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Tokyo governor rapped for failing to send eulogy to 1923 Korean massacre victims

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike speaks during a metropolitan assembly meeting on Aug. 30, 2017. (Mainichi)

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has come under fire after deciding not to send a eulogy to an annual memorial ceremony for the victims of a massacre in 1923 targeting Korean residents amid the chaos after the Great Kanto Earthquake, a decision which could be interpreted as a revision in the governor's understanding of history.

The ceremony is held every year on Sept. 1 by a committee comprising of citizens' groups including "Niccho Kyokai" (Japan-Korea association). Tokyo governors have historically sent eulogies to the event and Koike herself sent one last year.

In March this year, Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member Toshiaki Koga of the Liberal Democratic Party touched on the number of victims of the massacre inscribed on a monument dedicated to them, which says, "The precious lives of over 6,000 Koreans were claimed," and demanded Koike rethink sending an eulogy to the ceremony as there is "thin evidence to back that figure." Koike, in response, told the assembly that she would make a decision about the eulogy after checking the letters herself.

With regard to her decision, Koike only said she would refrain from sending a eulogy as she wanted to pay respect to all the people who fell victim to the earthquake at the collective memorial service held every year on the same day, but stopped short of offering a convincing explanation to those involved in the ceremony. Sumida Ward Mayor Toru Yamamoto has since followed suit.

Japan-Korea association Tokyo federation secretary-general Hideo Akaishi expressed dissatisfaction with the governor and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, saying, "Why has she stopped sending a eulogy from this year? We have not received a logical explanation from bureaucrats." With regard to her decision, which could be seen as her response to assembly member Koga's request, Akaishi said, "We can't help but think she has acknowledged the view that no massacre took place. She has placed herself in the tide of historical revisionism and xenophobia."

The association on Aug. 25 released a statement protesting Koike's decision, saying that her move is equivalent to saying that victims of a massacre and victims of a natural disaster are the same and therefore it's "too much trouble and unnecessary" to send a eulogy for the murdered Koreans.

A veteran metropolitan assembly member told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I felt like the metropolitan government understood that there was a connection between the ceremony organizer and North Korea. Officials might have taken international pressure on North Korea into consideration (in the decision to skip the eulogy)."

Nobuo Sasaki, a former metropolitan government official and current Chuo University professor, warns Koike's action could develop into a diplomatic issue, saying that decisions made by the governor of Japan's capital, which will be hosting the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020, will attract global attention. He added, "Since there are possibilities that her decision could be interpreted as revising historical understanding by halting what has been continued for a long time, both the governor herself and the metropolitan government should fulfill their accountability."

Meanwhile, Koike's political stance may have played a part as to why the latest decision has been taken in line with "the tide of xenophobia."

Koike responded to a Mainichi Shimbun survey in 2014 that she was in favor of revising war-renouncing Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Furthermore, Koike stirred controversy following her inauguration as Tokyo governor in 2016 when she scrapped an agreement made by her predecessor Yoichi Masuzoe and former South Korean President Park Geun-hye that the metropolitan government would lease its property in the capital for a Korean school.

With regard to Koike's latest decision, the metropolitan government had received roughly 300 phone calls and emails by Aug. 30. While many of them express opposition to the decision, comments praising Koike can be spotted online. One metropolitan government official offers the analysis that due to the world shifting to the right, mainly on the internet, her move has gained support to a certain extent.

"Her tactics are to try to attract attention regardless of support or opposition," says Chiba University professor Jiro Mizushima. "She probably judged that the decision (to skip the eulogy) would not develop into a diplomatic issue, even if she was criticized, and that it also wouldn't greatly hurt her political career."

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