Sunday, 30 December 2012

Debating the "comfort women" issue in Japan

Over the past couple of days Twitter has been abuzz with debate over the recurring issue of "comfort women" -- the predominantly Korean women coerced into prostitution by the Japanese army during the Second World War -- and their claims for acknowledgement and compensation. This time round, Hiroko Tabuchi of The New York Times was on hand to provide translations of some of the arguments against the women's claims and their comments reveal part of the uglier side of Japan -- the part that those of us involved in one way or another with trying to give Japanese culture a boost always find thoroughly dispiriting.

Before I get into the arguments, though, a warning. I use terms like "morality" and "national conscience" in here, which I'm not entirely comfortable with and which I usually approach with extreme caution in other people's writing. However, for want of better words, I'm forced to use the inadequate tools with which my vocabulary has provided me in the hope that I don't lose too much in terms of clarity.

First, I'm not going to debate the fundamental facts. There are primary documents available to peruse on this site, and if someone still wants to just flat-out deny that anything happened… well, if someone really doesn't want to believe something, they'll always find a way of not believing it. This blog is predicated on the reality that forced sexual slavery carried out on behalf of the Japanese army did occur. That's my position, that's the position of most reputable historians from what I can gather, and that's the position of the firsthand data so take it or leave it.

What I'm going to focus on instead is some of the arguments that fly forth from the denialist side whenever this issue or similar ones relating to war crimes, even painstakingly documented ones, come up. There are obvious similarities with Holocaust denial, Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide, and all manner of other crimes.

Because people in many countries are in some degree of denial about atrocities in their own past -- Britain and France have ugly colonial legacies and America has its own violent horrors in its westward expansion -- and taking a look at the arguments made in these various cases it's clear that the process of denial takes similar paths.

One of the most common arguments is precisely that: the fact that many countries have done horrible things in their pasts. There are three parts to this dynamic.

1. It's an argument that seeks to mute the impact of a crime by spreading the blame. It doesn't seek to legitimise the act so much as muddy the waters, to give the impression that in "other times" things were different and to give the impression of a moral grey area. By making the issue appear too morally complex, most people will either back off, or…

2. It forces critics from overseas onto the defensive. "But what about YOUR COUNTRY? What about what YOU did?" goes the cry. This argument forces the opponent to either admit moral equivalence or go on the defensive, thus evening out the field of battle as it were. This sort of argument is known as "whataboutery" and was first coined (I believe) due to the constant use of these "what about…" arguments in debates over sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

3. It implies that their country and their country alone is being unfairly victimised. "Why are WE being picked on when other countries also did bad things? Why are you not picking on THEM for what THEY did?" This argument attempts to usurp the mantle of victimhood from the actual victims of the crimes, as well as subtly implying an agenda that seeks to attack the speaker's own country for unspecified but probably nefarious reasons.

All of these points are attempts to divert the argument away from any discussion of the actual events and the evidence and testimonies of the victims, and the answer to all three of these points is basically always going to be a variant on, "Yeah, but we're not talking about what those countries did," followed by a repeated assertion of the actual issue under discussion.

There are also a couple of specific arguments particular to Japan and the comfort women issue that I've seen come up.

One is that the South Korean government is just using it as a stick to beat Japan with for political gain, particularly at election time, and that no matter what Japan does, they're never going to back off. This is a tricky argument because on the one hand, it's clearly true, but on the other, it's another attempt at distraction because it really doesn't matter.

It's an argument that only makes sense if you think that the only reason for Japan to acknowledge, apologise to and compensate women who were forced to work as sex slaves for its army would be in order to gain something in return (in the form of increased national good will or whatever) rather than out of any sense of basic justice and morality. Put another way, it shouldn't matter as far as Japan and its own national conscience is concerned that South Korean politicians are using the issue for political gain -- that's Korea's own ethical issue.

Another argument I've heard is that the comfort women were employed by private brothel owners and weren't being run by the military, so as a result, the Japanese government has nothing to apologise for. This legalistic argument is more blatantly desperate and seems designed mostly to satisfy the conscience of the speaker. Perhaps it's an appeal to the neoliberal capitalist in the listener, but it's hard to find anyone else really being convinced by it.

