Congress backs off of wartime Japan rebuke
Lobbyist efforts halt resolution
By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff | October 15, 2006
WASHINGTON -- After four years of writing to lawmakers and trooping up to Capitol Hill, the 2-million-strong Korean-American community was preparing to declare victory last month.
The US Congress was on the verge of approving a first-of-its-kind resolution urging Japan to formally acknowledge its responsibility for the enslavement of more than 200,000 Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Indonesian, and other women and girls in the 1930s and '40s to provide sex for imperial Japanese soldiers.
The nonbinding resolution had more than 50 Republican and Democratic co sponsors, including the only Japanese-American member of Congress. It had been approved by the House International Relations Committee and was expected to pass in the full House without debate.
But one thing stood in its way: The Japanese government and its powerful team of Washington lobbyists, which argued that it was unnecessary and possibly harmful to international relations.
Behind the scenes, the US Embassy of Japan, which says the measure could harm relations with the United States and trigger an avalanche of other wartime claims, called in one of its biggest guns. Former House majority leader Bob Michel , a senior adviser at Hogan and Hartson , the lobbying firm that has represented Tokyo's interests in Washington for more than four decades, intervened with his old colleagues, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Representative Henry Hyde , chairman of the international relations panel, according to two participants in the discussions.
Michel prevailed on House leaders during several conversations throughout the summer to support the Japanese position, they said. Michel declined a request for an interview.
Supporters of the measure, including the Korean American Coalition and the Korean-American Association, were informed last month that the resolution was effectively dead and would not come to a vote, according to several congressional aides.
The saga of House Resolution 759 provides a glimpse into how the powerful lobbying machines of foreign governments can block the will of dozens of US lawmakers. It also offers a lesson in how age-old animosities -- what one aide called ``ethnic politics vs. a foreign embassy" -- often get played out in Washington's corridors of power.
``It is not just about the `comfort women,' " a euphemism for the wartime sex slaves, said Mindy Kotler, head of Asia Policy Point, a non profit organization that focus on the relationship between the United States and Asia-Pacific nations. ``It is a story of the profound and deep Japanese influence in the US foreign policy community." Speaking of Japan's opposition, she added: ``They do not want any discussion of this, period."
During its colonial conquest of its neighbors, the Japanese military established the first comfort-women station in Shanghai in 1932. Over the next 13 years, until Japan's defeat in World War II, the practice grew into a sophisticated network across the region.
Some of the women, from occupied China, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Dutch East Indies, were as young as 12 when they were enslaved.
``In one of the most extensive cases of human trafficking in the 20th century, more than 200,000 women and girls throughout Asia were recruited by force, coercion, or deception, and kept at the mercy of the Japanese military in subhuman conditions under which they were raped, beaten, and forced to have abortions," said a letter signed by more than two dozen lawmakers that was sent to Hastert on Sept. 22 urging him to bring the resolution to a vote.
The resolution called on Japan to formally acknowledge its responsibility; educate future generation about the crimes, including modifying schoolbooks; and follow the recommendations of United Nations and Amnesty International to make amends to the survivors.
The Japanese government insists that it is not trying to paper over the past.
``We have nothing to hide," Hitoshi Noda minister of congressional affairs for Japan's US Embassy, said recently over cups of tea at the mission, separated from South Korea's embassy only by a single brick apartment house. ``But this is not good for relations. We do not want to make this a Korea-Japan conflict or a Japan-Congress conflict. Nothing could come out of this but bad feelings. We would like to deal with the issue internally."
Noda pointed out that Japan has taken significant steps toward ``acknowledging and accepting responsibility for this tragedy."
In 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama made the first public apology for the crime and the Japanese government helped establish the private Asian Women's Fund, which has provided more than $10 million in medical and other welfare services for victims, including about $20,000 each to an estimated 285 survivors in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan.
In 2001, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi , in an open letter, extended his ``most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women."
Supporters of the US congressional resolution, however, criticize the women's fund as a ``quasi-government effort" and accuse the Japanese government of being too soft on those who still deny that the crimes occurred .
``Some textbooks used in Japan minimize the comfort-women tragedy and distort the Japanese role in these and other crimes committed during World War II," US Representative Lane Evans, an Illinois Democrat and chief sponsor of the resolution, said in a floor speech in May.
Noda acknowledged that some Japanese school texts do not give a full treatment to the tragedy and Japan's role in it. But he contended that part of the reason is out of concern about discussing sexual topics with middle school students.
He insisted that Japan fully accepts its responsibilities to the so-called comfort women, but believes the House resolution is misplaced and badly timed.
Japan has just elected a new prime minister, Shinzo Abe , who has made fostering better relations with Japan's neighbors a top priority. Noda also said he fears the measure could spark other war time claims.
Several treaties after World War II waived future claims against Japan -- including the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951 that ab solved Japan of financial responsibility for its wartime crimes and a similar pact between Japan and South Korea in 1965.
At a time when the United States is counting on both Japan and South Korea to help confront North Korea's nuclear program, the sensitivity of the House resolution extends to the Bush administration.
``It is very important to our interests that the Republic of Korea and Japan have a good relationship," Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs recently told the House International Relations Committee.