TOKYO — Moving to defuse a heated diplomatic dispute over World War II-era history, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday that his government would not revise a landmark 1993 apology to women forced to work in Japanese military brothels.
This was the first time since taking office more than a year ago that Abe has explicitly stated that his right-wing administration will uphold the official apology, known as the Kono Statement. That statement, issued by Yohei Kono, then the chief Cabinet secretary, admitted that Japan’s military played at least an indirect role in forcing the so-called comfort women to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.
“I am deeply pained to think of the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering, a feeling I share equally with my predecessors,” Abe told Parliament. Referring to the Kono Statement, the prime minister said: “The Abe Cabinet has no intention to review it.”
Abe also said his administration would uphold a broader apology that the Japanese government issued in 1995 to all victims of Japan’s early 20th-century militarism. Previously, he had spoken in more general terms of the suffering that Japan had caused and of continuing the position of previous governments on history issues.
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Friday’s statements were one of the firmest expressions yet of Abe’s intention to adhere to a more moderate line on the often-emotional historical issues that divide Asia. The statements also represent a clear pulling back from his earlier views before becoming prime minister, when Abe publicly questioned whether Japan’s Imperial military had coerced the women, a doubt shared by many Japanese nationalists.
Japanese officials suggested the statements might be part of an effort by Abe to mend relations with South Korea and to persuade South Korean President Park Geun-hye to meet him this month on the sidelines of a multinational nuclear-security summit in the Netherlands. Park has so far refused to meet with Abe until he shows a more remorseful attitude toward Japan’s brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
Abe’s past calls to end what he calls masochistic views of Japan’s history had stirred concern among South Korea and other former victims of Japanese aggression that his administration might seek to whitewash his nation’s wartime atrocities.
While Abe avoided provocative statements during the first year of his administration, he and his followers more recently seemed to revert to a more openly nationalistic agenda. In late December, Abe visited a controversial Tokyo shrine to Japan’s war dead, including 14 executed Class A war criminals, just days after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden urged him by phone not to go.
Tensions over history with neighboring South Korea increased sharply last month, when the current chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said the Abe government would review the testimony of 16 women compelled to work in military brothels, a basis used in compiling the 1993 apology. Suga was responding to growing calls from nationalist lawmakers to scrap the apology, which they say relied on insufficient evidence, and unjustly defames the soldiers who died for Japan during the war.
While most historians agree that Japan forced 80,000 to 200,000 women to work in a network of wartime brothels, some nationalist scholars in Japan say the women were just common prostitutes.
Revising the apology would be certain to further outrage in South Korea, where many of the women came from, and which has called for Japan to make a stronger show of remorse while the last of the former brothel workers, now in their 80s and 90s, are still alive.