Abe shows his pragmatic side with decision on 'comfort women' apology

Frank Ching says Shinzo Abe's decision not to revise Japan's apology to 'comfort women' goes a long way to mending damaged relations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2014, 7:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2014, 5:04am

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's belated affirmation of Japan's apologies to former "comfort women" and to victims of Japanese aggression in the second world war has halted the precipitous decline in bilateral relations between Tokyo and Seoul and improved the atmosphere of Japan's relations with the US. It should also ameliorate the country's relations with China.

It was only because of Abe's declaration that his government would continue to uphold the 1993 "Kono statement" on sex slaves and the apology issued by prime minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, that the trilateral meeting this week in The Hague between the US and its two allies became possible.

Abe's belated affirmation of Japan's apologies to former "comfort women" ... has halted the precipitous decline in bilateral relations between Tokyo and Seoul

It was unnatural that, up until last week, Abe and his South Korean counterpart, President Park Geun-hye, had not held talks even though both assumed office more than a year ago. This was largely because of the Korean leader's objection to the revisionist Japanese view of history, which seemed predominant within the Abe administration.

Both Japan and South Korea are key US allies, and the tense relations made it awkward for Washington. Indeed, the Obama administration was openly critical of Abe after he visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in December, saying it was "disappointed" and that the visit would "exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbours".

Surprisingly, Seiichi Eto, Abe's special adviser, posted a message on YouTube telling the United States: "It's us who are disappointed."

There were other incidents involving Abe's right-wing appointees. For example, Naoki Hyakuta, an ultraconservative novelist who was appointed a governor for NHK, the state broadcaster, alleged that the US had subjected Japanese leaders to war crimes trials to cover up its own war crimes.

When Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced last month that Japan was considering revising its apology to former "comfort women", it set off alarm bells.

Park then warned Japan not to revisit the apology. The vast majority of "comfort women" were Koreans.

Abe's statement that he would not review the 1993 apology, therefore, came as a relief to officials not only in Seoul but in Washington and Beijing as well. It was a reminder that Abe, aside from being a right-wing politician, is also a pragmatic leader.

After all, Abe ended the five-year stalemate in China-Japan relations in 2006, during his first term as prime minister. His predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, insisted on going annually to the Yasukuni Shrine. Instead of flying to the US, as most Japanese leaders do soon after their inauguration, Abe instead went to Beijing to mend fences and refrained from visiting the shrine. He started the tradition of prime ministers not visiting the shrine; ironically, he was also the one who broke this tradition.

Hopefully, Abe now realises that moving to the right will be ruinous for Japan. It will damage relations with its two key neighbours, China and South Korea, inflame ties with the United States and isolate Japan internationally.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1