POLITICAL PULSE / Politics and the comfort women issue
The so-called comfort women problem has again been brought to the fore, this time to the point of becoming a diplomatic issue between Japan and the United States, even threatening to foment mutual distrust between officials on both sides who have been working to strengthen the bilateral alliance.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit the United States in late April for the first time since taking office as prime minister.
This problem could be taken up at the joint press conference that Abe and U.S. President George W. Bush will hold after their summit talks.
How should we consider the issue over accusations that women from Korea, China and elsewhere were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military before and during World War II? And how should the government deal with the problem?
The man who rekindled the controversy this time is U.S. Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., who has presented a resolution denouncing Japan over the comfort women issue.
The draft resolution says in part that Japan should formally acknowledge and apologize for “its Imperial Army Force’s coercion of young women into sexual slavery.”
Although the draft is riddled with factual misunderstandings, what lies behind it may be a feeling that those women who were forced to serve as prostitutes for Japanese troops should be considered objects of extreme pity.
A large number of resolutions are introduced to the U.S. Congress, and even if a resolution is approved by the legislature, it has little political impact.
Before the introduction of the draft resolution, the comfort women problem drew scant attention in Congress.
The U.S. media roundly condemned the prime minnister after he rejected the accusations in the draft resolution on March 1, saying, “There was no coercion in a narrow sense of the term” in the recruitment of the women.
Abe’s statement was simply meant to explain the fact that no official documents have been found to substantiate the allegations of coercion by the Japanese military in recruiting the women–the crux of the comfort women issue.
In the United States, however, the problem has been perceived not as a historical issue regarding the extent to which the Imperial Japanese Army was involved in military prostitution, but as an issue involving the human rights of those women, who were forced to engage in prostitution for Japanese soldiers.
The number of U.S. congressional members who have thrown their support behind Honda’s draft resolution has been increasing in the wake of Abe’s statement.
As many in the government have noted, Hiroshige Seko, an adviser to the prime minister, sowed the seeds of the controversy when he visited the United States in February. During the visit, he met a number of U.S. lawmakers, pointedly criticizing the draft resolution, and a problem that otherwise would have been left unheeded was exacerbated.
The comfort women issue as it stands now has even alarmed pro-Japanese Americans, as exemplified by a remark made by Michael Green, former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council. Green said that unlike the issue of the prime minister’s paying homage at Yasukuni Shrine, the problem can never be settled in a way that serves the interest of Japan. In Japan, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Taro Aso is eager to persuade Abe to take steps to quell the uproar that has arisen over the issue.
Appearing in an NHK program on March 11, Abe said, “I would like to sincerely apologize for Japan’s causing a large number of people [abroad] to suffer great mental anguish in the wartime past,” in an apparent attempt to dampen the controversy over the comfort women issue.
The problem has raised its head again and again, at intervals of about 10 years.
Successive prime ministers have apologized in connection with the issue. The repeated apologies were made because the public, as well as Diet members–many of whom are replaced after serving for a few years–tend to be ignorant of the details of the historical background and facts regarding the problem.
Political leaders, however, should leave the task of finally settling the problem to historians and other intellectuals, while doing their best to calm the outcry over the issue.
Some government officials, including Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hakubun Shimomura, however, have helped rekindle and aggravate the problem as they have brought into question the reactions in the United States to this problem, maneuvering to have the 1993 “Kono statement”–the statement issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that contained an apology and admitted that the “comfort women” were recruited against their will–replaced by a new one.
The chances of Japan securing a political win in its foreign policy in connection with this problem are very slim.
Even if the fact that the Japanese military was not directly involved in the recruitment of the women becomes widely recognized, the ignominies that Japanese soldiers committed at the brothels set up for them can never be erased.
It may be advisable to review the Kono statement in light of facts relevant to the problem, but of more importance for the government is to give detailed explanations by disclosing related documents whenever the problem recurs.
But another issue has arisen, since major U.S. newspapers have begun bashing Japan over the problem, without confirming the facts behind it.
The New York Times, for instance, criticized Japan in its March 6 editorial, saying, “Mr. Abe seems less concerned with repairing Japan’s sullied international reputation than with appealing to a large right-wing faction within his Liberal Democratic Party.”
Japanese intellectuals who have worked to boost Japan’s amicable bilateral ties with the United States have been discouraged and offended by the way the U.S. media cover the problem. They are understandably displeased not only with factual mistakes the U.S. media have made over the issue, but with their nerve in nagging this country over a sex-related matter.
Ikuhiko Hata, a former professor at Nihon University and an expert in modern history, has pointed out that after the war ended, the U.S. Occupation forces in Japan asked the Japanese government to set up “comfort stations” for U.S. servicemen.
“Only-san,” a term coined in Japan in those days, signified women who served as prostitutes exclusively for high-ranking officers of the Occupation forces.
The government complied with the U.S. demand to protect ordinary families’ daughters from sexual assaults by U.S. troops. Nevertheless, there were many cases in which U.S. servicemen raped Japanese women, but the incidents were concealed under the news censorship by the Occupation forces. It also is a fact that U.S. forces set up a number of “comfort stations” during the Vietnam War.
Given the circumstances, it is utterly pointless to have the comfort women problem highlighted in the Japan-U.S. relations.
The U.S. side should be aware that this highly sensitive problem has so far not taken on the appearance of a mudslinging match due mainly to the rational attitude Japan has taken to avoid such a development.
Oda is political news editor of The Yomiuri Shimbun.
(Apr. 5, 2007)