JAPAN HAS WARNED U.S. CONGRESSIONAL LEADERS that the House of Representatives’ passage of their comfort woman resolution would likely cause serious long-term damage to bilateral relations, according to a letter sent by Japanese Ambassador Ryozo Kato to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and four other leaders, as reported here by the Washington Post. The newspaper says it has obtained a copy of the letter.
The Post quotes the letter as saying that passage of the resolution “will almost certainly have lasting and harmful effects on the deep friendship, close trust and wide-ranging cooperation our two nations now enjoy.”
What steps would Japan take? The letter says that “Japan may reconsider its role as one of the few loyal supporters of U.S. policy in Iraq, where it is the second-largest donor for rebuilding, after the United States.” The author of the article suggests that this is just one example.
We do not know the entire text of the letter because it has not been made public. Yet I cannot stress enough that it is unprecedented in the postwar period for Japan to take such a harsh stance towards the United States. The Post itself notes that the letter was “unusually blunt”.
Of interest is the response of the resolution’s primary sponsor, Michael Honda. He said:
“It’s not going to hurt our relationship diplomatically or trade-wise.”
The Post also reported that he dismissed it as “lobbying bluster”.
Don’t be fooled. Look closely and you’ll see that Mr. Honda deliberately avoided the real issues. Of course Japanese and American companies will continue to do business with each other. Of course Japan is not going to sever diplomatic relations with the United States. Mr. Honda is just stating the obvious—but that’s not what the Japanese were talking about.
The letter specifically mentions their financial support in Iraq. Japanese political leaders have to navigate some tricky straits at home to provide this support; this is a clear warning that the government might decide its money is better spent elsewhere. Many Japanese still remember that the United States prevailed upon them to spend $US 13 billion in assistance for Kuwait after the first Gulf War. They also remember that Kuwait did not see fit to thank them for it in an ad taken out in the same Washington Post.
Japan also is contributing enormous amounts of money to support the 50,000 American troops on its soil, half of which are in Okinawa. The Japanese government has to go to great lengths to keep Okinawans pacified over the American presence on the islands. A large portion of the American military bases are on private property in the prefecture, and the Japanese government financially compensates the landowners for the American use of that land. Does the House of Representatives think there is no limit to the Japanese pocketbook or its patience?
There are other possibilities as well. Japan is dependent on Middle Eastern oil for its energy, and it buys 11% of its oil from Iran, spending $US 10.1 trillion annually. Meanwhile, the government of Iran last week asked Japan to start paying for its oil purchases in yen instead of dollars because of concerns that the United States may seize its dollar assets as tensions increase over the Iranian nuclear development.
As the Japan Times reported, however,
We have yet to decide how to respond,” said an official at one wholesaler. “We cannot find any advantage in switching to yen-based transactions.”
They may start to find it advantageous after the House passes its resolution, however. Iranian nuclear weapons are unlikely to be used on Japan.
In the past, Japan has financially contributed to relief after the San Francisco earthquakes (both of the big ones), cable car reconstruction, and relief after Katrina. In the future, it is possible they will focus their humanitarian expenditures on countries that are less able to cope financially, particularly for such tourist attractions as the cable cars.
As if this weren’t bad enough, the Washington Post contains three errors of fact in regard to this story. These errors are so egregious they call into question the newspaper’s competence and integrity:
Abe made a carefully worded public apology for the “extreme hardships” suffered by the comfort women, but did not retract his claim about the lack of documentary proof of Japanese government involvement. Previous studies by the Japanese government have disclosed more than 100 documents showing Japanese military involvement in the building of brothels and the recruitment of women, according to a report last year by the Congressional Research Service.
Error #1: Prime Minister Abe has not denied Japanese government involvement. He and everyone else in the country knows Imperial Japan facilitated the system and recruited women. He denied that it was Japanese government policy to coerce the women.
“…if the House passes a resolution demanding an official apology from Japan for its wartime policy of forcing women to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers.”
Error #2: It has never been demonstrated that it was Japan’s wartime “policy” to coerce the women. Instances of coercion on the battlefield by individual units do not represent a “government policy”.
“…the estimated 50,000 to 200,000 Asian women forced by the Japanese government into brothels before and during World War II.”
