Monday, 19 March 2007

The comfort of women

Japan has a bit of a pesky little irritant that just won’t go away. No, not Krazy Kim this time, or gone-bad politicos, or corrupt business persons or even a dodgy building industry (though it does have all of these things to worry about). No, the little itch that Japan just can’t scratch is the Second World War.

Now it might seem odd that I am writing about this a mere 62 years after the jaunt ended, but to use a clichéd Americanism, Japan just can’t get any closure. The problem is, however, self inflicted (unlike the war) because Japan just can’t or won’t accept that they really did anything wrong. It was a war, you see, so anything goes (as in, now for a second tired cliché one paragraph, ‘all’s fair in love and war’ (and as far as I can tell Japan loved being at war (well, in the beginning when they were winning (I digress (and have used too many brackets now (darn))))). Now I have written in the past about certain things that happened in the war (or perhaps didn’t) like the Rape of Nanking and also the aftermath, such as the ongoing issues with Japanese PMs visiting Yasukuni Shrine to honour class A war criminals. But another issue has also never gone away, that of the alleged, so called, unverified, supposed ‘Comfort Women’.

The basic premise of this is simple, during the war the Japanese army forced many thousands of women to work as prostitutes but specifically to provide ‘comfort’ for Japanese soldiers stationed overseas in places like China and the Philippines. Now the government finds it very hard to deny this since former Imperial Army soldiers have come forward and said they did this, the forcible rounding up, and also in 1992 a number of documents were declassified showing that the army did indeed run official brothels. So now, it seems, the official line is that Japan accepts moral responsibility for this treatment, but not legal responsibility, and even that’s pushing it a bit as Silent Shinzo recently declaimed that there is ‘no proof’ of any of this. However the official way they argue it is this:

1. Even if the women were held against their will there was no law against it at the time
2. If it was illegal to force women to be prostitutes (and we’re not saying it was, see point 1), then the international laws you might be referring to didn’t apply in military-occupied territories
3. Even if we are caught out by 1 and 2 above, everything was settled at the end of the war so we have no case to answer

And this is what the courts in Japan have been saying for the last 62 years, or at least since people have been trying to sue the government. For example in 2000 the Tokyo District court threw out a case by 46 former alleged sex slaves when it decided that ‘crimes against humanity’ (on which the case was brought) as a concept did not exist in the 1940s, whilst a court in Hiroshima in 2001 threw out a case stating that coerced sex wasn’t illegal in the 1940s! The courts obviously didn’t know their history because apparently the notion of crimes against humanity goes all the way back to 1904, whilst in the first half of the twentieth century Japan signed up to no less than 4 international treaties outlawing the white slave trade, trafficking in women and the abolition of forced labour. So you’d think that they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, but still the government won’t make any reparations or, really, admit that it happened and say they are sorry.

Of course because Japan is a sovereign state you can’t actually sue it from the outside, so you can’t bring a case against the Japanese government in, say, America, you can only do that in Japan (and fair enough on that score). But as noted above the judiciary in Japan don’t look like they are about to go as far as admitting to anything anytime soon, even when it is pointed out that the basis on which some courts make their decisions are fundamentally incorrect.

The third defense of the government, about things being sorted after the war, is also erroneous, or at least open to attack. Apparently after the end of the pacific war the country was in a bit of a state so when it came to war reparations, mindful of 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles, MacArthur or whoever it was who took these decisions said, effectively, “aw c’mon, these little guys are whacked so no, you can’t have any of their money because right now they haven’t got any”. The important thing here, say prosecutors, is the ‘right now’ bit because, they argue, in 1945 that may well have been the case but in 2007, or even more likely in 1988 before the bubble burst, Japan has money to burn (OK, that happens now with soon-to-be-discovered prefectoral slush funds) and some of it should be going to those who were wringed in the past.

The article I have taken a lot of this from (from the Los Angeles Times section in the Yomiuri (it had to be a foreign newspaper as the Japanese press isn’t going to write anything balanced about this issue c.f. Yasukuni etc)) reckons that Japan will need to do something about this in the not too distant future as it is affecting relations with Asian neighbours and trading partners such as China, Korea and the Philippines, but personally I wouldn’t be holding my breath. Japan has far, far too much of a grip on the ‘Japan was the real victim’ stance with regard to WW2, mainly on account of the atomic bombings of the two cities. Whilst this was indeed a terrible and abhorrent thing, there is a collective, national blindness about what happened in the decade before August 1945 that led to the decision to drop the bombs. Therefore issues like Nanking, Yasukuni and Comfort women will run and run until there is no one left alive to champion them and then they’ll be quietly forgotten.

NB Anyone else feel that the government’s defense #2, the one about happening in occupied countries, is just a bit too close to Bush, extraordinary rendition and the hostages enemy combatants held in Guantanamo Bay for, ahem, comfort...?

But anyway...

Wouldn’t you just know it? Last week a letter arrived for me. It looked very plain and the envelope promised neither that I had won any yen nor that I was being asked to fork any out. And as no birthdays or anniversaries were due, so I was perplexed. On opening the envelope I was somewhat surprised to find an invitation to the Embassy to view cherry blossoms with the outgoing and newly arriving Consuls General (I think that’s the correct plural) on Tuesday 27th March. It was the proper thing, too, mostly printed but name handwritten. And this had come to the flat, not to the office, so it was obviously a personal, rather than a professional invitation (I think). Anyway the bugger is is that I will be flying to the UK on Monday 26th March and will therefore be unable to attend.

I RSVP’d as per the instructions and the women to whom I spoke seemed a little surprised. Then again I did say to her that, assuming that the reason Her Majesty’s government want to meet me was to recruit my services for a spot of cloak-and-dagger, I would be only too happy to visit the MI5 building in London next week instead of meeting my contact at the embassy. At that point she hung up, rather abruptly I thought, so I am still waiting for my ‘drop’ details in London, it will all be very hush-hush so I’ll probably have to wait a week or two until I can write about it, but rest assured I’ll keep everyone informed...

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Happy thoughts

Am reading this book at the moment, as you can see from the sidebar, about the Vietnam War. The basic premise is simple – get a load of the old protagonists together, those responsible for the war rather than the foot soldiers, and get them to chinwag like that should have done 50 years ago and find out if they missed any opportunities to not have a war.

When I started reading this book I thought this was a fascinating premise and got into the book, but on reflection I think they are, to a greater or lesser extent, a bunch of fools. It’s easy not to have a war, you just don’t fight. When you’ve started you just say stop. I don’t know if I’m being too simplistic here, though I think I probably am, but surely it is easier not to have a war than it is to have one, especially if the two protagonists are separated by 5000 miles of ocean.

However the main current of the book is that the knowledge of each side about the other was, essentially, non-existent, and their ability to communicate with each other wasn’t a great deal better. If they’re going to talk about missing opportunities I feel it would be better to do it with wars that are yet possibly not to happen, such as the bellicose rantings of the US against, for example, Iran, rather than an opportunity that has been missed already, as in Vietnam. But perhaps that’s the point and that we should learn from our mistakes – if so I hope someone gives George Bush a copy of this book before it’s all too late.

Interestingly, in the Vietnam War, so the book says, the ‘intelligence’ community apparently were the ones to get it right, by basically saying, from a very early point, that the US was never going to win the war, not even close, their military strategies were doomed to failure and that they were fighting a completely different war than they thought they were. But the military were blind and deaf to this and kept shouting at various presidents to increase troop numbers until they had enough materiel to defeat the ‘enemy’ (though even knowing who the enemy was was quite tricky). I’m not sure about you, but this does sound suspiciously like what has happened for the last few years since 9/11 to me i.e. intelligence being twisted to be ‘fit for a purpose’ then the military going in, doing a job and then being totally unprepared for the aftermath, and then just shouting at everyone to provide more troops for a war that is increasingly unpopular at home. But, and this is big but, Iraq is not the new Vietnam, right...?

Monday, 5 March 2007

Rich Pickings

So, had a tricky week at work last week, hence no posting, but must admit the creative juices not flowing to freely either, which doesn’t help.

This week also there hasn’t been much going on to write home about, as it were. The results of the question posed in the last post, about Silent Shinzo’s apparent fall from grace were published in the Yomiuri, but such were the responses that I can’t really remember what they were on about (which isn’t good reportage, I realize, but there you go). Anyway from what I remember there were things like ‘he hasn’t had enough time yet so give him a chance’, also at least a couple of ‘well, what has he done?’ which kind of reflects what I was banging on about in the post, whilst I’m sure there was one ‘I just don’t like his ugly mug’, of which I heartily agree. Of course Silent Shinzo’s response to this was a furious verbal broadside against the print media in general and the Yomiuri in particular, where he savaged the inanity of the questioning and questioned the reliability and validity of the research undertaken. Or maybe not, but it is nice to speculate what he might have thought.

What we did you, yesterday, was go strawberry picking. The reason we did this was, ostensibly, to show the little ‘un that strawberries do not grow in plastic trays in supermarkets but are, in fact, part of living things called plants. So off we trooped to Konosu at 715 on Sunday morning. Now Konosu, for regular readers on this blog, might sound familiar, as indeed it should as it is the place where yours truly has been to get/renew my driving license (see here if you’re bored). I am beginning to think that Konosu may well be the centre of the universe as far as Saitama Prefecture is concerned, or at least the centre of Saitama. So anyway we get there at about 845am and go to this suspiciously small plastic greenhouse and ask a startled looking chap if we are in time. The reason we have to do this is this is a strange place – they only give out 40 tickets for fruit pickers and don’t take bookings, so if you get there and all tickets are gone then you are out of luck, bye! You may think this odd – me too, but don’t worry, it get odder.

We were in luck and safely procured three tickets but then, as the picking didn’t start until 10am, we had bugger all to do. Now luckily there was a playground thing and so the youngster could spend an hour clambering over, under, through and around things, mostly avoiding other bigger kids running amok, but not always. At the appointed hour we re-presented ourselves to startled looking chap, his visage hadn’t changed, at which point he asked us, and others, if we wouldn’t mind getting in number order according to the tickets. OK, this wouldn’t be too tricky unless he had given out random numbers, ah. So as we had 27, 29 and 32, this meant the youngster would be on his own in between random punters, but then, after a moment of milling, everybody ignored startled bloke anyway. And I thought these Japanese were meant to take rules seriously?

Now the picking could begin. But this was no ordinary picking, rather it was a strawberry eating experience. You went into the greenhouse, picked a strawberry off an obliging plant and then ate it. You had a small punnet in which to catch the strawberries as you cut them off the plant and also a small dish containing condensed milk, which you often eat with strawberries here, and that was it, off you go and eat for 30 minutes whilst, of course, paying for the pleasure. There was none of this collecting strawberries and taking them home to make a nice pie or, indeed, tart. Now I don’t know about you, but I have a threshold of how many strawberries with condensed milk I can eat at 10am on a Sunday morning, standing in an overly warm greenhouse in Konosu and it does not, I can confirm, take 30 minutes to reach that threshold. More like 10 minutes, and that was pushing it. The Guru also, I must add, felt likewise. The only person who might have wanted to stay and consume even more (but without the condensed milk) was the youngster. I don’t know if he came to realize that strawberries grow on plants, but he definitely did find out that all he had to do was follow a parent around and he would be given lots and lots of them to eat.

And that was about it. We went, we ate, we returned. They were very nice strawberries though.