeavor, I explained to the President that I launched on the eve of this trip a blue-ribbon panel for the purpose of reshaping the legal foundation for national security in a way that will benefit — that will befit the times, now that the security environment surrounding Japan is undergoing major change.
Translation in plain English: “World War II is over. You can forget about seeing any more self-abasement for our actions during that war. We used to bow and suck air whenever another country confronted us with our past. In bilateral negotiations, we would back down from our position when other countries brought up the behavior of Imperial Japan.
“Those days are gone. We’ve behaved responsibly during the past 60 years—more responsibly than most of the rest of you—and we’ve also spent a lot of our hard-earned money on good works internationally. Now, we will no longer be denied our place as an equal at the table of the Community of Nations.
“Oh, and that Constitution you jammed down our throats at the end of the war that legally prevents us from defending ourselves against any attack, much less from the thugs in Pyongyang? We’re going to rewrite it.”
Mr. Abe was still not finished. For the past few months, some elements in the U.S. Congress and the mass media have, at the minimum, tried to make life very difficult for the prime minister and Japan over the issue of comfort women during the war. At the maximum, they might well have been thinking regime change.
Yet Mr. Abe stuck it to them again, this time so discreetly and delicately that no one picked it up. Here’s how he put it:
“I, as prime minister of Japan, express my apologies, and also express my apologies for the fact that they were placed in that sort of circumstance,” Abe said
Everyone focused on the first Oprah-atic part of that sentence, as he knew they would, and glossed over the second part—“the fact that they were placed in that sort of circumstance”.
The apology itself is nothing new, either for Mr. Abe or for several other Japanese prime ministers.
Notice that he did not apologize for “coercing women into sexual slavery” during the war. In fact, all the prime minister did was slightly rephrase the same statement the New York Times misquoted a few months ago, which ignited the initial controversy. The Times cherry-picked one of his answers to a question from the head of the Communist Party in the Diet, in which he said that he thought it regrettable that Korean women felt coerced in the broad sense of the term to become comfort women; i.e., compelled by economic or other conditions.
In other words, Prime Minister Abe stood up in front of everyone at Camp David (including the New York Times) and said essentially the same thing—and this time got praised for it:
Democratic Rep. Mike Honda, a sponsor of a nonbinding congressional resolution demanding that Japan formally apologize for its role in coercing women into sexual slavery, said he was heartened by Abe’s apology.
“The logical extension of Mr. Abe’s remarks is now for the government of Japan to endorse the prime minister’s personal sentiments in a formal, official and unambiguous fashion,” Honda said in a statement.
That’ll happen when shrimp learn to whistle, Mike. You just got the brushoff by a master and you didn’t even realize it.
Indeed, the congressman seems to think the Earth moved under his feet. After a taste of celebrity, it’s understandable that he would be tempted to take a turn on stage as an important player in international diplomacy. To milk 15 minutes out of it, at the very least.
Instead, here’s what will likely happen—by the Fourth of July, Mike Honda will have returned to being the same congressional cipher that he was this time last year. And any nonbinding congressional resolution will be lining the fish crates in Tsukiji Market.
Not that this will particularly bother the congressman. He’s cemented the Korean-American vote in his district, which was the point of the exercise to begin with.
Meanwhile, as the American media were being mesmerized by the George and Shinzo show, the Japanese Supreme Court in Tokyo just shut the book for good on the entire question of individual compensation for wartime suffering. In a perversely fascinating article, notorious Japan-basher Norimitsu Onishi reports:
The court said in both cases (one for rape—i.e., sexual slavery, and one for forced labor) that the Chinese plaintiffs had lost their rights to seek individual legal claims against the Japanese government and companies because of a joint statement in 1972 in which Beijing renounced war reparations from Tokyo, a decision supporting the government’s position that postwar agreements cleared Japan of responsibility for future individual claims.
It is the first time the Supreme Court has ruled on lawsuits by Japan’s World War II captives, mostly Chinese and Korean, effectively quashing dozens of similar cases that have been working their way through the lower courts.
In short, individual Chinese can forget about trying to pry any compensation out of Japan. It’s only logical—Beijing did renounce any claim to reparations, after all. Add to this decision the reparations that Japan have already paid to the other countries in East Asia, and the Japanese treaty with South Korea in 1965 in which Seoul also renounced the right of its individual citizens to demand compensation, and here’s what Japan told the U.S. and East Asia in the space of roughly 24 hours: The show’s over folks. Time to go home.
Onishi, of course, is desperate to spin the story the other way. He wrote:
In its 16-page ruling in a sex slavery case, the court acknowledged that Japanese soldiers had abducted two teenage Chinese girls and forced them to work as sex slaves for months, contradicting Abe’s recent denial of the practice.
It goes without saying that individual instances of soldiers in wartime raping women in occupied territory neither made it a “practice” nor a policy of either the Imperial Japanese government or the military, which was Mr. Abe’s point. Onishi knows that, and he also knows he’s now staring at a brick wall, but backing down would cause him to lose face.
Even more interesting is this odd statement from Onishi:
Historians have estimated that 50,000 to 200,000 women from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere were taken as sex slaves by the Japanese military during the war.