In capitalist terms, if the military has a certain level of demand and the supply is limited, the supplier is clearly going to be under enormous pressure to meet that demand. If the military decides to look the other way and not question the legitimacy of the source, the military is a co-conspirator just as any company caught handling illegally-obtained goods would be.

To take another example, my home town is Bristol in the United Kingdom. Growing up in Bristol, one of the first things I learned about local history was that the city's wealth in the early colonial era was built largely off the back of the slave trade. Initially, corrupt magistrates would manipulate petty criminals into going to the American colonies as indentured servants, taking a cut off the unscrupulous traders' profits as they sold the prisoner's contract to plantation owners across the Atlantic. Later, when demand became too high even for these practices, the trade expanded to the transport of black slaves from Africa. In all these cases, these were private transactions, not government policy, and yet the city of Bristol and the country as a whole were responsible every bit as much as the wealthy businessmen who profited off the slave trade.

It might be fashionable in these post-Wall Street Crash and post-Blackwater days to argue that governments aren't responsible for what happens under their watch, but when they set the rules that allow injustices to occur, they are responsible as if they pulled the trigger or wielded the baton -- or the whip -- themselves.

The most common argument, however, is the one that goes, "It was a long time ago. I didn't do any of these things. Why should we still feel the guilt for these crimes committed by past generations?"

This brings up the awkward morality of the Old Testament "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation", which I'm going to just lay aside here, partly because the Old Testament is full of crap no one needs to listen to, and secondly because this is a quote from a self-confessed "jealous God" who was probably a bit upset at the time. It's pretty obvious, I think, that we don't need to punish children for their fathers' crimes in every situation.

In the case of the comfort women, there are two points that put this argument on shaky foundations though. The first is that many of these women are still alive now, and who is going to acknowledge, apologise to and compensate them if not the country in whose name their mistreatment was carried out? Secondly, many of the men who carried out this mistreatment, whether directly or indirectly, are still alive, and many of them (and their families) have done very well thank you very much since the end of the war.

It's certainly an argument you can make that as modern Japan didn't commit these crimes, it shouldn't be held responsible for paying. However, I think that as these arguments so frequently find themselves accompanied by denials and diversions of other sorts, the people making them secretly know that if the comfort women's stories are accepted as true, the moral weight of acknowledging and compensating the victims would indeed lie on their shoulders. To play a little whataboutery of my own, one needs only to look at Germany to see a very different approach (the Contingent Refugee Act of 1991, for example, removed many immigration barriers to Jewish people, leading to a large influx of Jewish people from former Soviet states that had previously been ravaged by the Nazis).

Some of this is no doubt down to straightforward, ugly nationalism, but many of the people who come out with these kinds of responses are perfectly ordinary, not particularly politically motivated individuals. I'm inclined to put some of the blame on films like Isao Takahata's traumatic animated feature Grave of the Fireflies -- a very effective, alternately horrifying and beautiful film, but also a deeply manipulative one -- for colouring many Japanese people's image of the war with deep hues of victimhood, focussing attention and images of the war almost entirely on the suffering endured by children and families at home and, along with sanitised schoolbooks, providing little wider sense of the Japan's role in the war as a whole.

There's also the tendency of those of us from the West to view national trauma as something to be purged through a kind of bleeding of the national conscience. A sort of therapeutic introspection to purify the national soul, whereas Japan perhaps prefers not to hang out its dirty washing in public. It's a different way of dealing with trauma, and one shouldn't be too quick to dismiss it. In this case, however, there are real victims, still living and breathing, and still desperate for acknowledgement.

Worldwide, Japan is one of the countries viewed in the most positive light by foreigners, and attitudes like these are a rare stain on its international image. More importantly though, regardless of how it benefits (if at all) Japan and perceptions of it in the world, it should be a matter of basic decency and sense of justice that this cycle of denial is broken.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Ideology, Terror and making fantasy relevant

One of the dangers of fantasy or science fiction writing is for the author to imagine an alternative world too much through the filters of the prevailing attitudes of his or her time or social circles.

