Monday, May 25, 2015

Japan, Comfort Women and How to Lose an Argument

For those who do not know, “comfort women” is the term used to describe prostitutes who served the old Imperial Japanese Military at military brothels which were known as “comfort stations”. Originally, these comfort women were all Japanese but after the Japanese annexation of Korea they came to include Korean women as well. During World War II, as Japanese forces conquered southeast Asia, other nationalities became comfort women also. These comfort women are at the center of a long-standing dispute between Japan, South Korea and to a lesser extent Red China (they mostly do funding and let the Koreans do the public activities). Activists on the Korean side have claimed that this was an institutionalized system of sex slavery run by the Imperial Japanese Army and the Japanese government and that hundreds of thousands of women were sexually enslaved, raped and abused by the Japanese in and around World War II as a matter of official policy (an important point). Many Japanese dispute this and some quite vociferously so. However, those who do have done themselves more harm than good and, in the end, are helping the anti-Japanese crowd more than anyone.

An event that happened recently in the United States concerning this issue is a good object lesson in exactly what NOT to do if you want to be persuasive in turning people to your way of thinking. Everyone can benefit from this. It should be stated at the outset that, when it comes to the comfort women issue, there are plenty of facts and more just plain common sense on the side of the Japanese. I have spoken about this issue before (elsewhere) and have looked into both sides of the argument. The problem with the Japanese side is not so much in their facts as their presentation. So, here is the first important tip for anyone trying to win an argument or convince someone of something: know who you are trying to persuade and why. The Japanese making this argument have had a very hard time when it comes to getting their story straight. All too often they lose focus by trying to deny that Japan ever did anything wrong that they get off topic and lose credibility by trying to argue that they alone have been pure and blameless at all times. This becomes an issue when dealing with the comfort women, as we shall see. They also do not seem to know exactly who they are trying to convince of their point of view. In this case, the primary target is Americans and recent events have shown just how badly this was not understood.

In recent years, Sino-Korean organizations have erected comfort women statues in a few American cities. These have all been very leftist areas and done in cooperation with the local governments. Many in Japan were very upset by this and, originally, many Americans were inclined to side with Japan. Leftists, feminists and minority pressure groups were always on the Sino-Korean side and are never going to be anything else but most Americans, and especially conservative Americans, were inclined to side with Japan, even knowing nothing about the issue. It caused quite a stir in the news and most Americans had no idea why these statues were being set up. What did any of this have to do with the United States? No one knew, and mainstream Americans, especially those on the right, dislike immigrant groups bringing feuds from their former countries to the United States. Japan got another boost of sympathy when Korean communities in certain areas began pressing people such as the state government of Virginia to change American textbooks to rename the Sea of Japan the “East Sea” (as it is known in Korea). Japan was well placed to win such arguments. The comfort women issue had nothing to do with the U.S. and caused unnecessary divisions and ugly scenes. Many Americans disapproved.

However, then along comes a young, far-right Japanese filmmaker named Yujiro Taniyama. He decided to hand the Sino-Korean pressure groups an easy victory by making this issue America’s business when he made a very long documentary on the subject and came to debut it at Washington Central University. The result was a disaster of face-palming proportions. In looking into this person, after the fact, this should not have come as a surprise to anyone and illustrates why the far-right in Japan is their own worst enemy. They don’t know what they are arguing “for” nor do they seem to know exactly “who” they are trying to win over with their arguments. Many have tried to reach western audiences with their perspective by supporting western writers who will spread their point of view. However, this has invariably resulted in an echo-chamber in which the only people listening are the people who already agree. Examples include people like the now elderly Henry Scott Stokes from Britain and Michael Yon from America, people who criticize their own country but have nothing but praise for Japan. As one can well imagine, such views go over well in Japan but not so well in Britain or America. If, for example, you are trying to persuade people in Britain to listen to both sides in the comfort women argument, the leftists are a lost cause and for the conservative, proud British people, Henry Scott Stokes is going to offend more than persuade with his constant portrayal of Japan as the only righteous country in World War II, the “light of Asia” that liberated oppressed people from the terrible slavery of the British Empire. Yeah, that’s not going to be a big hit with proud, Queen and Country Britons. One Max von Schuler-Kobayashi is another example, a man who says he is an American (living in Japan) but who is the most virulent anti-American one can imagine. He is not going to persuade anyone in the United States of anything unless it is to view all Japanese as enemies.

When Yujiro Taniyama came to WCU to screen his film, had anyone looked into his past remarks, they would know immediately that, despite his fluency in English, he was not the right person to be making this case. Some at the university did and immediately there was an effort to put together a rebuttal forum to be held alongside the screening of his film. The title of the film alone would put people off, it was called “Racist America: The Scottsboro Girls”. One would think it goes without saying but an important tip in making an argument is not to start off by insulting the very people you are trying to persuade. When you begin by calling people “racists” or their country “racist” they tend to stop listening or will take a very negative view of anything you say after that. Allow me to describe in detail exactly what happened because, as mentioned, it was a perfect example of what NOT to do at absolutely every step.

