Neither In Too Far Nor Out Too Deep
It has been another remarkable few months for the people of Ye Olde Nippon. Five abductees returned to Japan after 24 years in North Korea; Japan is sending an AEGIS equipped destroyer to the Indian Ocean; a Diet member was murdered; the chemist who made all of Aum Shinrikyu's Sarin gas was executed; and Muneo Suzuki's trial finally began. However, let's begin by examining the most important story of the last three months: The defection of Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui to the hated New York Yankees.
Japanese baseball was dealt what may be the start of a series of death blows last month when Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui announced he would be seeking employment in the United States. The Yomiuri Giants organization did its best to put a good spin on it, but it's clear they were surprised as Matsui is the first Giant to take the trip to the Majors. For those who don't know, the Giants are the most popular team in Japanese baseball and Giants' players are treated more or less like Gods. It's even reported that owners of other teams are strong Giants fans and have, in the past, warned their players against beating the beloved Kyojin (Giant Men).
It should also be noted, for the uninitiated, that most teams in the Japanese major leagues are simply used for company advertising and are not expected to make a profit; hence the Seibu (Department Store Chain) Lions, the Orix (Rent-a-Car) Blue Wave, and your humble editor's personal favorite: the Nippon Ham (Food Mislabeling) Fighters. Even the Giants are named after the King-Of-All-Media Yomiuri Group. Although some effort has been made to identify the teams with the city--the Fukuoka Daiei (Supermarket Chain) Hawks and the Chiba Lotte (Snack Maker) Marines, for example--only the Hiroshima Carp are actually owned more or less by the city in which they are based.
After Matsui made his announcement, it was clear that the Grand Poobah of the Yomiuri Group, Watanabe Owner (this is how the Japanese press refer to him) was not pleased. During a party to celebrate the Giants' recent victory in the Japan series, Watanabe Owner gave Matsui a pair of books, in Japanese of course, on what to do if you get sick or injured (translation: gunned down in the street) while in the USA. He apparently hasn't heard that the Yankees take a little better care of their players than that. Hara, the Giants' current manager, seemed stunned and a little worried, but he got the Giants to the championship through outstanding use of his reserve players. When a starter got hurt, Hara benched him rather than play him to death. Although it's a big loss, Hara should have little trouble working around Matsui especially as the Yomiuri Group has very deep pockets. Retired Giants' manager Nagashima, the most beloved man in Japanese baseball, described how Matsui came to him to seek advice regarding his decision and he advised him he should follow his heart. (translation: get your ass back in the Giants' dugout.)
The Giants' fans, on the other hand, while somewhat disappointed, also seem proud and are looking forward to seeing how Matsui does. The Yankees, of course, have offered him 7 million a year over three years which they will make back in sales of Matsui/Godzilla goods to Japanese fans alone.
It should also be noted that several other top Japanese players tried their luck in the majors this year. One, slugger Nakamura from the Osaka Kintetsu (Railway) Buffaloes, was given a modest offer by the Mets which he humbly declined in favor of a fatter offer from the Buffaloes. This more than any other thing poses the biggest problem for Japanese Baseball. The best free agents can use the threat of the Majors to drive up their value. Now, if the Giants don't want them, there's not much they can do but settle for a smaller offer. This will hurt all but about four teams, or require that the teams be spun off as independent, for-profit corporations as they are in the USA. As the Japan league only has about a dozen teams, they can't afford to lose any. Given that most of the big companies, Seibu, Daiei, etc are suffering under the sour economy, something will eventually have to be done. Then again, experts have said the same thing about the Japanese economy for 10 years and you can see how well that's turned out.
The return of the five abductees after just under 25 years in "captivity" has been one of the most overwhelmingly emotional and dramatic spectacles your humble editor has ever witnessed. Perhaps only the revelation that Vietnam actually was holding live POW's and MIA's could ever equal it in emotional scale back home. Shakespearian in scope, it has heroes, villains and clowns; pain, anger, and paranoia; politics, politicians and people you wish would just shut the hell up. There's so much involved here that the beginning seems hardly an adequate place to begin, but it's better than nothing.
It began fairly quietly with daytime television stopping regular programming to show a Japanese aircraft landing and pulling up in front of a crowd of flag waving family members and extras. The Five, looking a bit dazed, walked down the steps accompanied by one of our minor heroes, special envoy Kyoko Nakayama, a representative of the foreign ministry assigned to "assist" the returnees. At the bottom of the steps we saw smiles--you couldn't help but notice the bad dental work of the Five--and tearful embraces, but everything felt subdued and unreal. The abductees spent the first few days in a hotel and managed to avoid the press, giving the news starved public just a few canned quotes, including the incredibly sad, but very Japanese "We are sorry for the trouble we have caused." (That one got your humble editor's better half's hackles up.)
