Friday, February 19, 2021

Searching for Gender Equality in Biden Asia Policy

German Embassy Staff in Tokyo

On Friday, February 12, 2021, after over a week of silence, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki was forced to comment on Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics organizing committee chief Yoshiro Mori's observation that women talk too much that forced him to resign that day. 

In contrast, the EU and the European Embassies in Tokyo the week before had tweeted pictures of staff raising their hands as if they were to ask a question at a meeting under the hashtags "dontbesilent" and "genderequality" in protest.
The U.S. response came only because Psaki was asked at a White House press conference about Mori's nonchalant observation that women extend the length of meeting by their questions. Surprised by Mori's comment, Psaki simply said "We certainly didn't approve of those comments." She refrained from commenting on his resignation, as she wanted to "work to get you a more specific reaction from our team."

Why was she surprised and why should her follow up be "work"? 

She has yet to follow up with her response. The following week there was news that the White House was forming a Gender Policy Council to be "a government-wide approach to gender equity and equality.”

That the U.S. should be caught so flat-footed on the values issues with Japan exposes the flaws in the narrowly defined "alliance" with Japan. The emphasis on the military relationship and building a coalition against China, ignores the fundamental gaps in worldviews between us. This singular emphasis on a narrow definition of security strips away critical diplomatic tools to affect Japanese behavior and promote American leadership.

On its surface, what Mori, 83, said to the Japanese Olympic Committee on February 3 was just another of his many infamous rightwing, old-man "gaffes." When asked about increasing the number of women on the Committee he retorted that “meetings with many women take a long time” because “Women are competitive. When one of them raises her hand, others probably think they have to talk too and everyone says something.” He said the women attending the current Olympic Committee meeting were “sensible to know their place.” Mori added that he had heard comments that increasing the number of women would be a problem unless time limits are put in place.

Groundhog's Day
The first week in February, saw other Japanese steps backwards on women's empowerment. On Feb. 1, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs expanded its explanations of the comfort women issue on its webpages. The government focused on refuting facts that contradict their preferred version of history. MOFA added explanations of such terms as the “forceful taking away [of comfort women]” and “sex slaves.” The explanations on its “History Issues Q&A” webpage are presented in greater detail with more outdated misinformation and misunderstanding of sexual violence.

Previewing this change, was a January 12th article in Sankei's news-for-foreigners Japan Forward previewing a journal article by Harvard Law School's Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies J. Mark Ramseyer,“Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War.” Oddly, the Japan Forward provided a link to the unpublished International Review of Law and Economics article. It has since been removed.

Essentially, Ramseyer's argument is that the Comfort Women were neither victims nor sex slaves, but women of individual agency who signed contracts for their well-paid labor. His shorter piece in Japan Forward is a raucous take on the original article's rather dry legal history of licensed prostitution in Japan. 

Among the many problems with the Ramseyer paper found by scholars around the world is that the Comfort Women were never a designation under this legal regime. Here is a website organized by scholars at UCLA that is gathering the comments and analyses of Ramseyer's article: LINK. The Journal where it was to be published in March, has withdrawn it for reconsideration.

The U.S. has consciously shied away from criticizing the Japanese on its intertwined gender and history problems. The Embassy's Public Diplomacy director chastised me for asking publicly, in a Washington forum on public diplomacy with Japan, why the U.S. did not criticize Mori. She categorized my simple question as "disparaging" and suggested that "If, like us, you are interested in promoting gender equality, we would invite you to consider spreading the word among your Japanese contacts about the many public programs we host on this topic." This clearly has been a successful policy...not.

Passive Aggressive
The Alliance Managers believe criticizing Japan hinders cooperation. The U.S. believes it will anger our important Ally. However, Japan is changing. Polls found a clear majority of the Japanese found Mori’s comments offensive and unacceptable. The Ramseyer article was met with skepticism as few are so foolish to believe an illiterate 14-year old peasant girl understood what a contract was, let alone one for sexual services. 

So the root problem is a dangerous one for the Alliance. Japan's leadership is out of touch with their citizens.
Bowing to the current conservative government's characterizations of women and history, risks aligning our policies with a government whose views are at odds with our own and that do not even reflect those of most Japanese citizens. This undermines both our commitment to democracy and to women's rights. Giving Japan a pass on the values issues will have repercussions. It gives license to other Japanese bad behaviors that are out of step with contemporary norms and corrupts our efforts to build trust both with the Japanese people and their neighbors.


The U.S. State Department said on Thursday that Japan's trafficking of women for sexual services during World War II was a serious violation of human rights, flatly contradicting a controversial claim by a Harvard professor that such women were rather voluntary prostitutes.

"As the United States has stated many times, the trafficking of women for sexual purposes by the Japanese military during World War II was an egregious violation of human rights," a department spokesperson told Yonhap News Agency, speaking on condition of anonymity

The remarks come amid a public uproar sparked by J. Mark Ramseyer, Mitsubishi professor of Japanese Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, who argued that former sex slaves for the Japanese military were prostitutes who had entered into voluntary contracts.

His claim has also prompted serious concerns among many in the U.S. who believe it may be one of Japan's latest attempts to whitewash its war atrocities.

The department official said the U.S. is monitoring the situation.

"We continue to closely follow developments in relations between our two close allies, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK)," the official said, referring to South Korea by its official name.

"We have long encouraged Japan and the ROK to continue to work together on this issue in a way that promotes healing and reconciliation," added the official.

The official also highlighted the importance of the countries working together to promote democratic values, including human rights.

"The United States values our robust and productive trilateral relationship with Japan and the Republic of Korea as we work together to promote our shared commitment to freedom, human rights, democracy, women's empowerment, and the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific region and across the globe."

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