The Scottsboro boys with their attorney
Mr. Taniyama showed up wearing an American flag baseball cap and bib-overalls. He looked like he was going trick-or-treating as a “redneck”. Right off, this will offend people who think he is a redneck and it will offend rednecks who think this foreigner is mocking them. Before screening his film, Taniyama spoke at great length, almost to the point of saying everything the film would say before it showed. He did two very damaging things; he made the comfort women issue an American issue and he insulted everyone in the United States. He also decided to make this something racial and, when looking into his past remarks, this is not too surprising as he has spoken numerous times on the “White people are all racists” theme. However, he made it still worse for himself by the title of his film alone, first by calling America racist and then by borrowing the name of the infamous “Scottsboro Boys” case from American history. This was a case in which a group of Black men were accused of raping some White women who were later found to have been lying about the incident. The title alone managed to offend both White and Black Americans.

Additionally, in this vein, his casual use of the “n-word” did not help either. He did not call anyone that, but it is not a good thing to say, especially for someone in his position. This may have been a misunderstanding but when in doubt it is best not to use such a controversial word at all. Some older Americans, for comparison, see nothing wrong with the term “Jap” anymore than they would the term “Brit” to refer to someone from Britain. However, Japanese people consider this a racist term and it would not be a good idea to go to Japan and make a speech in which you toss around the term “Jap”. It should not take much cultural understanding to know this was not a good idea. During his long speech, he also made numerous “jokes” that were sure to inflame both sides of the political spectrum in America. He made cracks about Hillary Clinton, offending liberals, feminists and Democrats as well as cracks about buying guns at Wal-Mart, offending conservatives, NRA members and Republicans. He complained about the liberal media trying to silence him, offending the left, and mocked Fox News, offending the right. His insulting remarks about the comfort women themselves did his cause no good as basically calling unfortunate, elderly women a bunch of whores just makes you look bad, not them. He also attributed opposition to his point of view to “evangelical feminists” which would offend left-wing feminists and right-wing Christians at the same time.

The result of all of this was that many people walked out before the film even started. By the time he finished ranting only 15 to 20 people remained in the room. Contrast this to the at least 200 people who attended the nearby anti-Japanese rebuttal forum, staying for the duration. Which side came away the winner is easy to see. Why was this? The Korean side played on feelings of compassion, pulled at the heartstrings and, very importantly, did not openly insult their audience. They also had a single, consistent narrative. Mr. Taniyama had some facts too but these do little good if your presentation turns people away from even listening to you and the result is that the Sino-Korean side came away looking like the innocent, sympathetic victims and Japan, the most successful East Asian country and the most venerable monarchy in the world, came away looking like an America-bashing country of anti-White racists. “Blame the racist White people” seems to be a favorite tactic of Mr. Taniyama as seen in this tweet that was brought to my attention regarding an appearance he made on the anti-western Al-Jazeera network:
This is something easy to sell in certain quarters but it is precisely in those quarters where the Japanese conservatives are never going to win any support while alienating those who ARE most inclined to listen to and sympathize with them. Know who you are trying to persuade.

As to the facts of the matter at issue, comfort women were, by and large, sex workers and not sex slaves. Some were not, some were abducted and some were treated viciously and they deserve sympathy. However, to argue that the comfort women system was part of some government-organized sex slave business is completely untrue. Mr. Taniyama quoted a few university historians (from a country he called racist) to back this up but it would not convince many people. Nor is it necessary as simple common sense would tell most people, if they can be persuaded to listen, that Japan would not be able to forcibly abduct and confine 200,000 women while at the same time fighting a world war. It is not an argument, in my view, Koreans should make (as they are most often associated with it). Koreans were not the only comfort women, Koreans served in the Japanese military and availed themselves of the services of the comfort women the same as the Japanese did. Japan issued an apology for this in the past and paid reparations to the Korean government for this, in fact to the President of Korea who was the father of the current President of Korea. I just don’t think it is a good or healthy subject to try to make into an international issue, just from a Korean perspective. Any country should desire to be respected rather than pitied and, to me, no one connected with this issue comes away from it unsullied.

It would have been better, certainly for Japan, if this had remained simply a Korean-Japanese issue but people like Mr. Taniyama succeeded in making it an American issue as well. This is where controlling your message and keeping focused comes into play. First, he made it an American issue by blaming it on “American racism” which was not smart. Secondly, in an effort to spread the blame around, he asserted that American forces made use of comfort women after World War II. Which is true, though they were not Koreans, they were Japanese prostitutes that the government recruited to basically take care of the American occupiers to prevent them from raping decent Japanese ladies. There was some of that, as there always will be. However, Mr. Taniyama and many on his side often hold up as evidence an American army report from 1944, during the war obviously, that stated that the comfort women were prostitutes or “camp followers” (of which there is a long tradition) rather than sex slaves. That would be a compelling piece of evidence were it not for the fact that these same people accuse the American government and military of being flagrantly dishonest and deceptive and of using comfort women themselves. It undermines their own argument that the U.S. report, made during war time, must have been true since they would not have lied in Japan’s favor since they also claim that the U.S. did lie about everything bad they say Japan did and that they were using comfort women as well. By trying to make the U.S. military complicit in the act, they also give the U.S. a good motive to say that the comfort women were sex workers rather than sex slaves. You can’t have it both ways.