With the returnees staying out of the limelight, some of the clowns were sent on stage: the experts. We heard about what the Five ate on the plane and what they said about it. (Niigata Koshihikari rice. They said it was delicious). We saw endless analysis of the lack of any "honest and open statements" from the Five. Only a few pundits pointed out that, since the Five's families were still in North Korea they might have to watch what they say. We saw analysis of the fact that all five were sporting Kim-Jong Il pins. This was presented as if it were some major secret the expert had discovered. If wearing something on your lapel can classify as secret. Oddly, the pins have become minor players in our drama: when the Five applied for Japanese passports, we heard how one of them took his pin off for his photo and we were then subjected to an analysis of why he took it off. The fact that the others continued to wear them until recently has been subjected to endless analysis as well. Late last month, the Five announced that they would no longer wear the pins, giving us more experts and more analysis.
The most entertaining clowns in Act One were two North Korean "Red Cross" agents whose job was clearly to keep tabs on where the Five were and what they said. One of the Five later admitted that "they are supposed to know where we are" and when it became clear that the Association for the Family's of Abductees were pressing the government to keep the Five in Japan, the returnees claimed they called the "Red Cross" agents and consulted about what to do. The Japanese press, for its part, took great pleasure in harassing the two especially as one of them had, just a few years before, stated unequivocally on television that North Korea had never abducted any Japanese citizens. The press chased them down the street and into shops, followed their taxis and even pointed cameras at their hotel room window. They pointed out the mosaiced faces of the over 20 or so undercover police assigned to spy on the two. It got so bad that the abduction-denier commented that he thought there was a right to privacy in Japan to which the Japanese press more or less guffawed and continued asking him if he wished to revise his earlier statement regarding abductees. (The agent's clearly never seen how the Japanese press treats famous or scandal ridden people. Makes the British press's treatment of the British royals seem very polite and unintrusive.) The Japanese press, for its part, would eventually turn cameras and mikes on the Five, never fully realizing, or caring, they were helping the clowns do their job. The two eventually faded into the background and made a quiet, disgraceful exit. Rozencrantz and Guildenstern have left the building.
The Five, for their part, had, during 24 years in North Korea, formed into a pair of couples and had established jobs and families. Kaoru and Yukiko Hasuike, the couple from Kashiwazaki abducted while they were on a date, met again years later and were married. Yasushi and Fukie Chimura, abducted from Fukui, had also married and had children. Hitomi Soga, abducted with her mother from Sado Island (and only recently added to the list of official abductees, long term sufferers will remember) had married Charles Jenkins, an American who defected/deserted from the U.S. Army in 1965 while patrolling the DMZ. They also have children. (Foreshadowing: Jenkins presence in this drama complicates the plot once it takes its inevitable turn. More foreshadowing: this is going to take a turn.)
Act two began with the Five heading off to their homes for the first time in almost 25 years and the emotions were overwhelming. Yasushi Chimura bowed down in front of the shrine and picture of his late mother, said "Mother, I'm back" and then collapsed into tears. His mother, after 24 years of waiting for his return, had died just six months before. Yukiko Hasuike bounced up and down and screamed in childlike glee as she met some of her childhood friends. Kaoru Hasuike rushed to embrace five men he used to play baseball with when he was a kid. Hitomi Soga and her father walked slowly toward each other and then almost literally collapsed into each other's arms. Soga was abducted at age 19. The others at age 20 or 21. We saw them play catch with their friends. We saw Soga receive her high school diploma after 25 years. We saw Soga prove she was not dead so she could re-enter her name in the family register. (Because Soga was never added to the official list of possible abductees she was eventually declared dead.) We saw them apply for Japanese passports. We saw, well, everything.
Emotion was quickly overwhelmed by the omnipresent Japanese press and the fact that the government had clearly done nothing to brief the families about how to handle the press. The families reported, and interpreted, everything the Five said with no real consideration to how it might affect their lives upon their return to North Korea. (Keep in mind, the Five came for a two to three-week visit, with promises from the Japanese government that they could return or stay depending on their wishes.) Toru Hasuike, older brother of Kaoru, had a one-sided public spat with his brother, explaining to the press that he was angry at his brother for defending North Korea. Yasushi Chimura's father-in-law commented that he had been watching Yasushi for signs he had been brainwashed. He said his son-in-law finally said something that made him think he'd been brainwashed: "He said there were many good people in North Korea." Another father said his son had said he'd been told by his North Korean office he could go home because they no longer needed him. (He quickly retracted when the son pointed out he meant they didn't need him right then.) If someone spoke to a returnee for even one minute, they were given a five minute interview on television to talk about the one minute. The pressure of being on display, and having such a busy schedule, eventually began to show on the faces of the Five and many scheduled meetings and phone calls were cut.
