An execrable ignorance - a glimpse at Japan's neo-nationalists and their War crime denial

By Daniele Pestilli on March 20, 2012
People in Seoul asking the Japanese embassy for an official apology for the "comfort women"

Perusing through a list of the most popular Japanese blogs, I recently came across one under the category of politics whose title caught my attention: “The man who knew too much about China and Korea” (中韓を知りすぎた男) ranked at number four, with 290 thousand monthly hits. I was startled to learn that its author, Tsujimoto Kiichi, is also a relatively famous writer in Japan. More startling, however, are some of the fallacies and absurdities he promotes and that many of his readers buy into.

One of his famous works, published October 2009, is called “Hey! China, enough already!” More recently, in February 2012, he published a blog entry with the original title, “Korea! Enough already!” which is a rant against “shameless” Koreans, whom he clearly does not like.

Tsujimoto explains that in December last year, a monument to the so-called Korean “comfort women” was built on the road leading to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

This anti-Japanese sentiment, as he refers to it, was propagated into the Korean community in the U.S., where a street in New York's Flushing district in Queens will be renamed in order to commemorate the comfort women. Also, the year before this event, a monument was built in New Jersey for the same reason. He explains that 20 such monuments are planned throughout the United States for Americans to view.

Japanese colonial authorities marching with a group of Korean women
Japanese colonial authorities marching with a group of Korean women

Comfort women (“wianbu” in Korean and “ianfu” in Japanese) were some 200,000 Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipino, Dutch, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Malaysian women who were coerced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Empire's military during the first half of the 20th century.

Tsujimoto, however, is strongly against the construction of memorial statues and the renaming of streets to commemorate these war victims. He writes.

Don't these people [Koreans] have any shame? Comfort women were not forcibly made to sell their bodies. They applied to do so for money. Documents confirming comfort women's “coercion” do not exist. No matter how many times this argument is made, Koreans just don't want to hear it. Long ago, in order to accumulate foreign money, the Korean government encouraged “Gisaeng Parties”*. In other words, the Korean government encouraged prostitution using its country's young women's bodies to earn wealth. Have they forgotten?

(*Gisaeng are the Korean version of Japanese Geisha; officially sanctioned Korean female entertainers or sometimes prostitutes)

Tisujimoto’s perspective is troubling for several reasons, most notably, because it suggests that the Japanese educational system has utterly failed him and the readers who concord with his perspective. Downplaying this historical tragedy has been a long and well-known issue in Japan. In 2007, the minister of education, Nariaki Nakayama declared, “victimized women in Asia should be proud of being comfort women”. The perversity of this comment is hardly worth elaborating upon as it speaks for itself. What is worth pointing out is the brainwashing that began after World War II, when a defeated Japan was able to switch its position from that of aggressor to that of a victim. It is in part this attitude of victimization that has allowed Japan to downplay its atrocities throughout Asia, and which has inevitably led to the formation of individuals such as Mr. Tsujimoto, who are as unaware of their history as a patient afflicted by amnesia.

Despite there being crushing evidence that the government organized and gathered comfort women stations for the foul pleasure of its army, a gargantuan amount of conservative Japanese are either unaware or in denial that such a thing ever happened.

Kim Bok-dong and Lee Mak-dal, two survivors of Japanese sexual slavery recently released a YouTube video that concisely explains their treatment. For the past twenty years, these brave women have staged 1,000 protests in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul demanding proper recompense for the atrocities committed against comfort women. Although some Japanese prime ministers have apologized, many Koreans think it is not enough. In an article on CNN, the director of the NGO called “Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan”, Yoon Mee-hyang, stated: “This is a crime that was institutionalized by a country, they forced women into sexual slavery over a long period of time. They need to adopt a resolution at the official level and we need to see legal reparations”. The matter is urgent and needs to be resolved before the last survivors pass away in order for justice to be done. In fact, the number of extant comfort women is dwindling: in a report released on March 14th by Yonhap News, two survivors of this historical happening recently died. At present, there are supposedly around 60 victims still alive.

In January 1992, the New York Times published an article stating, “army documents found in the library of Japan's Self-Defense Agency indicated that the military had played a large role in operating what were euphemistically called 'comfort stations.'” This news had been previously propagated to Japanese citizens via Asahi Shinbun's newspapers. Prior to this, Japanese scholars had already written on the topic: Yoshimi Yoshiaki and Tanaka Toshiyuki, to name a few, wrote extensively about forced prostitution under the Japanese Empire. Nevertheless, Mr. Tsujimoto (the author of the blog post) continues his rant with statements such as, “Anti-Japanese Koreans have quite some nerve to teach falsehoods regarding history, having a statue of a prostitute built in a foreign country.”

