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Abductee Issue Feeds New Japanese Nationalism

Tuesday, November 9, 2004 Posted: 03:53 PM JST

When former US Army sergeant Charles Jenkins was found guilty for desertion last week it seemed like an unimportant event. But is it? Jenkins is married to Hitomi Soga, a Japanese nurse who was abducted by North Korean agents. The dramatic fate of of Soga and four other surviving abductees has, some observers believe, given birth to a new Japanese nationalism.

Charles Jenkins deserted in 1965 to North Korea, partly to evade service in Vietnam. In North Korea he met and married Hitomi Soga who had been kidnapped together with her mother. Two years ago Soga, together with four other abducted Japanese, was allowed to return to Japan. Her husband and two daughters stayed behind. This July they finally arrived in Japan.

The Japanese media covers the North Korean abduction issue in a deeply emotional manner. The abducted Japanese, with Hitomi Soga increasingly playing a major role, are the heroes. North Korea is the ultimate representation of evil. It unchains a wave of Japanese nationalism. Some observers see this as a positive development, others are worried.

Japanese video-journalist Tetsuo Jinbo, who regularly comments on the Japanese media, compares the abduction issue with 9/11 in the US. "In the us 9/11 has a strong meaning. In Japan it is 9/17, the day that the five abductees returned. It really shocked the whole country and somehow resembled the post 9/11 mood in the USA."

The Japanese media hardly mentions that Jenkins is a deserter. He is described as a tragic victim, as someone who shares the fate of the abducted Japanese.

Hideshi Takesada, professor at the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS) in Tokyo, calls this "irrational sentiment". Jenkins misuses that according to Takesada. "He should have apologized to the US people and military when he first came out of North Korea. But, he remained silent in order to make a deal." According to Takesada the Japanese media should have paid much more attention to this. Possibly they were intimidated. "Japanese people pity Hitomi Soga. Her mother is still missing. They transfer these feelings towards Hitomi onto Jenkins"

Yoshiko Sakurai is a respected Japanese journalist who has closely followed the abduction issue for years. She understands these feelings well.

First Soga was kidnapped with her mother. Later she had to marry Jenkins. There was no choice, I think. We are not in a position to accuse her of marrying a man who betrayed his country. Everyone knows he is a deserter. We think it is not polite to Hitomi-san to talk about it. The Japanese media tries to consider Hitomi's feelings."

There is also a cultural aspect. "The Japanese public is unfamiliar with desertion," explains Jinbo. "Japan has not been involved in a war for more than 60 years. The public doesn't know what it means to desert. Japanese receive no education about loyalty to their country. To most Japanese the desertion issue is completely irrelevant."

American journalist Eric Johnston who writes for the Japan Times however believes the Japanese media have not done their job well. "In a sense, the media doesn't want to know the facts, because those facts might contradict the beautiful, emotional tragedy of two lonely people who meet each other after being kidnapped by the horrible North Koreans and reunite joyfully in Japan years later."

According to Johnston the issue is being used by "cynical right-wing politicians". "They want to play up the idea of North Korea as a major threat to world peace in the hope that Japan will do things like revise its Constitution." That constitution forbids the waging of war. "They fan the flames of public resentment towards North Korea for their own reasons," says Johnston.

Jinbo also believes that politicians are making use of the issue. "Soga, Jenkins and their two daughters returned to Japan only a few days before the Upper House election. It was very clear hat the arrangements were made in a hasty fashion. There was a lot of confusion."

Professor Takesada believes the issue exerts much influence. "It is a hot potato. If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Koizumi Cabinet says the wrong thing about the abductees, the satisfaction ratio for Koizumi suddenly goes down. If Koizumi acts towards North Korea his ratio rises. It is the most important factor that decides how people think about Koizumi."

It even influenced the general elections last year, Takesada believes. "All candidates who believed that there should be no normalization of relations before solving the abduction issue won."

It also influences the Japanese position in the nuclear talks with North Korea according to Takesada. Russia, China and South Korea feel that the abduction issue should not be raised at the 6-party talks. As a result a "2 plus 4 structure" has emerged says Takesada, with Japan and the US isolated from the other countries.

Like Johnston he believes rightists are misusing the issue. "Some say that we need to possess nuclear weapons in order to deal with the North Korean issue. They make the defensive issue bigger than it should be. It is very harmful to Japan. When the abductions and defensive issues are linked the defensive issues become irrational. There is absolutely no merit for Japan to possess nuclear weapons."

Sakurai sees a positive side. "During the post-war period Japan abandoned the idea of a state. People didn't consider anymore that we are Japanese citizens living in a place called Japan. We were educated to think that we were all cosmopolitan without being Japanese. This abduction case made people realize that when the government is not stern and firm people can be abducted. The national government must protect citizens. Japanese people now realize it is the basis of our security. It's an awakening of a new nationalism. It is a very positive healthy nationalism."

Johnston however is worried. He doesn't only see a growing influence of rightist politicians, but also Japanese naivety towards Japan's neighbor North Korea. "The abduction issue is a tragic story, but it is an extremely minor affair in the context of the Cold War. It is irritating that Japan is not thinking seriously about the bigger problems: North Korea's nuclear weapons' program, it's starving population and its, perhaps, growing instability at the top. I see the Japanese reaction as blind emotion that freezes rational thought."

Keywords: national_news special_report

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