The Family Association also seemed split on what to do. The Yokotas, whose 13 year old daughter Megumi was the first of the official 11--now the official 15--to have been abducted, have long been considered the moral center of the abductee issue with their daughter, literally, the poster child for the Association. They are in their late 60s or early 70's, soft spoken and seem reluctant to have been dragged into the limelight. (Unlike the aforementioned Toru, who seems to enjoy it.) They also revealed that a DNA test proved that the girl North Korea claimed was their grand-daughter actually was. They reported this at a press conference and revealed her picture for the first time. They would like to visit North Korea to see her. On the other hand, were those whose family members came home, but left families in North Korea. They pressed the government to keep the Five in Japan and then press North Korea to "return" the other family member's to Japan (even though none of them were actually taken from there.) The third group was those whose family members were reported to be dead. They pressed the government to press North Korea for more information. (When the information finally came, it came in the form of an urn of mislabled ashes and some very dodgy death certificates with identical signatures and mistaken birthdates.) The fourth group is the more than 40 families who also claim their children were abducted but cannot convince the government to put them on the official list. Most of this came out thanks to Toru who, out of the blue, accused the press of trying to split the Family Association. Everyone went "Huh? What the hell are you talking about?" but a closer look revealed many natural fault lines and Toru was expressing anger at the press reporting that differences of opinion existed.
It quickly became the Family Association's policy that the Five should not be allowed to leave Japan. It was an emotional time and the decision to stay or go would be too difficult. It would be "unfair of the government to let them make a choice," said one father. Toru Hasuike said that if his brother wanted to return to North Korea, he could leave on foot because he wasn't going to help him. It's easy to see why they were so vehement about this. Most of them had spent the majority of their adult lives getting the Japanese government to even admit there were abductees in the first place. When the government finally did admit as much in the 1990's, the Family Association fought to have the official 11 returned only to hear lots of sound and fury, but see very little action from the government who said it was up to North Korea to resolve the abductee issue before relation normalization talks could begin. After all this, they've not only been vindicated, they have to save face by keeping the Five in Japan whether they like it or not. In fact, it's naïve to believe Japan ever intended to allow the Five to return. It would be too big a loss of face to have them return after being "rescued." However, the government, for its part, stuck to its original position that it would respect the wishes of the Five.
The Japanese government quickly changed its position when it read which way the political winds were blowing. To make matters worse, the revelation of North Korea's "secret" nuclear weapons program became a huge thorn for Koizumi, especially when it was revealed the USA informed him about it long before the historic Pyongyang summit. He says he had to keep it hush-hush because it was a "diplomatic secret." (translation: inconvenient for the Bush Administration prior to the "Not Approval for an Attack on Iraq Approval for Indiscriminate Use of Force Against Iraq As the President Deems Necessary" Vote in the US Congress.) The government stated its New/Old position that the Five returnees would not be allowed to return to North Korea. Instead the government insisted that North Korea "expedite the return of the families to Japan." (More or less a direct quote, although "return" was eventually dropped in favor of "emigration" for reasons already mentioned.)
North Korea freaked and accused Japan of going back on its promise to return the Five to which Japan replied "We never said we'd return them we only promised to respect their wishes." (Those who've lived here will understand the distinction. In Japanese "We will respect their wishes" translates to "Make yourself comfortable. You're going to be here a long, long time.") North Korea said the abduction issue had been resolved but was at a loss to explain what had happened to Hitomi Soga's mother Miyoshi, who was abducted at the same time as her daughter. Soga says she never saw her mother after they were abducted and always believed her mother had been left in Japan. North Korea claims it knows nothing at all about Miyoshi Soga. Japan, for its part, is hard pressed to explain why Soga's mother has not been added to the official list of abductees even though Soga herself has. (Your humble editor suspects Miyoshi Soga never made it to North Korea and instead sleeps with the fishes in the Sea of Japan.)
The Government quickly moved to placate the Five (translation: get them saying the right things.) Shinzo Abe, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary of the LDP, and aforementioned special envoy Kyoko Nakayama visited each of the Five to explain the government's New/Old position. They started with Soga. After speaking with her, Abe went in front of the cameras and said Soga had said she wanted to meet her family as soon as possible in Japan. Nakayama then went on camera and said "I don't believe she said 'in Japan.'" That was the last time Nakayama appeared on camera. Someone, perhaps Soga, later floated the idea of meeting her family in a Third Country, but Toru, who is rail thin and sports slicked back balding hair and a peach fuzz goatee, said he opposed that suggestion for reasons having to do with him always being right and everyone else always being wrong when it comes to North Korea. (Or something like that.) Once again, the rift in the Family Association surfaced between those who supported the idea of a third country meeting, most likely in South Korea, and those who opposed it.
