The often subliminal connections behind Japan’s politicians

I haven’t seen this reported yet in any of the English-language Japanese media but this story has piqued my interest. On July 21st, during an evening news story about the notorious Imperial Japanese Army unit “Unit 731”, Japanese broadcaster TBS inadvertently (or not) briefly included an image of current Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, who is the front-runner to succeed current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he steps down from office this September. [UPDATE, July 31: You can see a clip of the TBS story here, with the Abe photo inclusion occuring in the first few seconds of the clip. And here is TBS’ apology for the “unintentional” inclusion of the “unrelated” photo.]

TBS has predictably claimed it was an accident, saying the photo was just laying around the prop room and intended to be used in another program. Abe spoke to the issue in a recent press conference that he was surprised and that he wants to believe it is much ado about nothing. This is not the first time that TBS has been implicated in “subliminal” broadcasting. In May of 1995, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications severely reprimanded the network for repeatedly interspersing split-second edits of the image of Aum cult leader Shoko Asahara during unrelated parts of a documentary piece about the cult. (There’s much more to TBS’s relationship with Aum — this is a good place to start.)

Ostensibly there is no relationship between Abe and the 731 unit that was being reported on, although the way that Japanese politics works, figures in power past and present can all be linked in much less than six degrees of separation. Just as the tip of the iceberg of these connections, chew on this:

Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was a former Class A war criminal (never tried) who later became Prime Minister (1957-60). Kishi served his time for war crimes with Yoshio Kodama and Ryoichi Sasakawa. All three were involved with some shady goings-on in China before and during the war such as ammunitions and drug trading (Kodama and Sasakawa amassing large “war chests” in the process), and all three were released by the Americans for political reasons (ie. to help in the anti-communist fight). Kishi himself organized slave labor as part of his responsibility for “industrial development” in Manchuria. I don’t know if there is any evidence linking Kishi with Unit 731, which operated in Manchuria, but given that his was a leading member of the “Manchurian Clique” which included Hideki Tojo, it’s suspected that he at least knew of its existence.

I mention Sasakawa because later, around 1963, he became an important advisor of Reverend Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church (aka “Moonies”) in Japan. Kishi himself was sympathetic to Moon and offered glowing tributes to him and his followers in the press at a time in the late 60’s when Moon was trying to get a foothold for his organization (er, church) in Japan. (Here’s a photo of the two.) In fact, the Japan headquarters for the Unification Church was built on land in Tokyo that had once been owned by Kishi (source). As reported on some blogs in June, this YouTube video shows two Unification Church wedding ceremony events in May to which Shinzo Abe apparently sent congratulatory telegrams (note that he is referred to by the speaker, Katsumi Otsuka, President of the Family Federation of World Peace and Unification in Japan, as Nobusuke Kishi’s grandson in addition to his Chief Cabinet Secretary title). (Just for the record, there are lots of other Japanese politicians — just as there are not a few American politicians — that have been involved in some way with the Unification Church, including Abe’s father Shintaro Abe and the current opposition Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa.)

(If you are interested in more Unification Church connections, here’s perhaps a somewhat obscure one but rather curious as well. In this YouTube video clip, you can see the same Katsumi Otsuka who was presiding over the wedding ceremonies in the other YouTube video here opening a meeting of the UPF (Universal Peace Federation) Rally for the Restoration of the Homeland held in Yokohama (this year?). What’s interesting about this clip is that one of the dignitaries introduced is one Tadashi Kobayashi, Chairman of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Wikipedia link), a group that authored a controversial revisionist textbook on Japanese history that was published last year, and which predictably drew the ire of South Korea and China. The clip ends with some dignitaries, including the aforementioned Kobayashi, on stage being blessed rather strangely by two Koreans. Anyone know more about this?)

Not surprisingly, TBS was the only TV network I know of that ran a story about the Abe/Unification Church connection. I say not surprisingly because TBS has often been linked to Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist organization (cult?) that is rather powerful here in Japan, and therefore perhaps a media outfit with some sort of axe to grind against the Unification Church and Abe.

Occidentalism: just who exactly is wearing the Emperor’s new clothes?

