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PM Abe sees opening to replace Japan's 'comfort women' apology

Over 200,000 women were forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers from the 1920s until defeat in 1945. A newspaper's recent retraction of a purported eye-witness account has reignited far-right debate.

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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews members of Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) during the JSDF Air Review, to celebrate 60 years since the service's founding at Hyakuri air base in Omitama, northeast of Tokyo, Sunday, October 26, 2014.

Toru Hanai/Reuters

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Japan’s push to ditch an official apology over its wartime use of sex slaves threatens to raise tensions with its neighbors, while supporters of the apology are facing threats from an energized far right.

The quest to sanitize one of the most emotive episodes of World War II centers on an official 1993 Japanese apology issued by the then chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono. In it, he acknowledged that the Japanese military had coerced Asian women – known here as "comfort women" – into sexual slavery. Historians estimate that as many as 200,000 women were forced to have sex with soldiers from the late 1920s until Japan’s defeat in 1945.

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Senior figures in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) now hope to replace Mr. Kono’s landmark apology with a new version that restores “the honor of those in the past who were inappropriately demeaned and to protect the pride of the Japanese living in the present and future,” according to a statement.

Mirroring recent moves to reinterpret but not directly revise Japan’s war-renouncing constitution, officials suggested earlier this month that Kono's apology was next in their sights.

On Oct. 1, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he had no intention “right now” of revising the statement or issuing a new one. But he was later contradicted by a close adviser, LDP lawmaker Koichi Hagiuda, who said: “We do not intend to review the Kono statement as it has already finished its role,” adding that a new proclamation to be issued next year would “emasculate” the Kono statement.

Mr. Abe, though, is unlikely to publicly deviate from his current stance while he angles for meetings with his South Korean and Chinese counterparts at the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing.

Much of the current political effort to revise Japan's policy leans on a retraction in August by Asahi Shimbun, a left-leaning broadsheet, of a series of articles about a Japanese soldier who said he witnessed Korean women rounded up for brothels used by Japanese soldiers. The articles, which ran in the 1990s, were based on the now discredited testimony of Seiji Yoshida, a former soldier deployed on the South Korean island of Jeju.

Conservative Japanese commentators and politicians, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, seized on Asahi’s mea culpa in an attempt to challenge the version of events implicit in the Kono statement. Their push has raised fears that the apology will be ditched, possibly to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war next year.

Earlier this month, Abe accused Asahi of damaging Japan’s international image, claiming that the foreign media had taken the inaccurate sex slave articles as the cue for their own coverage. “Many people were hurt, saddened and angered by Asahi’s false reports,” which had “damaged our honor around the world,” Mr. Abe said.

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Emboldened by the criticism of Asahi, right-wing extremists are targeting former reporters whom they blame for fomenting widespread revulsion towards Japan’s system of military brothels.

Former Asahi journalists who now work in academia have received bomb and death threats intended to hound them out of their jobs. Extremists posted online the names and photographs of the children of one former Asahi journalist,Takashi Uemura, denouncing them as the offspring of a “traitor” and urging them to kill themselves. Mr. Uemura wrote articles on the sex slave issue for the Asahi 20 years ago.

Government silent on far-right threats

While there is no evidence of any official involvement in attempts to intimidate former reporters, academics condemned the government’s silence over the threats. “Abe and other leaders’ outlook is encouraging the right wing to conduct even harsher attacks on those who are critical of the history of the Japanese empire,” says Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor at Hosei University in Tokyo.

Asahi, meanwhile, is counting the cost of a boycott, encouraged by a rival newspaper, that has seen its circulation dip by almost 800,000 since November 2013. The newspaper previously had a morning edition circulation of 7.6 million. 

Pressure is mounting on organizations outside Japan that have expressed support for the sentiments of the Kono statement. The UN Human Rights Committee recently rejected calls by Japan to revise a 1996 report that referenced Sejii Yoshida’s testimony; nationalists have also turned on a 2007 US House of Representatives motion calling on Japan to “formally acknowledge and apologize in a clear and unequivocal manner.”

Any change to Japan’s official stance on military sexual slavery would provoke fury among the women themselves.

"We were snatched, like flowers that have been picked before they bloom,” said Yu Hui-nam earlier this year. She was 16 when she was taken from her home in South Korea to work in a brothel in the Japanese city of Osaka. “They took everything away from us. When I think back I remember only tremendous pain. We were not living as human beings,"