WASHINGTON — All politics is local, the saying goes. But in some American cities, local politics has gone international, with city governments finding themselves caught in historical disputes between two close U.S. allies: Japan and South Korea.
Korean-Americans have won approval for local memorials for the victims of Japanese sexual slavery during World War II, over the objections of Japan. They have also pressed states to change school textbooks to address geographical differences with Japan.
These campaigns have gathered steam as relations between South Korea and Japan have soured despite Washington’s effort to quell tensions between its two principal allies in Asia. They reflect the growing political power of Korean-Americans in states where they have a sizable presence. Many are first- and second-generation immigrants, whose ties to Korea are fresh and for whom nationalist causes still resonate.
Japanese-Americans, many of whom have more distant ties to their ancestral homeland, tend to be a less cohesive political force. Japan itself, rather than Americans of Japanese descent, has stepped into these local disputes, raising them directly with governments at the city and state level.
Japan says it has already apologized for the estimated 200,000 “comfort women” recruited for sex by Japan’s imperial army. With some prodding from Washington, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month quashed speculation he planned to review the apology.
But Japan views the memorials and demands for textbook changes as unwarranted attempts to drag its differences with South Korea into the domestic affairs of the U.S., which both countries prize as their chief diplomatic and security partner.
“We think it is not appropriate for local politics to be affected by the differences of opinion of its residents’ home countries,” Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement after being asked about it by The Associated Press.
Local governments in the U.S. have approved at least four comfort women memorials since 2010. The highest-profile one is a bronze statue in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale.
Phyllis Kim, spokeswoman for the Korean-American Forum of California, which pushed for that memorial, said it’s an issue of universal human rights that transcends borders. She said Japan has to take “full responsibility for its crimes of the past like the Germans did for the Holocaust.”
She expressed disappointment that President Barack Obama didn’t raise historical issues when he met last week with Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, which was viewed as first step toward improving relations. It was Abe and Park’s first face-to-face meeting since they both took office more than a year ago.
Fostering those ties is important to the Obama administration as it attempts to pivot its foreign policy toward Asia and forge security cooperation among its allies. But it risks offending either side if it speaks out on the issues that divide them.
The comfort women issue isn’t new to American politics. The House passed a resolution back in 2007 urging Japan to apologize for its treatment of comfort women and teach about it in schools. For the first time this year, language from the resolution was passed in a U.S. spending bill related to foreign operations.
The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., who is Japanese-American, compares Japan’s comfort women issue to the difficult historical truths America has had to apologize for, including the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which Honda himself experienced as a child.
“I’m focused on the idea that a government is still responsible for its past, so it must acknowledge responsibility and apologize to the victims. I’m not trying to antagonize the relationship between Japan and Korea,” Honda said. “It’s meant to lead to closure for these terrible acts that happened.”
Far-right lawmakers and activists in Japan don’t see it that way.
“We must stop disgracing our ancestors,” Nariaki Nakayama, from the opposition Japan Restoration Party, told a recent gathering of like-minded lawmakers in Tokyo who deny the military directly recruited sex slaves and say it instead used commercially recruited prostitutes.
Few Japanese-Americans take such a stand, and there’s no sign of any communal tensions over it in the United States. Ties between East Asian ethnic groups have deepened over the years. Intermarriage is commonplace.
“By and large, Japanese-Americans are generally sympathetic: that there were wartime atrocities that Japan participated in that they’re not supportive or proud of,” said Floyd Mori, former national director of the Japanese American Citizens League.
Two elderly Japanese-Americans, however, have filed a lawsuit against the Glendale City Council, demanding the removal of the comfort women memorial there.
“If they want a statue somewhere they should put it in a Korean town, not in Glendale and not next to the library where children come to read,” said 90-year-old Michiko Gingery, one of the plaintiffs.
The other plaintiff, 80-year-old Koichi Mera, a former university professor with ties to right-wing thinkers in Japan, said he took legal action as attempts by Japan to get the statue removed haven’t worked.
A Japanese protest also failed to stop Virginia’s Legislature from passing a bill in March recommending that the state’s textbooks note that the Sea of Japan is also called the East Sea, the name used by Koreans. The measure is awaiting Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s signature.
Similar bills have been introduced in the legislatures of New Jersey and New York. Two comfort women memorials have been set up in Bergen County, N.J., and another in New York’s Long Island.
Mark Keam, a Democratic state legislator who co-sponsored the Virginia bill, said the intention is to make the textbook comply with what’s already taught in the state’s classrooms, not rile Japan.
He hoped this could lead to political awakening among his fellow Korean-Americans to tackle issues of broader interest among Asian-Americans, like immigration reform, and not just the emotional themes that strike the strongest chord with them now.
Keam said while “they have zero benefit to gain whether the textbook says East Sea or not,” it gets his Korean-American constituents thinking their state government can do something for them.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo.