Tokyo: Japan’s nationalist prime minister offered his clearest apology yet to women who suffered in the country’s World War II military brothels, but he did not bow to international pressure to acknowledge that Tokyo forced thousands into sexual slavery.
Shinzo Abe’s apology on 26 March came three weeks after he set off a furor by saying there is no evidence showing the women were coerced, backtracking from a previous government admission that the Japanese military forced women to work at brothels for its troops.
“I express my sympathy toward the ‘comfort women’ and apologize for the situation they found themselves in,” Abe told a parliamentary committee, using the euphemism for sex slaves that is used by Japanese politicians. “I apologize here and now as prime minister.”
Historians say as many as 200,000 Asian women, mostly from Korea and China, worked in Japan’s military-run brothels. Victims say they were forced to work at the brothels by the Japanese military and were held against their will.
But right-wing Japanese politicians, who make up the bulk of Abe’s support base, have in recent weeks renewed efforts pushing for an official rollback on the landmark apology for sex slavery offered by a senior government official in 1993.
Conservative governing party lawmakers contend the women were professional prostitutes and were paid for their services. They also maintain Japanese military authorities were not directly responsible for establishing or running brothels.
Abe’s earlier denial of coercion drew intense criticism from China and South Korea, which accuse Japan of failing to fully atone for wartime invasions and atrocities. Neither had any immediate reaction to his comments Monday.
Abe rebuffed criticism in American media for his efforts to champion the cause of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents decades ago while refusing to admit Japan’s own past kidnappings.
North Korea’s “abductions and the ‘comfort women’ issue are a completely different matter,” Abe told reporters. “The issue of the abductees is an ongoing violation of human rights, while it is not as if the ‘comfort women’ issue is continuing.”
Abe had said previously he would not offer a fresh apology, saying the government already expressed its remorse in the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, the admission of sex slavery that right-wing politicians are urging the government to withdraw.
Japan has rejected most compensation claims from women who worked in the brothels. Instead, a private fund created in 1995 by the Japanese government has provided a way to support former sex slaves without offering official government compensation.
Many women rejected the payments, however, demanding formal government compensation and an apology approved by Japan’s parliament.