My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Col 64 Jun 4, 2013: “By opening up the debate to the real experts, Hashimoto did history a favor”


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Hi Blog. Here’s my latest column for your comments. Thanks to everyone who read it in print and online! Arudou Debito
By opening up the debate to the real experts, Hashimoto did history a favor
The Japan Times June 4, 2013, version with links to sources

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto has been busy making headlines around the world with his controversial views on Japan’s wartime sex slaves (or “comfort women,” for those who like euphemisms with their history). Among other things, he claimed there is no evidence that the Japanese government sponsored the program, and suggested these exploited women were (and still are) a “necessary” outlet for a military’s primal urges. (Sources here and here)

I will say something for this idiot’s provocative behavior: He brought this issue out for long-overdue public scrutiny. He has also presented us with a case study of how to keep people like him in check.

For a person in power, Hashimoto has behaved unusually candidly. Generally, after Japanese politicians or bureaucrats burp up ignorant, bigoted, sexist or offensively ahistorical comments, they backpedal by claiming they were somehow misunderstood (which Hashimoto did), or even try to excuse their remarks by saying they were “for a domestic audience only.” (They seem to think they live on an isolated debate Galapagos, and that the Japanese language is a secret code.)

Then Japan’s media plays along by ignoring or downplaying the events or, if pressed, lobbing the ideologues a few softball interview questions. Most reporters lack the independence (due to editorial constraints and incentives not to rock the powerful press club system) or the cojones to hold elites’ feet to the fire.

However, when their statements make the foreign media (particularly the BBC or New York Times) they get serious domestic traction, because now Japan’s international image — vis-a-vis countries Japan’s government actually cares about — is being tarnished.

In the bad old days, blunderers would then tentatively apologize and tender a snap resignation — without effecting any real change in how Japan’s elites “really think,” or sufficient debate on the issues they resuscitated. It feels like lopping off one of the heads of a hydra — you just know more noggins will pop up shortly.

Nowadays it’s worse, because the hydra often stays unlopped. Bona fide bigots (such as former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara; see JBC, Nov. 6, 2012: If bully Ishihara wants one last stand, bring it on) remain boldly unrepentant or tepidly sorry, hunker down at their posts and wait for the public to swallow the issue before the next media cycle begins.

The result is a toxic aftertaste regurgitated in the region: Japan seemingly rewrites a pretty awful colonial past, and former colonies see this free pass from historical purgatory as a product of Japan’s special political and military relationship with hegemon America. Asia’s acid reflux thus sours other international relationships.

This time, however, Hashimoto is doing something different: He’s actually cooking up an international debate. A marathon press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last week exposed some juicy bones of contention.

Hashimoto reiterated his denial that the government was “intentionally involved in the abduction and trafficking of women” but, more indicatively, he said: “It would be harmful, not only to Japan but also to the world, if Japan’s violation of the dignity of women by soldiers were reported and analyzed as an isolated and unique case, and if such reports came to be treated as common knowledge throughout the world.”

To paraphrase: Japan did nothing all that wrong because it did nothing unusually wrong. Hashimoto is thus rationalizing and normalizing sexual slavery as a universal part of war — as if blaming Japan is wrong because everyone else allegedly did it.

Essentially, revisionists such as Hashimoto want a bowdlerized assessment of history. But remember, every country has shameful periods in their past; the trick is to learn from them, not cover them up (as Hashimoto’s ilk seeks to do, all the way down to a sanitized education curriculum).

They also want a dishonest tone in the narrative. For them, Japan must not only be seen accurately (as they see it); it must be seen nicely. That is simply not possible when addressing certain parts of Japan’s history.

Why are these people trying so hard to be relativistic? They might actually be so thick as to believe that any government would institutionalize sexual slavery in the “fog of war.” It’s more likely, however, that they simply don’t want their “beautiful country” to be the bad guy in their movie.

Fortunately Hashimoto’s posturing has exposed this ugly illogic. He has given people who know better (such as historians and eyewitnesses) the opportunity to correct and inform Japan’s revisionists on a national level.

To be sure, Hashimoto (a lawyer famous for taking extreme stances as a TV celebrity before his election to office) has never developed the “caution filter” that usually comes with public office, which is why he should return to private practice, where his semantic games would be limited to Japan’s petty courts.

But Hashimoto has also inadvertently shown us a way to blunt the rise of Japan’s incorrigible right wing: Reduce their rants to performance art.

As historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki sagely notes: “This is not politics by persuasion but politics by performance. The object of the current performance is obvious. It is to provoke impassioned counter-attacks, preferably from those who can be labeled left-wing and foreign — best of all from those who can be labeled Korean or Chinese nationalists. This will then allow Hashimoto to assume the ‘moral high ground’ as a martyred nationalist hero assailed by ‘anti-Japanese’ forces . . .

