Dangerous Denial of Sex Slaves
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
Japan's prime minister is trying to retain the support of his conservative base: that's why he said recently that there's no proof the Japanese military coerced several hundred thousand women to serve as sex slaves in the second world war. But Shinzo Abe's tactic risks provoking Japan's closest neighbours, China and South Korea, as well as its closest ally, the United States.
If he proceeds further along this course, he might end up like his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who antagonised Beijing and Seoul by repeatedly visiting the Yasukuni Shrine - where Class-A war criminals are honoured among Japan's war dead - to the extent that they refused to meet him.
"There is no evidence to prove there was coercion, nothing to support it," Mr Abe said last week. On Monday, he insisted in parliament that Japan would not apologise for its military brothels, even if the US Congress passed a resolution demanding it. A committee of the US House of Representatives is considering a resolution, proposed by Michael Honda, a congressman of Japanese descent, which calls on Tokyo to apologise for the use of sex slaves.
Seoul has issued a statement accusing Mr Abe of "an attempt to gloss over a historic truth" that "casts doubt on the sincerity of Japan's regret and atonement".
Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said that Japan should face up to history and take responsibility for its army's use of sex slaves. Premier Wen Jiabao is scheduled to visit Tokyo next month, the first such visit by a top Chinese leader to Japan in many years.
However, Mr Abe insists that he continues to stand by a government apology issued in 1993 by the then chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, on the sex slavery issue. That statement acknowledged that "comfort stations", or brothels, were set up by the military authorities and the women "lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere".
Even, then, however, Mr Abe said the amount of coercion used on the women was arguable. If he were to rescind the Kono statement - as a group of leading conservatives is calling for - there is little doubt that Beijing would cancel Mr Wen's visit and that Sino-Japanese relations would plummet.
It is difficult to accept Mr Abe's declaration that there is no proof the women were coerced. Only on Sunday, the Associated Press reported that Yasuji Kaneko, an 87-year-old former foot soldier in the Japanese army, acknowledged that he had raped teenage Korean sex slaves in military brothels.
And three elderly women, former sex slaves, testified in the US Congress last month that they were kidnapped and forced to have sex with dozens of Japanese soldiers each day.
So far, Washington has tried to stay out of this issue.
If Congress approves the Honda bill, it would involve great loss of face by Tokyo, which is why Japan is lobbying strenuously to block its passage.
The situation would be different if another administration, such as that of former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, were in charge in Tokyo. Mr Murayama publicly apologised for Japanese wartime atrocities when he was prime minister in the mid-1990s.
However, Mr Abe has a different history altogether. Before becoming prime minister, he had questioned the validity of the Tokyo war crimes tribunals' guilty verdicts.
He is a former secretary-general of the group of conservatives now calling for a re-examination of the 1993 statement.
Mr Abe assumed office determined to repair Japan's relations with China and South Korea.
However, his approval rating has dropped sharply since then and he appears to be taking steps to court his conservative base.
This is a risky strategy. There is a danger that Japan may, for domestic political reasons, adopt policies on historical issues that will alienate not just its neighbours, but the US as well. If Mr Abe does that, it would result in an international isolation for Japan even more serious than that of the Koizumi era.
(Originally appeared in the March 7, 2007 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)