For a science fiction writer, it's often necessary to stay in closer touch with the here and now, since much of sci-fi involves extending current trends into the future and developing them to their logical conclusions. The trick there is to recognise how attitudes will differ while making sure that the path by which society got to that place remains visible and relatable to the present day.

Fantasy has a couple of characteristics that make it a bit different. Firstly, it's much more about world building, in that the author doesn't have a set of established historical, geographical and cultural data that readers share and on which he or she can build the story. The fantasy author must build the entire geography, history and set of cultures from scratch (by and large they will pick and choose fragments from history and legend, but they still can't rely on the reader's familiarity with the background). Secondly, fantasy is a fundamentally conservative genre. Settings are largely based on historical or mythical themes, science is primitive or non-existent, society in a fantasy world usually has to deal with different challenges to modern industrial or post-industrial societies.

The result of these two factors means that the social and political world of a fantasy novel would likely be utterly alien to a modern day reader. The values of the people in it would reflect different social priorities and any insertion of the attitudes of the writer's own time will look clumsy at best and utterly shatter the fourth wall at worst. The ending of Philip Pullman's otherwise wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy with its "Republic of Heaven" premise is a classic example of this, because Pullman's own modern day liberal-left sensibilities jar with the alien world(s) he's spent the past several hundred pages constructing.

Obviously that doesn't mean that fantasy can only be written by right wingers. Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series is legendarily awful in large part because he can't let go of his own Randian wingnuttery. Where Pullman perhaps unwittingly allows a glimpse past the curtain, Goodkind places the ideological stage machinery front and centre. Pullman also has the advantage that his fantasy is rooted in a more fluid, technological universe in which social and political change are ideas that are by no means anathema to its existence. It doesn't quite work but it doesn't fail so utterly and completely.

But if you're writing about an archaic seeming world with a largely rural population, who the fuck is going to care about ideas like liberty, democracy and self-actualisation? Could an ancient or medieval society, even a magical one, even function along those lines outside of the city-state setup? Inserting those values into a fantasy novel is like giving Frodo Baggins a Segway to help him across the Plains of Mordor. 

We have of late been living in a society where those values are taken for granted though, and it's easy for them to slip unquestioned into our literature (and especially our Hollywood-dominated cinema). It also means that the values of the bad guys, which were born out of 19th century antipathy towards despotism, 20th century fears of fascism and communism, and 21st century anxieties about religious fundamentalism, also too often pass unquestioned. In fact Lord of the Rings itself never even bothers to explain what life under the rule of Sauron would be like. He's evil and that's that, just go ahead and imagine your worst nightmares (which at the time basically meant Hitler).

Taking on and providing analogues to real world political and ideological conflicts isn't a bad thing of course. The West's model of liberty and democracy and the sense that the march of these ideals is inevitable and unstoppable is challenged by places like China that have far less interest in democracy and yet seems to be doing very well thank you without it, so there is great value and probably more than a little interest in exploring alternative models of society in order to question and probe our own model. As I mention earlier, those kinds of questions are part of the job description of a science fiction author, and while it's a thornier problem for fantasy authors (given that escape from the real world is pretty much their raison d'etre) it can be done, particularly if the writer is skilled at mining historical sources for relevant but also convincing allegories.

That isn't often what the writer's looking for though. The writer is usually, whether they realise it or not, looking for a quick fix: a Big Bad that will get the audience on their side. They may think they're being challenging by dealing with an "issue", but they're not really challenging anything, and both the writer and audience are able to feel comfortable in their horror and revulsion. It's easy to look at the systematic murder of groups of people or the ethnic cleansing of populations and say, "No matter what your explanation, that's just wrong." Moral certainties like that are comforting.

Cultural relativism can be understood as an automatic and even necessary response to a world that is becoming more connected, and more and more information and conflicting values are forced to coexist in the media and especially online spheres. Trying to reconcile all those different ways of thinking, sets of values and traditions is going to drive you insane, so it's natural to look for an out: to say, "Oh well, different horses for different courses." It's a kind of tolerance of others' differences, but it's also a distancing mechanism. It's a way of saying, "That's nothing to do with me."

