– Wieland Wagner was the Asia correspondent for “Spiegel” for a long time. He is the author of the book “Japan – Descent in Dignity. How an aging country fights for its future”.
Germany and Japan were once very close friends. That was from 1936 to the end of the Second World War, in the time of fascism. The so-called Berlin-Tokyo axis was directed against the great Western powers and the Soviet Union, and Mussolini’s Rome also joined the unholy alliance. In the course of racist popular ideologies, the fascist allies collectively challenged the world order of the time.
Hitler’s Germany covered Europe and North Africa with war, the Japanese Empire subjugated large parts of the Far East in the so-called “Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere”. In the end, both countries only shared their defeats.
During that unfortunate time, thousands of Asian women and some Western women were kidnapped and abused as forced prostitutes for the Japanese army. Most of the victims – in Japan they are belittled as “comfort women” – came from Korea. The then undivided country has been oppressed as a colony by Japan since 1910. To commemorate the fate of the rapes, activists erected a ‘peace statue’ in Berlin’s Mitte district in September. The authorities had approved the project, the action should be limited to one year.
But in early October, the neighborhood surprisingly withdrew the permit and demanded that the statue be taken down. And – as reported – under pressure from the Senate. They were said to be acting out of responsibility for the “security situation in East Asia”. In plain language, Berlin is afraid of becoming involved in a historical controversy between Japan and South Korea that has been bitterly fought for decades.
The dispute over the monument is troubling for the German federal government, as it is in the process of rediscovering Japan as a so-called “value partner”, after relying on the People’s Republic of China for long and very one-sidedly. A Japanese newspaper recently calculated to its readers that Chancellor Angela had traveled to Beijing 12 times in the past 15 years, but only four times to Tokyo.
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The German-Japanese “values” that diplomats and politicians are now invoking in the face of the current monument dispute are primarily strategic interests – in global trade and security policy. Values such as the freedom of art and the right to freedom of expression or even the status of women in society, on the other hand, are not at stake – at least that is what the current use of the “Friedensdenkmal” in Berlin Mitte suggests.
The forced prostitutes have become a symbol for Japan, which often denies and belittles its atrocities during the war. For South Korea, which cannot or does not want to free itself from the role of the victim and seems unwilling to forgive the former colonial power. And now also for Germany, for whom the whole thing is only annoying.
After Abe’s resignation, the apology was again in question
There was definitely a cabinet secretary once in Tokyo, his name was Yohei Kono. In 1993 he officially apologized to the sex slaves. They were inflicted with “immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds,” he said. For a historic moment, it seemed that Japan was repentant of the crime. But under nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who stepped down in September, Japan suddenly again questioned the apology. Only after massive pressure from the US, the joint protective force of the quarreling neighbors, did Japan and South Korea agree in 2015 to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the controversy over the forced prostitutes.
But the past just won’t go away. The Japanese apology does not come from the heart, many in Korea criticize. Despite protests from the Japanese government, they continued to erect monuments to the sex slaves, for example in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, South Korea, but also abroad. In 2018, a statue for the forced prostitutes in the Philippine capital Manila was removed under Japanese pressure. In contrast, San Francisco had a deep-seated human rights awareness: When the local mayor refused to have the sex slaves monument dismantled, the Japanese city of Osaka ended the collaboration between the two cities in protest after about six decades.
Notes are removed from Japanese textbooks
Japan’s conservative ruling party and its supporters are also trying to quell war crimes debate at home. Corresponding passages have been removed from textbooks for years. There is an atmosphere of intimidation – towards journalists, scientists and artists. Last year, a statue of a forced prostitute was temporarily removed from the Nagoya City Art Triennial for “security reasons”. The organizers had previously been seriously threatened. The controversial work was entitled “According to the ‘right to freedom of expression?'”.
The Berlin authorities could have easily googled the background to this Japanese-South Korean dispute when they examined the application for the monument. Understandably, they don’t want to get involved in a controversy between two third countries. But they should have considered the diplomatic complications from the start. To want the statue that has already been erected to be removed quickly – that’s how Berlin turns an unfortunate thing into a political affair. That is a fatal signal.
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Japanese media report that Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has been called by his counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi in Tokyo to have the monument removed. If it actually took place in this way, the call is a reminder of the naturalness with which the Japanese authorities try to prevent critical debates at home and abroad.
But Berlin is not Tokyo. Only transparency helps in the dispute over the monument in the Mitte district. Rather than putting the image away in a crazy way, it would now be an opportunity to discuss it publicly, as befits a democratic constitutional state. The monument could be supplemented with an explanation: about the dispute between Japan and South Korea. About their respective handling of the story. About the social position of women – then and now. And about the fundamental question of whether diplomatic talks can be at the expense of freedom of expression. The alleged “value partnership” between Berlin and Tokyo ends where fundamental rights are undermined. Otherwise, it can’t work any more than the infamous Ash once did.