At this point, another clown entered the story, an odd German or Austrian doctor named, well something German, who had just spent the last seven months or so in North Korea working with orphans and other children. He held a press conference, with the Family Association, where he announced, with no real evidence to support him, that the death certificates presented to the families of the eight official abductees declared dead were fake. He said he's looked at hundreds of death certificates and that these don't match up. He said that he has a hard time believing that North Korea would kill the eight and that, therefore, they must still be alive. (North Korea being so gentle and not the kind of country that would abduct people and execute them. It would just abduct them, apparently.) This fed right into the hopes and denials of the families and they once again found something resembling unity. Their official policy is that everyone is still alive until they come back to Japan and declare themselves dead. (Or something like that.) This includes Megumi Yokota, who's own daughter says she is dead. The Yokota's once again put their desire to visit their grand-daughter on hold for the sake of unity. Toru has promised that once the families of the Five are safely in Japan, he will get with his brother Kaoru and resolve the issue of the "Dead Eight" once and for all. Says Toru: "I will force him to tell the truth."
Complicating things was the presence of Charles Jenkins in one of the families. The US Army classifies him as a possible deserter and they would like the chance to have a chat with him to clear that up. As your humble editor understands it, because the North Korea/South Korea DMZ is still considered an active front line, Jenkins is considered a deserter, not simply AWOL, for abandoning his post. Also, military law is a bit fuzzy about the Statute of Limitations regarding Desertion. Jenkins seems to think that the desertion charge expires in 2005. However, because the Army still considers him as being on active duty (once you're in, you're in until honorably or dishonorably discharged) the 40 years may not even start until he's formally discharged. He can't be discharged until he's interrogated and the Army determines whether or not he should be actually be charged with desertion. To make matters even more complicated, even if the desertion charge expires, he could be charged with treason if he gave any information regarding strategy and troop positions to the North Koreans or helped them in any other way. There is no statute of limitations on treason. Basically, if Jenkins sets foot in the USA he will be arrested. If he sets foot in an allied country, the USA will expect the ally to have him arrested and extradited ASAP. If Japan doesn't do this, it will have a hard time yelling at the US Military for not turning over Marines in Okinawa accused of rape, drunk driving etc. The best hope is that someone will convince President Bush to issue a "preemptive pardon" (a precedent set by his father no less) and defuse the entire issue. Jenkins might be able to trade information on several other alleged deserters for a pardon. Jenkins, by the way, is 62 and has said on television that he is a deserter so abduction can probably be ruled out.
This act began with our heroes, the Five, settling into their new lives. Soga moved into a house. The Hasuikes began learning to use some spiffy lap-top computers given to them by the city. The Chimura's began jobs with their local city government as experts on the Korean situation. We saw the best of Japan as the local municipalities promised them work and their former universities welcomed them back and offered them a chance to finish their degrees. Workers and college students all over Japan spent time making and distributing blue ribbons, the symbol of support for all the returnees and abductees. (Anybody who is anybody wears one in public now.) The Niigata Ski Association gave the Hasuike's a free lifetime pass to all the ski resorts in Niigata after Kaoru said he'd like to go skiing again. Even the Japanese government, after some hemming and hawwing, agreed to provide the Five, and their families, with five years of monthly support payments and job training. This was passed after a surprising amount of debate. Several conservative politicians pointed out that there are claims of upwards of 80 people having been abducted and supporting all of them if they're alive might get expensive and thus detract from the budget set aside for building highways and dams. Koizumi said they'd assess it on a case by case basis and the law passed.
Unfortunately for the Five, neither the Japanese press nor the Japanese public have lost their appetite for stories about them. We therefore see the Five do everything from make bread to visit a hot spring resort. There are stories-from non-Japanese sources, of course-that the press has pretty much begun acting like an occupying force in some of the small towns. Urinating here and there. Dropping cigarettes here and there. Marching into homes and plugging in to outlets. For politicians, it's de rigueur to have visited the abductees at least once and promised them something. The Family Association both uses and is used by politicians. Toru Hasuike is clearly enjoying having been right and having a little brother to boss around after 24 years.
Act Five and Beyond:
World events make the quick resolution of things seem very distant. The Family Association is pressing the government to add 40 more names of young people who disappeared at around the same time as the Five under similar circumstances. The sites where the Five were abducted have become popular tourist and date spots. Our heroes have taken off their Kim-Jong Il pins and have set about doing what they did to survive in North Korea: say the right things and get on with your life. Even in three months they've transformed in many ways. They've changed hair styles and had dental work. They actually do have a spring in their step. Soga has changed the most, and in many ways seems the happiest, even though her situation is the most complicated and the least likely to have a happy ending.
The lives of the pawns in the global game go on. They all say "We have faith in the Japanese Government."
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Copyright © 2003, Dwayne Lively. All Rights Reserved.
Created January 2003