The flipside of that of course is that pretty much everyone has a line they draw somewhere, where they say, "No, enough is enough. That's just wrong." At some level, your tolerance for other people's differences has to give way because you feel something they do or think has intruded on your own ethical, moral or ideological territory. For some people, for example a religious fundamentalist, this line is drawn widely and they feel very offended and put upon, sometimes to homicidal degrees, by all kinds of things other people do with their lives. But for almost everyone, there are moments where your own values, your own sense of identity, pushes you to intolerance.

These moments can be interesting for a writer, and the minds of people who do things we find unacceptable are fertile grounds for literature.

Most people who commit atrocities aren't like Sauron. Most people would agree that even the worst crimes against humanity are often committed by people who think they're doing right. What gets less attention is the fact that a lot of horrendous crimes are not only committed in a spirit of righteousness, but they're also quite logical.

Robespierre and Saint-Just were quite rational in their application of the Jacobin Terror and while the period is frowned upon by modern liberals, a look at the history of revolution and counterrevolution in many countries suggests that a period of terror to rigorously instill revolutionary values (Zizek takes it further, adding the idea of "divine violence", although the philosophy isn't as much of a concern to me here as the practical side) is an entirely logical response to the danger of reassertion of the old regime or the creeping return of their remnants through the weakening of revolutionary zeal. Similarly, the murder of the Russian royal family and the destruction of their remains was a logical response to the reality of such figures' symbolic power -- revolutions had failed in Russia before, and the punishments of the perpetrators had been severe. In both cases people did horrible things that nonetheless made perfect sense in terms of the situation in which they occurred and what the people were trying to achieve.

There is much controversy over the issue, but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that from a moral perspective, it's very difficult to defend Israel's actions in Palestine. Nevertheless, one could argue that from a strictly rational point of view, Israel doesn't go nearly far enough. What kind of Palestinian state could ever emerge from that situation that would be anything other than pathologically hostile to Israel? We may see Palestinians as victims and instinctively sympathise with them but Israel's own history shows us how easily oppressed can become oppressors. In the mind of someone like Benjamin Netenyahu he is not committing crimes, he is Doing What Has To Be Done. A more ruthless man might do more, as America did to its native population without apparently seeming to even notice it.

We live in a world where "terror" has become an evil in itself, a binary opposite of "humanity", but this is a function of our own comfortable lives and society (and one Robespierre and Saint-Just would have disagreed with fundamentally). For us there is no greater evil than the disruption of our peaceful existence. How easily might we slip into a new fascism all of our own if that comfort were threatened? For me, one of the most interesting and valuable avenues that the science fiction or fantasy author can explore is the minds and rationales of the people with whose values and actions we disagree or reject. Not in the sensitive, liberal-minded and relativistic way of "tolerating" them from a distance but to really get inside the heads of those who trespass upon the ideological ground that makes up our identity.

In this sense, fantasy, so often intellectually the idiot sibling of science fiction, can in fact provide a more subtle, allegorical comment on the world, challenging contemporary assumptions about The Way It Is and taking us ideologically on tangents from the straight lines that science fiction tends to draw into the future. Of course most won't do that, and undoubtedly many writers and fans in the genre are attracted to it precisely for the way it presents us with an established social hierarchy with simplistic and small "c" conservative values.

Even then, however, there is something interesting in showing us the thought processes and logical steps a king goes through in his decision to go to war or levy a tax, and then letting us see the effect that has on the peasant farmer. Does the farmer dream of change? If so, what sort of change can he envisage? As I said before, a modern liberal democracy would probably be low down on the list. Another, better king might be more like it, because this imaginary peasant's sense of the natural order of things would likely be just as limited by his experience as ours is by our own world. Where we usually hold fantasy at a distance like good social relativists -- "it's another place, they live differently there." -- and where bad fantasy writing allows modern ideas to unwelcomely intrude, an alternative model of fantasy literature can induce the reader to examine their own ideas by introducing recognisable problems into the world of the story but having the characters tackle them using a totally different set of ideological tools. Our response -- horror, pathos, amusement, anger, whatever -- is influenced by our consciousness of the gap between what we see or read happening and what our instincts tell us should be happening. Thus the writer is able to address contemporary values or issues by their very absence, sidestepping the awkwardness of inserting them into an arena where they don't necessarily belong.