When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Silicon Valley on Thursday, the local congressman was not on hand to greet him.
Instead, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) worked with activists to protest Abe’s arrival. On Capitol Hill, the most tenured Japanese American in Congress will continue gathering support to pressure Abe to issue a full apology for the atrocities committed by the Japanese army during World War II.
During the war, Honda’s own family was rounded up and sent to an internment camp by the U.S. government, but the 73-year-old lawmaker has led the movement to compel Japan to own up to its role in enslaving tens of thousands of women during the war.
Before Abe arrived for this week’s U.S. tour, Honda engineered a bipartisan letter with 25 lawmakers asking the prime minister to begin the “healing and humbling reconciliation” with Japan’s neighbors. When Abe delivered an address Wednesday to a joint meeting of Congress, Honda’s guests in the House gallery included Yong Soo Lee, 87, who flew from South Korea to serve as a representative of the “comfort women” forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers.during the war.
“People say that’s history, that’s in the past, but it’s still alive because the victims are still here. They need their apology for the return of their dignity,” Honda said in an interview after Abe’s speech.to Congress.
In his address, Abe said he would “uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers” about Japan’s treatment of women, particularly in South Korea and China. That was a reference to a 1995 apology by the Japanese government that many welcomed as a good first step but still thought insufficient.
Abe has also embraced a level of regret. After World War II, the prime minister said, “we started out on our path bearing in mind feelings of deep remorse over the war. Our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries.”
Abe left Washington late Wednesday for two days in California that were to include meetings in San Francisco and visits to the state’s technology corridor and Los Angeles.
He will be feted by Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calif.), Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, but along the way Abe will probably face protesters with whom Honda has worked.
“The community in these cities will be ready for him. They will be out there telling him to apologize,” Honda said.
Honda came to this issue through a personal pilgrimage, beginning with his effort to learn about and then reconcile the reality of his family’s treatment by U.S. soldiers during World War II.
When he was a toddler, his Northern California family was sent to Camp Amache in Colorado. He was too young to fully appreciate what was happeningto him, but later, through family stories, he learned what his owngovernment had done.
“I used to have dreams about what I’d seen as a child,” he said.
After the war, his family settled in Chicago, where his father taught the Japanese language to U.S. military intelligence officials.
Honda returned to California for his high school and college years, and became an acolyte of Norman Mineta, the San Jose mayor who would go on to serve in Congress and as a Cabinet secretary for two presidents. Honda was a foot soldier in a movement led by Mineta — whose Japanese American family was sent off to a Wyoming camp during the war — to earn more than just financial reparations for their suffering but also a formal apology.
In 1988, the Democratic-controlled Congress and a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, approved payments of $20,000 to Japanese Americans still alive who had been forced into the prison camps. But it also included a detailed, 14-page account of what the U.S. government did wrong, beginning with phrases such as “fundamental injustice,” “unreasonable hardships” and a “failure of political leadership.”
By the early 1990s, serving on the Santa Clara County board of supervisors, Honda had not spent much time caring about what happened on the other side of the Pacific Ocean during the war. But one day, as he looked at a Stanford University exhibit on the horrors of World War II, Honda was struck by what he saw the Japanese soldiers had done.
There was the infamous Rape of Nanking, in which the Japanese army killed tens of thousands of Chinese citizens over a six-week period, and accounts of the mass rape of Chinese women in the nation’s former southern capital.
Additionally, as the Japanese military rampaged through Korea and parts of China, it established brothels for its soldiers, in which thousands of women were deemed “comfort women” and forced to become sex slaves for the Japanese.
“If we as Asian Americans here require our own government to apologize to us,” Honda recalled Wednesday, “how much more should the Japanese government apologize to the victims of sexual slavery?”
In 2001, when he took his seat in the House, he adopted the cause to try to force Japan to make amends, focusing on an executive branch declaration of apology that would then be ratified by the Diet, the Japanese parliament. Since then, he has been able to hold hearings and pass a nonbinding resolution.
It’s a smart political move in a district that has a majority of constituents of Asian American descent, many of them Chinese and Korean.
Honda said, however, that his effort has been driven by the experiences of Lee, who in 2007 testified in a congressional hearing about her harrowing experience as a sex slave. Near the end, she told lawmakers what she demanded of Japan: “If you do not officially apologize or give me compensation, then give me back my youth.”
Honda said Wednesday that he is trying to make sure that Abe gives Lee and the other survivors the same sort of apology his family received nearly 20 years ago from the U.S. government.
“These women are dying. And I don’t want to think that he’s thinking that he’ll outlive them and maybe they’ll go away. Governments are organic beings. Governments are responsible for their past, present and future,” he said.