The truth is that most comfort women were sex workers just as there are sex workers today and all through history. It is also true that some were not, some were forced into it by elements in the military and treated horribly. Some Japanese have admitted this and expressed deep sorrow over it. However, the question of the willingness of the women involved to work at comfort stations is a difficult one. Even for those who were paid and given good treatment, most women in the sex industry, then or now, are not there entirely willingly. No little girl says she wants to be a hooker when she grows up. They deserve sympathy and not insult. Many, then as now, are forced into prostitution by poverty, family pressure or other reasons. During the war, some were forced in by the military but it was not a matter of official policy. Some people in Japan have made this case in the west and made it very well. The best example I have seen, about 98-99% perfect I would say, was Mr. Yoshihisa Komori who was interviewed on CNN by an obviously skeptical Fareed Zakaria in 2007 (you can watch the interview here). He did almost everything right. He did not insult his audience, he did not show contempt for the comfort women nor did he deny that some were abducted and abused and that he was very sorry for that and what happened to these unfortunate women. Still, he calmly related that this was not part of an official policy and that Japan was being held to a different standard than other countries. He said, basically, that it was a terrible wrong that had been done, Japan was sorry for that and paid reparations for it but it was not official policy, not something to condemn all Japanese for all time over. And he was perfectly correct.

The days of friendship I value most
Since then, Mr. Komori has been rather frustrated that his side of the story has not taken hold in America or other western countries. Part of the problem is that the excellent work of several gentlemen like Mr. Komori can all be undone by the antics of one Taniyama and those like him. For the Korean side of the argument, as I have said, I don’t think this is something that serves them well to make an issue of, they were as complicit in what went on as the Japanese in those days when Korea was part of the Japanese Empire. However, for the Red Chinese it is a very transparent effort at undermining the Japan-U.S. alliance which blocks their desired expansion. Certainly they will never be able to grab the Senkaku Islands as long as the alliance is in effect. But, as stated at the outset, if you are going to have a debate, it is important to keep in mind your ultimate purpose in the debate and toward this end many Japanese on the far-right score own goals. They revert back to a World War II mindset in which America is the enemy, “White” people, Europeans and European-Americans are all racist imperialists and they do a better job of undermining the alliance than the Red Chinese ever could by such outdated and one-sided rhetoric. If the goal of Red China is to break up the U.S.-Japan alliance and isolate Japan from friendly western countries, these people and their western supporters are being a great help to them. And, of course, the more sensational, the more media coverage.

It is also important to understand who is most likely to be receptive to your point of view and hear you out. In the United States (and the United Kingdom and probably others) there is a very tight bond between the radical feminists and the far-left. This had led to the Democratic Party campaign accusing their Republican opponents of waging a “war on women” and this has only increased with the latest presidential campaign for Hillary Clinton. Obviously, the American left is not going to want to hear anything that Japan has to say about the comfort women issue. It also doesn’t help that we have known since the Bill Clinton administration that they have received large donations from the Red Chinese. However, for all of these reasons, conservatives in America would be all the more likely to listen to and understand the Japanese side of the argument. However, that potential for cooperation is destroyed by going off into other issues, anti-American statements and accusations of racism. It is also the right in America that most believes in opposing Communist China and supporting Japan, yet this can easily be undermined by anti-American, anti-western or anti-White people in general statements from people on the far-right in Japan and their western spokesmen. It does no one any good but those who are the real enemies of both Japan and America and even Europe.

All would be better advised to follow the example of the Japanese Imperial Family. His Majesty the Emperor has never hesitated from expressing his support for proper, healthy patriotism in Japan, flying the flag, singing the anthem, honoring forefathers and the sacrifices of those who have served their country and august monarch. He has also never hesitated to express regret for the war, a very sublime attitude to take; no accusations, no recriminations, simply sorrow that such a horror ever happened and resolution that it not happen again. Earlier this year, on the occasion of his birthday, His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince said, “I myself did not experience the war…but I think that it is important today, when memories of the war are fading, to look back humbly on the past and correctly pass on the tragic experiences and history Japan pursued from the generation which experienced the war to those without direct knowledge.” Many took this as a criticism of the far-right but it is simply good, sound, wise advice. Do not ignore misdeeds but do not wallow in guilt and recriminations. Do not cover up and do not exaggerate, be truthful, reflective and learn from the past. Terrible things did happen during the war and practically no one escaped with clean hands but a tragedy is something to be remembered solemnly and not used as a club to beat innocent people with today. His Majesty the Emperor and the Imperial Family, as always, set a matchless example that all others would do well to follow.

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