It’s undeniable that many of these women were prostitutes or “camp followers”, as one South Korean historian has called them, and that many in fact came from Japan. Yet notice how Onishi slips in the claim that “women from Japan…were taken as sex slaves”. He does not state they were not native-born Japanese (in other words, Koreans in Japan). Would he have us think that Japanese kidnapped Japanese citizens as sex slaves? Is Onishi actually trying to deny that any of those women were prostitutes?
If so, he’s wasting his time. This court case means that it’s all over but the shouting—literally.
No article of this type is complete without the journalist parading a friendly, near-sighted academic to back up his agenda, but Onishi had to do some real digging to come up with a candidate this time. Usually the journalists tap a real professor at an educational institution. The best Onishi could do was some grad student who “recently completed a dissertation”:
“If it’s freedom from legal threats that Japan was seeking, that goal was achieved today,” said William Underwood, an American researcher who recently completed a dissertation at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, on Chinese forced labor. “But if the goals are reconciliation and mutual understanding with the Chinese, that project is very much unfinished.”
Perhaps Mr. Underwood’s head was buried too deeply in the library stacks to realize that Premier Wen from China just spoke to the Japanese Diet a week or so ago and accepted Japan’s apologies for the war and pledged to move forward. The Japanese will certainly take him at his word.
Granted, the Chinese Foreign Ministry did denounce the Supreme Court’s decision as “illegal”, but it’s not as if anyone looks to the Chinese for a serious opinion on international law. What’s next, Beijing giving advice to the Americans on participatory democracy for the presidential election in 2008?
Or perhaps Mr. Underwood has been so absorbed in finding fault with his hosts that he doesn’t realize those same hosts understand that “mutual understanding with the Chinese” actually means “adopt the complete Chinese position as their own”. Perhaps it hasn’t dawned on Mr. Underwood that his hosts are not particularly impressed by barely-controlled street demonstrations of Chinese college students too young to know anything about events in the 1940s, whose youthful passions are deliberately aroused by a government-controlled press to deflect those passions away from the government itself.
Of course, all court cases of this type generate an expression of outrage from the losing attorney–in this instance, Toshitaka Onodera:
“This ruling is a powerful one, like a sharp knife pointed at Abe.”
How thoughtful of Mr. Onodera to provide us with comic relief. The attention given to this case in the Japanese political arena will be even shorter than Mike Honda’s turn on the international stage.
It is curious, however, that Mr. Onishi failed to mention several other important aspects of the case. First, the Chinese plaintiffs were assisted by American attorneys. (You can be sure the Japanese knew about it.)
Second, the Japanese press began reporting a week ago that these verdicts would be announced on Friday, and that these verdicts would likely go against the plaintiffs. In other words, all the Western media had to do to stay on top of events was hire someone who could read Japanese newspapers. Apparently they were too busy confirming statements broadcast on CNN.
Third, from what I’ve seen, even the left-leaning Japanese vernacular press—who would love to stick it to Mr. Abe—do not see this verdict as a “knife pointing at” the prime minister. (Stop that snickering!) They just see it as the last chapter.
Most curious of all is that no one has commented on the court’s timing. Does the media actually think it was a coincidence that the court announced the verdict at almost the same time that Mr. Abe was blandly telling the press corps at Camp David how sorry he felt for the women and the circumstances they found themselves in? Or are they loathe to admit that the Japanese have stiffed them?
Onishi seems to have noticed the timing, but if he realized its significance, he didn’t try to make an issue of it. Instead, he had this to say about the Prime Minister’s comments in Washington.
Abe avoided assigning responsibility for the practice and did not retract his denial of the military’s direct role, a crucial point to his nationalist supporters, who argue that the women were prostitutes or forced into brothels by private brokers.
By seeming to attribute Mr. Abe’s motivation to an attempt to curry favor with his “nationalist” supporters, Onishi misses the point entirely. The prime minister has been one of the most important forces behind the scenes in the LDP for close to 15 years in shaping policy in Japan today. He’s not currying favor with anyone. It’s who he is and why he’s there.
It has long been a tradition in Japanese politics for the ruling party to form governments headed by specific prime ministers and assign them a particular task or tasks. This practice dates back to the days before Pearl Harbor. At that time, however, Cabinets tended to be short-lived—they disbanded once they completed their narrowly focused mission. Prime Ministers weren’t chosen because of their popularity with the public.
I would hazard a guess that the same principle is, at least in part, still functioning in the case of the Abe Cabinet. The LDP has certain tasks it wishes to accomplish, and it chose Mr. Abe as the man to fulfill that mission—and one reason is that he is the man who spurred the party into acting on those tasks to begin with. These include amending the Constitution, upgrading the Defense Agency to a Cabinet-level ministry (mission already accomplished), and closing the book on the Second World War. They realize this agenda will take several years to complete.
None of this should be a mystery to anyone. The prime minister clearly put it in front of the Japanese public in the book he published just before taking office. And he laid it all out again just now to George Bush on this trip to the States. Remember what he said at the press conference?
I explained to the President that as the mission of my administration I will strive to move Japan beyond the post-war regime.
But eyes wide shut, the American media missed it entirely.