Is it just me or has anyone else on this side of the world noticed an uptick in the anti-Korea rhetoric? I’m not talking about the public’s reactions towards North Korean’s recent missile tests or the attendant saber-rattling by the Japanese government. Rather this is more along the lines of increased blog “chatter” about the disputed Takeshima/Dokdo islets, South Korea’s insistence that the Sea of Japan should be renamed, as well as exactly what was the nature of Japan’s “occupation” (or “annexation” or even “alliance” depending on which side of the rhetorical fence you’re sitting on) of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

Maybe I’m just going through a bad patch of blog-surfing (not helped by the inherent inter-linking among sympatico sites), but there does seem to be something that’s gathering a bit of momentum here. What’s particularly of note here is that, contrary to what you might be thinking, this chatter I’m referring to is going on at English-language sites, sites maintained not by Koreans or Japanese but by foreign residents living in South Korea and Japan.

I suppose I should be grateful I don’t read 2channel (the most popular discussion forum/site here in Japan — see Wikipedia’s 2channel entry here which mentions the site’s relationship with things Korean) or whatever the equivalent is in South Korea, sites where I’m sure there’s more flaming and epithet-throwing than reasoned discussion. And I want to be clear that the discussions I’m referring to on these blogs are, as far as I’ve seen, free of racist remarks and for the most part lacking in extremist rhetoric. Rather what I’m seeing is a growing tendency to harp on the many manifestations of Korean pride — much of which, to be fair, does leave itself open to being mocked or derided (to wit, the South Korean reaction to their exit from the recent World Cup) — to the point where you start to ask whether the blogger is simply calling it as he/she sees it or whether there’s an additional axe to grind.

Much more disturbing than poking fun at Korean pride, however, is a distinct streak of historical revisionsism that I’ve been coming across lately. The site that seems to have formed the locus of many of these opinions is Occidentalism, maintained by an Australian living in South Korea [see comments]. The main writer, Matt (he seems to have recently opened up his blog to other contributors), claims in the FAQ to “tell the other side of the story, the one that the Korean media ignores or covers up or distorts,” and that his site’s purpose is to “oppos(e) Korean hate and extremism.” Not being privy to Korean mainstream media or having any idea what it’s like to live in Korea, it’s not for me to say whether there’s a legitimate beef here or not, though given that I do have some experience as a person living in a foreign land, I can certainly sympathize with his apparent frustration that the local populace doesn’t have the means — or the inclination — to seek a wider picture.

Nevertheless, there’s still something slightly repugnant about this site that I’m trying to put my finger on. If we look at the above-mentioned FAQ, he gives his answers to questions and comments which are all more or less the same, i.e. “This is a racist site.” or “Why are you anti-Korean?” (These may are in fact be actual emails/comments his blog has received or he may have made them up, who knows. [again, see comments]) His answers themselves could be boiled down to a single response, which is basically that “This site exists to provide balance.” and that “Anyway, I have my opinion. If you disagree, thats fine.” (Nevermind that on the same page he writes, “What is written on this site is true. You wont find many judgements from me unless there is plenty of reason to do it.”)

The FAQ is a kind of rhetorical conceit that plays on the idea that the site and its author can’t possibly be racist or anti-Korean because rather than ignore the complaints and abuse he’s received, he publishes it and answers his critics. I don’t mean to imply that the site is racist or anti-Korean (again, I don’t have the sufficient background to make a judgment), merely pointing out that his defensive posture as seen in the FAQ and the site as a whole seems to have pulled a page out of the book written by Little Green Footballs or Rush Limbaugh. (It wasn’t surprising that one non-Korea-related post on the site that I did come across was about that tired old bugaboo “political correctness.”)

The recurrent themes of Occidentalism (the site started about a year ago, here’s the first post) in a nutshell seem to be a) Koreans are still to this day using fake, doctored atrocity photos to drum up anti-Japanese hatred (see posts here, here and here); b) the whole issue of “comfort women” has been vastly inflated or distorted (no specific posts but see the end of this post plus various comments littered throughout the site); c) Koreans were not forced to serve in the Japan Imperial Army or as workers for Japan’s industrial giants, but rather volunteered (here and again in various comments); and d) that Japan’s occupation of Korea was not nearly as brutal as Koreans today make it out to be, that such policies as forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese names or banning Hangul didn’t happen, and that the developed South Korea of today owes a big debt to the colonization of Korea by Japan (see here, here, and here).

