Not Sympathy But Apology
By Frank Ching
Journalist, Commentator in Hong Kong
The issue of young women forced into sexual slavery by Japan during the Second World War simply refuses to go away.
Throughout Junichiro Koizumi’s five years as prime minister, his relations with China and South Korea were tense because of his government’s position on historical issues, but his ties with the Bush administration were close, even though the United States, too, was a victim of a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II.
The current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has sought to repair ties with its Asian neighbors, particularly China, by not visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. However, he was subjected to harsh scrutiny during his two-day visit to the United States.
He was greeted upon arrival by an opinion piece in the Washington Times written by two prominent Republicans, former Representative Henry Hyde and Representative Chris Smith, who accused Mr. Abe of having perpetuated ``pain and sorrow among victims and their loved ones’’ by denying that women in Asia were coerced into sexual slavery by Imperial Japan.
Prime Minister Abe has publicly denied that any woman was coerced by the Japanese Imperial army to work as a sex slave. At the same time, he has expressed ``deep-hearted sympathies’’ that the women were ``placed in extreme hardship,’’ all the while denying any legal responsibility.
Coincidentally, the same day Mr. Abe met with U.S. President George Bush to discuss, among other things, the sex slavery issue, Japan’s Supreme Court rejected all claims for compensation from Chinese men who were brought forcibly to Japan to provide labor during the war and Chinese women _ known euphemistically as ``comfort women’’ _ who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers. The court, however, acknowledged the historical facts of sex slavery and forced labor.
The ruling is likely to further roil Japan-China relations. The Chinese foreign ministry responded by registering its ``strong opposition’’ and declaring: ``Japan’s supreme court’s interpretation of the China-Japan Joint Statement is illegal and null.’’
The court’s ruling was based on the China-Japan Joint Statement of 1972, in which Beijing waived war reparations from Japan when the two countries established diplomatic relations. However, the question is whether this means Chinese individuals, too, waived their right to compensation.
The Chinese government, by labeling the judgment a ``unilateral’’ interpretation of a joint statement, made clear its position.
The United States tried to stay out of the history issue during the Koizumi years, saying that it was up to Japan and China to work out their problems, as though America and China had not been on the same side _ fighting Japan _ during the war.
But that was because in those days Washington badly needed Tokyo’s support, especially for the war in Iraq. Now, senior Japanese officials have openly questioned the wisdom of the war. Besides, Japanese support is no longer as important, especially with the U.S. Congress dominated by opponents of the war.
In fact, Congress is considering a resolution calling on Japan to unequivocally acknowledge its wartime sex slavery and officially apologize for it. Mr. Abe, in an attempt to head off such a resolution, met with members of Congress to explain his position. The press reported that he had apologized.
The question, however, is whether Mr. Abe did apologize. Deputy press secretary Tomohiko Taniguchi, at a news conference in Tokyo, said: ``I do not think he apologized. He tried hard to explain what he has long been saying about the very issue of comfort women, and that is what actually happened. So, describing it as that Prime Minister Abe tried to apologize to the members of Congress I think is not an accurate description.’’
During his talks with Bush, Mr. Abe focused on North Korea, seeking American support for Japan’s insistence that Pyongyang account fully for Japanese who were kidnapped by North Koreans in the 1970s and 1980s.
However, at a time when the Japanese government _ and Japan’s Supreme Court _ refuses responsibility for the thousands of people across Asia that it kidnapped to work in Japan or as sex slaves, it would be difficult to convince anyone, including Washington, to support Japan’s position.
Mr. Abe likes to emphasize that he is a supporter of human rights. As long as he denies the human rights of the women forced into sexual slavery, he will have a hard time convincing the world of his human rights credentials. The issue is not so much legal as moral: Why does Japan not compensate the aged men and women who were its victims more than 60 years ago? It can and it should. Sympathy doesn’t cut it.