Error #3: In addition to repeating Error #2, this passage fails to note that as many as 40% of the women were Japanese, most of whom weren’t forced into brothels at all. (Some of them might have been forced in the sense that their fathers sold them to a broker, but that wasn’t the Japanese government’s doing. The same thing happened on the Korean peninsula.) It also would have readers believe that all of the Asian women were forced, overlooking the mountain of evidence (including that held by the U.S. government) concerning those women who joined voluntarily.
The Washington Post also couldn’t resist indulging in fantasy:
The ambassador’s letter followed an intense debate inside the Japanese government about how to limit domestic damage from the resolution, according to Michael Green, a professor at Georgetown University who until 2005 was senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council….Several Japanese and American experts on Japanese politics said that Abe’s remarks this year on the comfort women appeared to have been an attempt to curry favor with his conservative, neo-nationalist base within the ruling party, which resists and resents foreign demands that Japan show contrition for its behavior during the war.
Mr. Green is almost certainly incorrect. The Japanese government probably did have an intense debate about how to respond to the resolution—they would not have taken such a drastic step otherwise–but limiting domestic damage is not one of their concerns. And anyone who thinks Mr. Abe’s remarks are “an attempt to curry favor with his conservative neo-nationalist base” is just plain wrong.
The Japanese government will not suffer domestic damage from the resolution. The first Kyodo poll taken in Japan after the issue erupted showed that Mr. Abe’s approval rating during that time slipped a mere 0.4 of a percentage point. In other words, considering usual margin of error for polls and the downward trend in his polling numbers at the time, the resolution might have helped his ratings.
The response of the Japanese media to the resolution has ranged from outright fury at the United States on the one extreme, to the suggestion that the government just let the storm blow over on the other. The latter position was taken by the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun, Mr. Abe’s harshest media critic.
If you don’t want to take my word for it, read this editorial in English by the Daily Yomiuri. One of the big three national dailies, the Yomiuri has the highest circulation of any daily newspaper in the world. They say, “The resolution was made without verifying the facts and smacks of cheap rhetoric. It makes us doubt the wisdom of U.S. lawmakers.”
In short, the only government who will suffer an image problem in Japan over the resolution is the American government.
Indeed, the Post itself reports the resolution has “angered the Japanese public”. That makes it unlikely the government will take a hit, as the Post suggests it might five paragraphs later. Does not the newspaper read what it is writing from one paragraph to the next?
As for the idea that Mr. Abe is trying to curry favor with his base, that is simply incompetent journalism. Here is what the Washington Post is ignoring: Since becoming Prime Minister, Mr. Abe has never brought the issue up on his own. He has only addressed the issue in office when required to do so by the political opposition. A case in point was his response to the question in the Diet by the head of Japan’s Communist Party, in which he stated there was no compulsion of the women in the narrow sense. (He was misquoted about this, probably deliberately, by the New York Times, which ignited the controversy.)
Peel back the layers of this particular onion, and yet more unpleasantness is revealed. Mr. Honda suggests that the House will delay its vote until after the Upper House election later this month so the prime minister won’t lose face:
It looms as yet another embarrassment for Abe…Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party could lose control of the country’s upper house in an election on July 29, some public opinion polls suggest. Not wanting to embarrass Abe before that election, the House leadership has agreed to put off adoption of the comfort women resolution until after the vote, Honda said.
It is not possible to take Mr. Honda’s statement seriously. We’ve seen that the Japanese public is angry over the House resolution. We’ve seen that Prime Minister Abe has not suffered in the polls because of this issue. Some House Democrats have been pushing this resolution for years, so it’s not even about Mr. Abe. How can they embarrass him?
Why would they delay the passage? Consider: The resolution is the work of Democrats in the House of Representatives. Mr. Abe is a conservative, and they most definitely are not. The Japanese public doesn’t care for the House resolution.
House Democrats don’t want to the pass the resolution before the upper house election because it might create negative repercussions among the Japanese public and generate a protest vote for Mr. Abe’s party.
In my first post on this issue, I warned that the House resolution might have serious negative consequences. And now, the House’s pseudo-legalistic and self-congratulatory vaudeville performance, combined with factually inaccurate slapdash journalism whose intent is to sell a contrived story rather than the facts, has driven the Japanese to take a diplomatic step unlike any other it has taken with an ally in the postwar period.
More than a few Japanese will consider this a betrayal. Meanwhile, the only benefits accruing to Americans are that a few congressmen will get the opportunity to indulge in vainglorious moral preening and to receive the votes and financial contributions of some constituents in a few West Coast districts.
In the long run, those Congressmen will find that they did their country a disservice.