Last year, before becoming his nation's first premier born after World War II, Shinzo Abe said Japan caused "great suffering" in the war and he would improve ties with Asia. Then why is he now challenging the history of the Imperial Army's use of sex slaves?
The easy answer would be to say that conservatives in his ruling party forced Mr. Abe to contest the testimony of many surviving "comfort women," who were coaxed or coerced into working in brothels set up for Japanese soldiers in Asian lands during the war.
Abe's government is very low in the polls and must win an election this July. A large group of right-wing nationalists within his Liberal Democratic Party want to roll back a 1993 statement by a government spokesman who, based on a study, said wartime military authorities did "undeniably" force the women into sexual bondage. The spokesman also apologized for their "immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds."
But political pressure doesn't totally explain why the prime minister would set back his Asia strategy of smoothing ties in the region, starting with China and South Korea – the homeland of many of the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 comfort women.
Last week, Abe (pronounced AH-bay) affirmed his statement, made earlier this month, that government records show no evidence of the soldiers coercing the women. (Many official records had been destroyed.) That compelled even the US ambassador to Japan to criticize this legalistic hairsplitting of the government's immoral role in procuring the brothels and to say that the women were indeed coerced and "raped by the Japanese military."
Perhaps Abe's bigger concern may be that young Japanese are losing pride in their country. He criticizes what he calls a "self-flagellatory" version of history taught in schools, including wartime atrocities. His campaign slogan last year was "beautiful country," which reflects his hope to restore "national self-belief." He and others say Japan has had more than 60 years of pacifism, and it's time to move beyond postwar issues.
Or maybe Abe believes, as many Japanese do, that character is inherited and to admit the sins of one's fathers and grandfathers is to admit one's own.
What makes Abe's challenge so odd is that he became popular on his passionate efforts to free Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea during the cold war. And he says Japan's "great presence" (as the world's second largest economy) forces it to "meet the expectations" of other nations.
One of those expectations is that Japan sincerely stick to past statements of contrition about war behavior, perhaps even reinforcing them with higher official approval. These frequent, right-wing challenges to the historical record must come to an end.
Building trust with its neighbors can't be bought simply with admired exports or hefty aid. Rather, an honest look at history can help Japan, as it did Germany, to move forward in becoming a global leader.
Abe's confusing remarks about the women's coercion and the 1993 statement need to be cleared up.
Japan deserves to become a "beautiful country," one whose pride is anchored in sincerely owning up to the country's past.