“This makes a careful and considered response to the Hashimoto phenomenon particularly important. Above all, this phenomenon should not be ‘nationalized.’ Hashimoto does not speak for Japan, and to condemn Japan because of his comments would only be to boost his demagogic appeal.

“The best reply from those who hope he never will speak for Japan is to allow his words to speak for themselves. Those outside Japan who are alarmed or offended by these words should seek out and lend support to the embattled peace, human rights and reconciliation groups in Japan which also seek a different future, so that their voices too may be heard at the national level.”

So, I encourage readers to understand what’s behind maintaining these narratives. Japan’s Hashimotos want to channel Japanese society’s innate cautiousness towards the outside world (JBC, Oct. 2, 2012: Revisionists marching Japan back to a dangerous place) into domestic support for their xenophobic populism. When they make their venomous statements, take them up and calmly point out the illogic and inaccuracies therein — stress on the word “calmly.” Use their tactics against them.

It’s a bit ironic, but Japan needs more Hashimotos to make a hash of contentious issues. The clearer they spout stupid stuff, the clearer our corrections will be. And, with sufficient attention and pressure, the shorter their political lives will be.

Debito Arudou’s updated “Guidebook for Relocation and Assimilation into Japan” is now a downloadable e-book on Amazon. See Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community pages of the month. Send comments and ideas to


8 comments on “My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Col 64 Jun 4, 2013: “By opening up the debate to the real experts, Hashimoto did history a favor”

  • “..I will say something for this idiot’s provocative behavior:..”

    You must remain objective and not refer the person as an “idiot”. You loose credibility in such subjective/biased name calling if you wish to make a valid point to a wider audience.

    — I called him an idiot because I wanted to make it very clear to readers from the start that I was not going to take a flippant, clinical look at a topic as horrible and potentially explosive as government-sponsored wartime sexual slavery. The point made was that we need the behavior of idiots too to pave the way for better accounting and recounting of shameful histories. But one must first establish the tone of the person in question being an idiot.

  • I’m surprised you held back by calling him just an “idiot”. Personally I would go much much further. However, if you wish to hit the mark with more effect, it is better to do so, unbiased, impassive and with objectivity.

    Same as here:
    “They might actually be so thick as to believe that any government…” Just present the facts, and what is considered acceptable and not acceptable, then pose the question….evidenced based critiquing! Let the reader decide what is or is not “thick” by presenting accepted behaviour.

    Thus your article comes across more as a personal rant against him (btw, which I whole agree with), rather than a more balanced position and then let the reader make up their own mind based upon the facts presented. That carries far more weight than a “slagging match”.

    As you put it yourself at the end:
    “When they make their venomous statements, take them up and calmly point out the illogic and inaccuracies therein — stress on the word “calmly.”

  • @John K

    This is an opinion piece and as such there is no need for the author to remain objective. “Objective” journalism is for news agencies and factual summaries of current events.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ John K #1

    I understand your point. In any normal debate, it would be immature and self-defeating to insult your opposition in lieu of rational logic and facts. However, it is only deluded and badly-educated members of Japanese society (plus a few NJ apologist wannabe’s) who even think that the Japan sex-slaves issue should be up for debate. It is not up for debate, it is a matter of historical fact. We should not dignify the position of people like Hashimoto by even debating this with him- the issue is settled. Rather we should change the argument to ask them why it is so desperately important to them to rail against the facts. What is their agenda?

    It’s all rather like those people who believe in ‘intelligent design’ and slam real scientific positions as presented by Dawkins et al. Those types of people will never give up their position no matter what evidence they are presented with, and will concoct more elaborate delusions to explain away proof you attempt to present to them. It’s more like a mental illness at that point, and derision is justified.

  • #4JDG

    “..It is not up for debate, it is a matter of historical fact…”

    Agree 100%.

    Thus present the historical facts to highlight his idiocy, rather than calling him one. Name calling no matter the presentation, opinion piece or otherwise journalism, is devalued by name calling. It lessens the message. Presenting the voluminous amount of hard factual evidence is sufficient on its own. I, like you or anyone else, can call him an idiot, as he rightly deserves the tag. But, an opinion is just that, a personal view. Whereas factual evidence is unbiased, and hard conclusions to be drawn from such independent unbiased facts to support the idiocy tag. It carries far more weight than just name calling simply because we objective to their views….otherwise its my dog is bigger than your dog circular nonsense!

    “We should not dignify the position of people like Hashimoto by even debating this with him- the issue is settled..”

