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Home > Debates Last Updated: 18:12 03/15/2007
Commentary (March 15, 2007)

Abe's Comfort Women Remarks: What Was He Thinking?

Ralph A. Cossa (President, Pacific Forum CSIS) and Brad Glosserman (Executive Director, Pacific Forum CSIS)

What was he thinking? That is the question most thoughtful observers of the U.S.-Japan alliance grappled with last week as Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo fumbled questions about the imperial Japanese government's role in recruiting "comfort women" during the Pacific War. His responses came close to undoing the progress he had made in restoring relations with China and South Korea and threatened to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington. They reveal uncomfortable truths about Japan - but facts that the U.S. must nonetheless acknowledge when dealing with its ally.

The controversy began March 1 when Abe was asked about an LDP group that wanted the government to revisit - rescind - the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei. Kono's comment, put forth as official government policy, followed a multi-year study by the Japanese government into relations between the Imperial Japanese military and women forced to work as sex slaves (aka "comfort women") during WWII.

Kono declared "The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. . The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments."

Conservatives object to two (related) points: the role the military played in the comfort women operation and the degree to which it actually "coerced" women. Abe said then, as he had noted in Diet testimony several months earlier, that the meaning of coercion was unclear and the accuracy of the statement depended on how the word was defined. Ignored was his comment that either way, his government stood behind the 1993 statement. Four days later at the Diet, Abe reiterated support for the Kono statement.

The readiness to challenge the conclusion that the government had "coerced" the women unleashed a firestorm of controversy, not least because the U.S. House of Representatives - during hearings on a resolution that called on Japan to apologize for its actions - had days before heard testimony from former comfort women that seemed to confirm the charge. Abe's response sparked fierce condemnations from leading U.S. and foreign newspapers. It seriously undercut those arguing against the resolution, in at least one instance turning a Japan supporter into a bill co-signer.

Why did Abe fan the flames, especially when it threatened to undercut diplomacy that promised "a new start" for Japanese foreign policy and had offered such promise for the new administration?

First, it should be noted that the prime minister wasn't volunteering for controversy: He didn't chose to make this an issue. He was responding to questions triggered by the actions of others (the LDP group and the U.S. hearings). This does not excuse or fully explain the response, however, or the bumbling since it was originally uttered.

One explanation is that Abe, like many other conservatives, genuinely believes that the Kono statement was wrong. They challenge the factual basis for the conclusion that the government was involved in coercion. This argument rests on the definition of the word "coercion," a legal distinction that is jarring given the longstanding insistence that Japan is not a "legalistic culture" and operates according to more flexible principles. It also attempts to trump a moral argument with a legal one. Whether the army actually coerced the women or left that job to independent contractors (as one legalistic argument asserts), there is little doubt that women were forced into servitude at the army's behest.

This argument also rests on a sense of nationalism. Many conservatives chafe at the judgment of the Tokyo Tribunals and don't like to see their country singled out for criticism. The Kono statement implies that Japanese behavior was somehow different from that of other countries' and Tokyo must apologize for things that other governments have not.

Underlying that conclusion - and obliging Abe to defend it - is domestic politics. The prime minister believes that Japan should be a more assertive country, one that is judged by its record of the last 60 years rather than for the sins of its forefathers. His domestic political base agrees, and they both resent being told what to do by any country - even (especially?) the U.S. (Interestingly, China's response to this flap has been low-key. This suggests that Beijing is committed to rapprochement with Tokyo and is smart enough to let other governments beat up Japan on this issue.)

Ironically, there are many in the U.S. and Asia who agree that it is time to stop dwelling on the past; today's Japan should be judged by its post-war history. Unfortunately, Abe's comments - like his predecessor Koizumi Junichiro's visits to Yakakuni Shrine - make it impossible for even Japan's supporters to move past the history debate.

The phenomenon drives home the rising significance of domestic politics in Northeast Asia and the transition that all countries are experiencing as the international environment evolves and a new generation comes to power. No country is immune to these pressures and

(Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS.)

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