Not surprisingly, folks who take the time to comment in with opposing viewpoints are invariably shot down by Matt or by readers who share his opinions. It was more than a few times that I came across comments along the lines of “you must be Korean,” and in general the comments section takes on the feel of Limbaugh-esqe talk-radio where dissenters are either patronized or simply shouted down. As with most bullying blowhards with a pulpit, the site’s writers and serial commenters can usually run rhetorical circles around most any opposing viewpoint, and waste no chance in doing so (so much for that “Anyway, I have my opinion. If you disagree, thats fine.” part of the FAQ). (This thread, with Matt as predictable apologist for Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine and contending that Korea has no legitimate reason to oppose them, is indicative of the kind of combative, unbalanced discourse one can expect at the site. Good luck making it through all 188 coments, though.) Given how these “discussions” usually work, the folks with the minority view who feel compelled to post will sooner or later either give up, or become increasingly frustrated and hysterical, like lambs before the slaughter.

Now again, it may be that all of what’s on this site is true and not merely historical revisionism. It may well be that the majority of South Koreans are brainwashed to a point that precludes reasonable discussion. It may be that Korea was an “ally” of Japan and not a colony, and that all these tales of forced labor, comfort women, and oppression have all been exaggerated by South Korea. As I’ve said a couple of times, who am I to say, never having been to South Korea myself, exposed to the media and mainstream thought there, and quite frankly, not very educated about the whole of Japan and Korea’s historical relationship. But sorry, I’m not buying.

Ordinarily I would welcome such a site that attempts to correct an inbalance, and expose lies and half-truths. And I would love to find a site that helped me create an informed, fair perspective on the Korean-Japan relationship. But the reactionary, revisionist, speak-louder-than-anyone-else tone tells me that Occidentalism isn’t the site I’m looking for. They would have you believe that South Korea is Andersen’s Emperor without any clothes on, but as I see it, it is they who are wearing the Emperor’s new clothes.

Talking and eating out of both sides of the mouth

Japanese schoolkids in front of whale sculpture, Ueno Park (2002)

This past week there were two big meat-related stories of big importance in Japan, and elsewhere, related to whaling and the resumption of US beef imports. As someone who doesn’t eat beef nor whale meat, it would seem that neither of these stories would hold much interest to me, but of course there’s a lot more than meats the eye here.

Last week, employing a bribery strategy, Japan was able to buy enough votes to pass a “declaration” that said that the International Whaling Commission’s whaling moratorium was “no longer necessary.” It was a symbolic victory, having no immediate effect other than to perhaps soothe the wounds of a country that likes to view itself as the victim of a Western environmental bias that has no respect for Japanese cultural traditions. That’s the way the story is spun, at any rate. But as there is no real popular wellspring of sentiment to bring back whaling, or to eat whale meat, save for a few “whaling communities”, you have to wonder why Japan is spending so much energy — and money — bribing countries and turning oneself into a pariah of the international community that in another breath it so desperately wants to be a part of.

Also last week, Japan agreed to resume the import of US beef after effectively banning the product for the last two-and-a-half years. With greater success than it has been able to accomplish with the whaling issue, the goverment has managed to create an environment of fear related to to US beef and BSE to such an extent that even with the ban being lifted, it will be a long while before consumers feel comfortable buying it at supermarket shelves. (Yoshinoya, on the other hand, will probably enjoy booming business for its “beef bowl.”)

But as with the whaling issue, one can’t help but feel the ruling Liberal Democratic party is being disingenuous, if not downright cynical. In point of fact, Japan had it’s own BSE problem a few years ago. In Septemer of 2001, the government announced that a dairy cow in Chiba had tested positive for BSE. However, at first they took pains to cover up the story. They then launched a campaign insisting that domestic beef was safe, before yet another cow tested postive for BSE. By this point, the domestic industry — as well as beef imports from the US and Australia — had taken a hit. The government eventually came (somewhat) clean and implemented nationwide testing, though doubts remain about how thorough they followed through on that. The government instituted beef-buyback programs in order to get domestic beef off the shelves, which also led several companies in 2002 — Nippon Meat Packers being the most prominent — to try to pass off imported beef as domestic, rather ironic given what happened a year later.