    Here you’ve missed the point. The very fact that a debate was drawn from him has elicited even more vitriol from him for the world to see and read. Had no one engaged in an form of interlocutor with him, far less would have come out and the world would have not been party to this farce of a “historical” and “social” control that occurs in Japan, yet is never debated. As Debito notes, he has “exposed” himself and given a stage for others to rightly correct him, and now a much wider stage at that, by engaging with him. It’s the only way to expose such “idiots”.

    — All points taken, thanks john k. My first thought this morning was, my call for calm and your call for objectivity are two different things. It is possible to calmly call someone an idiot or a fool (as opposed to an asshole or a douchebag, which are arguably not terms uttered calmly). On the other hand, it is not possible to objectively (as you note) call someone an idiot. But again, as noted elsewhere, this is an opinion column so it is necessarily not objective.

    So the question in my mind remains: Is my column not calm in tone with the introduction of labels indicating how idiotic the man is for causing all this trouble? The compromise position is to call his ideas (instead of him) idiotic. But that isn’t quite the point of this column. I was evaluating not his claims, but the irony of the idiocy of him making them.

  • Debito re: my #4 comment.

    This is indeed an interesting one to review/debate. However, to evaluate the irony of making such claims, rather than the idiocy, for me, that doesn’t come across so well, as you also digress into many other aspects not necessarily related to Hashimoto. Since to address the reasons behind his claims that are being (by you) considered ironic and to the wider world, one needs to see if the view is also wdiely held in Japan too. Yet it does not ‘appear’ to be considered as such in Japan; that’s the rub. (Incidentally, I think it is easy to call someone an idiot, but only after presenting the evidence, for the label with the conclusion that he is an idiot; and I’ve also called many people an arsehole/idiot etc but very calmly and politely which usually irritates then further; when I feel the need to do so. Readers may not agree with the “idiot” tag, but see your reasoning and evidence based deductions for such, which cannot be in question, just the “idiot” tag, as your opinion on him.)

    And even though “we” tend to agree he is an idiot, one must be a tad careful too, when considering the opposing view. Since there has been a significant lack of comment from the Prime Minister which would of course put such “claims” to bed. Yet there has been a deafening silence so it makes any “claim” no matter how ironic/idiotic to us non-Japanese, seem rather lame or invalid (to Japanese) when laid against him; simply because he is being de-facto endorsed by the PM of Japan. Ergo….who are we to argue or say he is an idiot when the PM of Japan doesn’t “appear” to think so??

    Because your point then, is in fact, really addressing Abe and the Govt and the indoctrination (Hashimoto et al) by said via misleading and biased text books, to the wider population to further the Govts’ and their clique’s ideology for their own gains. Had Hashimoto been taught the true facts, would he still maintain his current stance, for example…or is he a natural born right wing idiot? Isn’t that half the point too!?

    I would agree however, that the irony of this is that the “Hashimoto-types” are needed to be encouraged to speak out on such issues to point out their idiocy against the historical and factual evidence and on a wider stage, not just local politics, to educate the masses.

    Perhaps, I think, if you started the article by posing a question, such as: ‘Hashimoto: visionary or fool?’ ..and then outlining Hashimoto’s stance and pulling it apart, but more importantly (I think) juxtapose Hashimioto’s claims with those of Abe and the silence from the PM, the bigger fish, would carry significantly more weight and dare I say more readership value too, and not be just a journalists opine of an idiot.

    My 2/c worth 🙂

    — Thanks for it. Problem is, it’s the column you wanted to write, not the column I wrote. So we’re not really discussing calm vs. objective anymore. Thanks again in any case for the feedback, and thanks for reading!

  • If you want to express personal views more forcefully, or just simply call someone an idiot, you could take a lesson from Alex Jones:

    There is a fine line between objectively and personal views being expressed, beware the slippery slop!!

    (Enjoy the video clip…it’s a hoot 🙂 )

    — Well, I take the lesson not from Alex Jones, but from the moderator, who eventually does explicitly call Jones an idiot. Correctly, of course, after Jones firmly establishes himself as one with all the blather. Same as Hashimoto.

    Thanks for the clip, but I’m not quite sure how it substantiates your point. Somehow we’ve gone from objective vs. calm to objective vs. personal views.

  • Jim di Griz says:

    And almost exactly 12 months later, Hashimoto is at again!
    Having only just split from Ishihara, so that Ishihara can form a truely extreme right-wing party, Hashimoto ( who announced to be more centralist a form a realistic opposition, his words), has brought up Allied rapes following D-Day as justification for Japanese Army sex-slaves!
    Well, it seems he just doesn’t really know where he is on the political spectrum, unless the new centre is revisionist right-wing.


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