Congressman Honda Faces Foes In Japan As He Seeks An Apology for World War II Sex Slavery

New York Times

May 12, 2007 – ON a recent sunny Sunday morning, Michael M. Honda was kicking back at his 90-year-old mother’s house here, some green tea and rice crackers within arm’s reach. She was off to church, and his younger brother had dropped by to fix the plumbing.

“Oh yeah, I ran across a buddy of yours — he says he golfs with you — a big-set hakujin guy,” Mr. Honda told his brother, using the Japanese word for Caucasian.

Mr. Honda, a Democratic congressman and third-generation Japanese-American, was wrapping up a weekend visit to his district here in Silicon Valley. After attending an event at a local high school, he would fly back to Washington, where his resolution calling on the Japanese government to unequivocally acknowledge its history of wartime sex slavery and apologize for it was steadily gaining co-sponsors.

The resolution was also drawing sometimes surprising reaction in Japan, making Mr. Honda one of the most famous American congressmen in his ancestral land and riling Japan’s conservatives. They have accused a bemused Mr. Honda, 65, of being an agent of a Chinese government bent on humiliating Japan on American soil. During one television interview, an announcer asked Mr. Honda how he could back such a resolution when he has a Japanese face.

“I told her I could have a black face, a brown face, a white face — I could be Mexican, I could be Indian — it doesn’t matter,” Mr. Honda recalled.

He said he saw the resolution, which has received strong backing from Korean-American groups, as an affirmation of universal human rights. His foes in Japan view it through the prism of Northeast Asia’s stark divisions.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs, led by Representative Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, is expected to vote on the resolution later in May. Mr. Lantos supported a similar resolution, sponsored by Lane Evans, an Illinois Democrat who was forced to retire last year because of Parkinson’s disease, that wilted in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Although the resolution is not binding, the Japanese government, with the support of the Bush administration, has lobbied fiercely against it. The resolution drew little attention until Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has long pressed a revisionist view of Japan’s wartime history, denied that the Japanese military had coerced women into sex slavery, causing furor in the rest of Asia and the United States.

During his recent visit to Washington, Mr. Abe told House leaders and President Bush in carefully calculated language that he apologized for Japan’s history with the women, known euphemistically as comfort women, but he did not take back his initial denial. A news conference with Mr. Bush culminated in an odd moment when the president said he accepted Mr. Abe’s apology.

The apology, Mr. Honda said, was not Mr. Bush’s to accept.

MR. HONDA’S grandparents came from Kumamoto, a prefecture in southwestern Japan, in the early 1900s, part of the first wave of Japanese immigrants to the United States. His mother, Fusako, was born in San Jose’s Japantown in 1916 and grew up there. His father, Giichi, was also born and raised in California, but spent some years living in Tokyo.

After the outbreak of war between the United States and Japan in 1941, his family, like other Japanese-Americans, was sent to an internment camp in Colorado. They spent a total of 14 months there — an experience that would later influence Mr. Honda’s politics.

“It taught me that if governments make mistakes, they should apologize,” he said.

The family returned to San Jose a few years after the end of the war. At home, the father spoke in English to Mr. Honda and his younger brother and sister; his mother addressed them in Japanese. To this day, Mr. Honda has retained the habit of sprinkling his English with some Japanese words when he speaks with relatives or Japanese-Americans. Japanese food was served at home.

“The only American food I remember eating was Spam,” he said.

His parents struggled, working as strawberry sharecroppers, though his father eventually found more stable employment in the post office. His mother cleaned houses.

“As I went into politics, people would say, ‘I know you from someplace,’ because I used to go pick up my mom from different places,” Mr. Honda said. “All the places she would clean were homes of prominent people.

“I wouldn’t tell them,” he said. “I’d say we met a long time ago. But finally one guy pushed me and said, ‘I just know you from someplace.’ I said, ‘If you really need to know, my mom used to clean your house.’ He said, ‘Oh.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to apologize. It was good work. It was dignified work, and you treated her well. I appreciated it. It put rice in our rice bowl.’ ”

After college, Mr. Honda went to El Salvador as a Peace Corps volunteer and then became a teacher in the public schools here. His late wife, Jeanne — a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb who immigrated here at the age of 11 — was also a teacher.

Mr. Honda said his politics, first as a state assemblyman and then as a congressman, had been influenced by his career as a teacher and the successful campaign by Japanese-Americans to obtain an official apology and compensation from the United States in 1988 for their internment.

He has supported efforts by victims of wartime Germany and Japan to purse lawsuits in California, in keeping with his belief that the universality of human rights allowed them to seek compensation in the United States if German or Japanese courts rebuffed them.

His resolution on Japan’s wartime sex slavery, he said, would provide justice to surviving women who were drafted into Japanese military brothels from Korea, Taiwan, China, the Philippines and other Asian countries occupied by Japanese troops.

In 1993, the Japanese government’s chief cabinet secretary issued a statement acknowledging Japan’s history of sex slavery, but it was not endorsed by the cabinet or Parliament. In recent years, nationalist politicians have pushed to rescind that declaration, and they have succeeded in eliminating references to the so-called comfort women from government-approved school textbooks.

“I was a schoolteacher, and so I know what happens in a country when you don’t teach history correctly,” Mr. Honda said. “It’s insane not to teach your children the truth.”

IT was almost time to go to the high school event, then catch a plane back to Washington. The weekend trip home had been productive. He had started that Friday with breakfast with former teaching colleagues; presented awards at an Asian-American organization; attended a celebration at his alma mater, San Jose State University; and met executives at a high-tech laser company.

Mr. Honda’s mother had yet to return from church. He began locking up, bringing lawn chairs in from the backyard.

Mr. Abe’s recent comments have sharpened worries, even among conservative American thinkers, that being too closely tied to Japan’s nationalist leadership may hurt American interests in Asia. How the Democratic-controlled House votes on Mr. Honda’s resolution could presage changes in American policy toward Japan, particularly if Democrats take control of the White House.

“If we wanted to help Japan,” Mr. Honda said, “it should be in the light of, ‘If you want to be a global leader, you have to first gain the trust and confidence of your neighbors.’ ”

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