In December of 2003, the Japan government was in effect gifted the discovery of BSE in a U.S. herd in a cow imported from Canada. Japan immediately imposed a ban on US beef imports, and was able to effectively shift the public’s focus away from the safety of domestic beef. The US did itself no favors though, in refusing to implement full-scale testing. Following up on its refusal to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, to say nothing of its imperious foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, it made the perfect bad guy to let Japan off the consumer-safety hook, alleviate concerns about domestic beef, and shore up Prime Minister Koizumi’s support among rural voters (eg. folks living in places where cattle is kept and rice is grown), always the key element in ensuring the LDP’s grip on power. And it allowed Koizumi to pretend — even as he was bowing to US pressure by sending Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq — to be standing up to Japan’s big brother. Both domestic and foreign media, for their part, have bought wholesale Japan’s stance as arising solely from health-safety concerns, obliging the government’s need to paint itself as altruistic in the matter.

But now, with Koizumi more interested in a smooth exit from the Prime Minister’s office (he is stepping down in September) and a visit to Graceland with his pal Bush next week, the goverment is acquiescing to US pressure and signaling the return of US beef imports. Given the context of the US-Japan relationship in general, and Bush and Koizumi’s relationship in particular, only the naive would assume it was a coincidence that just as Japan was agreeing to resume US beef imports, Koizumi was announcing his decision to recall the ground SDF troops back from Iraq.

Although Japan has a long history of hunting whales, whale meat wasn’t really popular until the post-World War II era when it was a vital source of protein during harsh economic times. But this popularity has steadily declined over time, while the price has steadily risen (no doubt due in part to the IWC moratorium). Indications are that the general public — especially middle-aged Japanese and younger — are indifferent about whale meat. (According to the Independent, less than 1% of the population eat it regularly). And yet, consistently the government has tried to create the impression that eating whale meat is a sacrosanct part of Japanese culinary tradition.

What whale meat eating really is is a pawn in a larger nationalistic trend the LDP is only too happy to stoke (and pay for, especially to poor Caribbean countries). America and their minions in the IWC are the “culinary imperialists” trying to impinge on Japan’s sovereign right to hunt whales. There is a palpable air of don’t-tell-us-what-to-do that is not unlike how the Yasukuni Shrine problem plays out with South Korea and China. Meanwhile, like the “Koizumi is visiting the Shrine as a private citizen” loophole, Japan continues to catch hundreds of whales each year in the name of “scientific research,” which many maintain is a thinly veiled attempt to continue the supply of whale meat to high-end restaurants and supermarkets.

In both the row with America over beef, and with the continuing fight against the anti-whaling countries of the IWC, the purpose, once one gets past the rhetoric, seems the same: fostering for domestic consumption not steak or whale sashimi but rather the image of a tiny Japan not afraid to stand up to the big boys, especially the US. It’s a slightly pathetic effort, given that on just about every major issue, Japan does nothing but kowtow to its de facto protector. But biting the hand that feeds it — or at least appearing to — plays well to the masses, keeps the focus away from domestic concerns, and helps the LDP maintain its stranglehold on political power.

Further reading (not linked above):

Japan, Feasting on Whale, Sniffs at ‘Culinary Imperialism’ of U.S., Calvin Sims, New York Times, August 10, 2000
Whaling Gone Awry, Mike Steinbaugh, November 14, 2000
Resave the whales, Clare Perry, Metropolis #637, June 9, 2006
The forces that drive Japanese whaling, BBC News, June 15, 2006
Japan’s whaling ways must end, Brenda Peterson, The Seattle Times, June 20, 2006
Japan’s whaling policy driven by resentment of the West, Gwynne Dyer, The Salt Lake Tribune, June 20, 2006

US Beef Ban
Our beef with Japan, Mindy Kotler, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, July 17, 2003
Japan officially bans imports over U.S. mad cow disease case, Joi Ito’s Web, December 28, 2003
Japanese Consumer Perceptions & Willingness to Pay for Tested Beef, Washington State University paper, October 5, 2004
Will Japanese be cowed by US beef?, Hisane Misaki, Asia Times, June 23, 2006