East is not always east

The effort to urge Japan to pay reparations to China for World War II atrocities has divided the nation's Asian-American communities.


William Wong
August 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Last week, a group of Silicon Valley's disparate Chinese-American power elite put aside their differences to attend a reception for San Jose Assemblyman Mike Honda. At one table sat Ling-chi Wang, chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California at Berkeley and a longtime liberal Democratic San Francisco activist. What was he doing at a gathering organized by Lester Lee, who heads up a Silicon Valley high-tech company and, as a University of California regent, supported Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative that Wang opposed?

Indeed, Wang was part of a mostly Democratic San Francisco Chinese-American political contingent that doesn't usually mingle with the more conservative Silicon Valley Chinese-American high-tech entrepreneurial crowd. There were Chinese-Americans who favor Taiwanese independence and others who lean toward the People's Republic of China, two groups that usually seethe with hostility toward one another.

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They were all there in support of Honda's resolution demanding that the Japanese government apologize and pay for World War II atrocities against the Chinese. The issue, however, is dividing Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans at a time when political prejudices against Asian-Americans seem to be increasing, as evidenced by the Democratic fund-raising scandals and the recent allegations of nuclear espionage by Chinese-Americans on behalf of the Chinese government.

While Honda's proposal may have united factions of Chinese-Americans, it has caused a deep rift between him and Assemblyman George Nakano, a moderate Democrat from Torrance. It's difficult to pin down the reasons for the split between the California Legislature's only two Asian members. Honda's resolution is widely viewed as a symbolic gesture on an esoteric issue, the California state government traditionally having little
influence on Chinese matters of state.

But Honda is committed to carrying his resolution through the legislature, doing battle with his own Democratic leadership in the process. In addition to its demands on Japan, the resolution calls on the U.S. Congress and the president "to take appropriate action to bring about a formal apology and reparations" by Japan. (In fact, AJR-27 closely resembles a congressional resolution that died in the last session.)

The effort to get Japan to pay reparations to China is taking place on other fronts as well. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Lillian Sing and Dr. Clifford Uyeda, a former national president of the Japanese American Citizens League, are co-chairing a new organization called the Rape of Nanking Redress and Reparations Committee.

"Ours is not a Chinese movement, but an American human rights organization," Sing said.

Sensitive to the issue of Japan-bashing, retired pediatrician Uyeda pointed out, "You're not betraying the country of your parents or grandparents by criticizing it. We Americans criticize the U.S. government all the time."

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"People have criticized my timing on this resolution," Honda said in an interview after the Sunday lunch. "There is never a good time. But now seemed to be as good a time as any ...

"This is my business. I am a public policy person. One of my jobs is to speak up. This is the right thing to do. It's consistent with my values and principles. But I didn't think it would cause such a ruckus." Earlier, to the lunch crowd, Honda said he is promoting the issue "so that historical amnesia will not occur. It's about healing. We want wounded relations between China, Japan, India, Korea, the Philippines to heal."

Nakano introduced his own resolution, AJR 30, co-sponsored by Honda. It broadly condemns genocide and seeks to establish an institute to study the phenomenon. No specific nation is named in the Nakano proposal. Meanwhile, Honda said he intends to reintroduce his resolution when the legislature reconvenes in mid-August. He predicts it will pass.

Nakano's Torrance office said he was on vacation and unavailable for comment. But a friend, who asked for anonymity, explained the assemblyman's position. "George thinks the timing of Mike's resolution is poor. We are in this period of anti-Asian sentiments. It's a mess. The situation has mushroomed into something intensely emotional on both sides."

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People who know both men are chagrined at this internecine warfare. After all, they are the only two Asian-American Democratic lawmakers in the nation's most populous state, a state with an emerging Asian population and increasing political clout.

There does not seem to be a strong political and/or ethnic identity that binds the two men the way there often is with black or Latino politicians. Honda was a county supervisor for six years before becoming an assemblyman in 1996. He describes himself simply as a 1960s liberal Democrat who helped found the ethnic studies department at San Jose State University.

Nakano represents a moderate-to-conservative district in Southern California. He was a city councilman for 14 years; before that he was a teacher and school administrator. Both men spent years in American internment camps for Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans during World War II. Though Honda supported Nakano's campaign last year, the two have different personalities. "Mike has always been a champion of civil rights and human rights. George takes a more methodical, moderate course. He is very analytical," one source pointed out.

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Whatever the personal stakes, the issue has shaken up Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans in California and across the nation. Some Japanese-Americans are upset with Honda because they fear backlash from Americans who may consider them more Japanese than American. For many Japanese-Americans, especially those who lived through the World War II internment, having a distinct American identity has been a crucial way to show their loyalty to America. Ironically, according to some sources, Japanese-Americans who oppose the Honda resolution won't speak out publicly for fear their opposition will be interpreted as endorsing Japan's heinous acts of half a century ago. "Some Japanese-Americans are silenced on this issue," one observer noted.

To Honda supporters, the issue is not about ethnicity or nationality. "One shouldn't look at this issue in terms of ethnicity," said Iris Chang, the Silicon Valley-based author of the internationally acclaimed book "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II." "It should be looked at from the perspective of human rights. Americans should care about this issue in the same way we care about the Holocaust. The rape of Nanking was an act of genocide."

U.C. Berkeley's Ling-chi Wang sees no identity contradictions. "I see this issue as a kind of synthesizing of two experiences many of us have had. I have vivid childhood memories of Japanese atrocities in Amoy, near where I was born. But as an American, I feel the need to participate in the political process here. So supporting this measure is drawing upon my personal experiences and translating them to the American political arena."

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The Japanese consulate in San Francisco sent Honda a statement made on Aug. 15, 1995, by former Japanese prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, who expressed "my feelings of deep remorse" and stated "my heartfelt apologies" for the "tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations."

The consulate's response included a detailed breakout of Japanese history textbook treatments of the rape of Nanking and the use of Asian women as prostitutes for Japanese military personnel. The excerpts also mentioned the existence of a poison-gas unit.

The textbook response was dismissed by Chang.

"Too vague," she said. "Not specific enough, and nowhere near Germany's apology to its victims."

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Even though many Chinese-Americans are pleased with Honda's resolution, others are not. The issue has driven a wedge in the ranks of the Organization of Chinese Americans, or OCA, a 26-year-old national civil rights group of primarily middle-class suburban Chinese immigrants.

Last year, the national OCA board voted not to support the congressional resolution which was similar to Honda's state resolution. It did so primarily because the OCA constitution forbids the organization from getting involved in foreign-policy issues. But several OCA chapter presidents argue that it's not a foreign policy issue and are expected to raise the question again at the organization's national convention this week in Dallas.

Michael Lin, immediate past national OCA president, explained the group's reluctance to support a call for Japan to apologize and pay for atrocities in China: "If we go to Congress to advocate for our rights, we don't want anyone to question whose rights we are speaking out for. We do not want to send out mixed messages. We stand as Americans for the rights of Chinese-Americans and Asian-Americans."

The issue embodied in Honda's resolution clearly is vexing to many Asian-Americans. But some see a silver lining. "Controversy is healthy," said one political operative. "This shows we are growing up politically."

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U.C. Berkeley's Wang added, "What we saw at the Ming's lunch was a continuing political maturity of the Chinese immigrant population."


William Wong

MORE FROM William Wong

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