U.S. getting dragged into Japan-Korea tussle over history

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Apr 2, 2014 - 21:01
  • Updated : Apr 2, 2014 - 21:01
WASHINGTON (AP) ― All politics is local, the saying goes. But in some American cities, local politics have gone international, with city governments finding themselves caught in historical disputes between two close U.S. allies: Japan and South Korea.

Korean-Americans have won approval for local memorials for the victims of Japanese sexual slavery during World War II, over the objections of Japan. They have also pressed states to change school textbooks to address geographical differences with Japan.

These campaigns have gathered steam as relations between South Korea and Japan have soured despite Washington’s effort to quell tensions between its two principal allies in Asia. They reflect the growing political power of Korean-Americans in states where they have a sizeable presence. Many are first- and second-generation immigrants, whose ties to Korea are fresh and for whom nationalist causes still resonate.
A South Korean man attends a demonstration in Seoul on Wednesday against Japan’s decision to ease its arms exports ban. (Yonhap)

By contrast, Japanese-Americans, many of whom have more distant ties to their ancestral homeland, tend to be a less cohesive political force. Japan itself, rather than Americans of Japanese descent, has stepped into these local disputes, raising them directly with governments at the city and state level.

Japan says it has already apologized for the estimated 200,000 “comfort women” recruited for sex by Japan’s imperial army, and with some prodding from Washington, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month quashed speculation he planned to review the apology.

But Japan views the memorials and demand for textbook changes as an unwarranted attempt to drag its differences with South Korea into the domestic affairs of the U.S., which both countries prize as their chief diplomatic and security partner.

“We think it is not appropriate for local politics to be affected by the differences of opinion of its residents’ home countries,” Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement after being asked about it by the Associated Press.

Local governments in the U.S. have approved at least four comfort women memorials since 2010. The highest-profile one is a bronze statue in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale.

Phyllis Kim, spokeswoman for the Korean-American Forum of California, which pushed for that memorial, said it’s an issue of universal human rights that transcends borders. She said Japan has to take “full responsibility for its crimes of the past like the Germans did for the Holocaust.”

She expressed disappointment that President Barack Obama didn’t raise historical issues when he met last week with Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, which was viewed as first step toward improving relations. It was Abe and Park’s first face-to-face meeting since they both took office more than a year ago.

Fostering those ties is important to the Obama administration as it attempts to “pivot” its foreign policy toward Asia and forge security cooperation among its allies. But it risks offending either side if it speaks out on the issues that divide them.

The comfort women issue isn’t new to American politics. The House of Representatives passed a resolution back in 2007 urging Japan to apologize for its treatment of comfort women and teach about it in schools. For the first time this year, language from the resolution was passed in a U.S. spending bill related to foreign operations.

The resolution’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Mike Honda of California, who is Japanese-American, compares Japan’s comfort women issue to the difficult historical truths America has had to apologize for, including the internment of Japanese-American during World War II, which Honda himself experienced as a child.

“I’m focused on the idea that a government is still responsible for its past, so it must acknowledge responsibility and apologize to the victims. I’m not trying to antagonize the relationship between Japan and Korea,’’ Honda said. “It’s meant to lead to closure for these terrible acts that happened.”

Far-right lawmakers and activists in Japan don’t see it that way.

“We must stop disgracing our ancestors,’’ Nariaki Nakayama, from the opposition Japan Restoration Party, told a recent gathering of like-minded lawmakers in Tokyo who deny the military directly recruited sex slaves and instead used commercially recruited prostitutes.

Few Japanese-Americans take such a stand, and there’s no sign of any communal tensions over it in the United States. Ties between East Asian ethnic groups have deepened over the years. Intermarriage is commonplace.

“By and large, Japanese-Americans are generally sympathetic: that there were wartime atrocities that Japan participated in that they’re not supportive or proud of,’’ said Floyd Mori, former national director of the Japanese American Citizens League.

Two elderly Japanese-Americans, however, have filed a lawsuit against the Glendale City Council, demanding the removal of the comfort women memorial there.