In a less than intelligible argument, Tsujimoto explains, “whereas Koreans often praise their country, the number of Koreans who have been fleeing their country in recent years has surged. According to a survey, 67.8% of interviewees answered 'if I could be reborn, I wouldn't want to be born in Korea'. It is said that Korean emigration has breached the 2 million mark in the United States only.”

Tsujimoto forgets to mention that Japan's case is similar: there are 1.5 million Japanese emigrates living in Brazil and 1.2 million living in the United States. He also forgets to mention that Japan consistently ranks as one of the worst OECD countries for life satisfaction, with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Although some data may differ, ranking South Korea as being slightly higher or lower, this point is certainly not something the blogger can boast about or wave in the face of others.

Evidence of social dissatisfaction in Japan exists but is often swept under the carpet. An interesting book regarding the way social dissatisfaction affects its citizens is Michael Zielenziger's Shutting Out the Sun: how Japan created its own lost generation. In it, the author explicates the Japanese disorder known as hiki-komori, which is not found within other cultures and which the Japanese government only very recently has reluctantly acknowledged. “Sixty years after the end of World War Two," Zielenziger writes, “contemporary Japan is at peace, but everyone who lives there knows something is wrong.”

It entails seclusion from the outside world for months, if not years or even decades. “Despite repeated investigations by Japanese and other Asian psychiatrists, this withdrawal syndrome has been found in no other culture, not even in neighboring South Korea, which shares so much of Japan's Buddhist and Confucian past, as well as its state-guided model of economic development.” It is primarily the result of extreme dissatisfaction with socio-economic conditions. Spilling out his painful saga, former hiki-komori Kaz Ueyama says, “to survive in Japan, you have to kill off your own original voice.” Feeling powerless and not wanting to take to the streets and protest (as is often the case in Europe and North America,) many hiki-komori prefer manifesting their unhappiness internally rather than externally.

The powerful sentiment of not being “normal” like everyone else is one of the prime moving causes for hiki-komori, and is likely one of the reasons that stimulates ultra-nationalists such as Tsujimoto to pen up a book or a blog entry.

A very similar, controversial figure is Kō Bunyū. Kō was born in 1938 in Taiwan, but currently resides in Japan. He has written more than 100 books regarding Taiwan’s, mainland China’s and Korea’s debt to Japan, who he argues, owe much of their culture and success to the land of the rising sun. He played down Japan’s war crimes and prompts his readers to ponder questions such as, “where else in the world can you find a country that was unable to recover for 300 years after being invaded?” He refers to the Japanese Invasions by feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 1500s, alluding to the fact that the Japanese colonization of Korea (1910-1945) was quintessential in the peninsula’s rapid development and economic surge following World War II. This point is certainly debatable and there are many arguments for or against it. What should be noted is this neo-nationalist rhetoric that emerged in Japan and its former colonies to which many subscribe. It is the same current of thought which underpins Tsujimoto Kiichi’s and his acolytes.

One question arises: why was Korea unable to obtain justice for this crime following Japan's humiliating defeat in the war? One answer is, during the Tokyo trials which lasted from 1946 to 1948, many Asian countries that were colonized by Japan had no representatives of their own. In his book, Embracing Defeat, Pulitzer Prize winner J. W. Dower writes,

It was especially perverse that no Korean served as a judge or prosecutor, although hundreds of thousands of colonized Korean men and women had been brutalized by the Japanese war machine - as “comfort women,“ as laborers forced to work in the most onerous sectors of mining and heavy industry in Japan, or as lowly conscripts in the military. Korea was not a bona fide sovereign nation at the time, nor was it clear when it would be. For the duration of the Tokyo trial, Japan's former colonial subjects remained under alien occupation in a land divided between the United States and the Soviet Union. They were not allowed to judge their former overlords and oppressors or to participate in preparing the case against them.

It is sad that in this day and age, when information is freely available and countless official records are at the world's fingertips, there should be neo-nationalist individuals such as Tsujimoto Kiichi and their avid followers. But alas, this should not be surprising either. Following-the-leader is a game in which an overwhelming majority of Japanese have participated for millennia: as Zielenziger explains in his book, Japan is still largely a “group-oriented authoritarianism - where basic civil liberties are ostensibly guaranteed, but real choice is absent.” He quotes the historian Sheldon Garon as noting, “the U.S. occupation could never eliminate the prewar household membership and constrained individual choice, not unlike the gonin-gumi of the feudal period in which members of every five family groups were obliged to monitor the behavior of the other four.” It is almost as if the spite and vexation that individuals such as Tsujimoto feel for Korea derives not from a true hatred, but from the fear of being judged by their peers for not conforming to the general conservative attitude that, as Tsujimoto Kiichi and Kō Bunyū argue, Korea was and is “the lowest of the lowly.”