Revising a landmark apology for Japan’s wartime system of sex slavery would not be in the country’s interests, a former prime minister said on Thursday after the government said it would re-examine the matter.
Tomiichi Murayama said moves by Shinzo Abe’s administration to reopen the issue of so-called “comfort women” would achieve nothing more than offending Koreans.
“It is no mistake that the Japanese military needed comfort women stations and the government was involved in establishing them,” said Murayama, who as prime minister issued a general apology in 1995 for Japan’s wartime aggression.
“I wonder if finding some faults with the statement serves Japan’s national interest,” he said, adding that the historic statement of remorse for sex slavery was made after “comprehensive investigation into” evidence.
In 1993, after hearing testimony from 16 Korean women, a statement issued in the name of then-chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged official complicity in the coercion of women into sex slavery.
It offered “sincere apologies and remorse” to the women and vowed to face the historical facts squarely.
But repeated wavering on the issue among senior right-wing politicians has contributed to a feeling in South Korea that Japan is in denial and is not sufficiently remorseful.
Last week Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told parliament that the government “would like to consider” setting up a verification team with academics who would look again at the women’s accounts.
Respected historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan, were forced to serve as sex slaves in Japanese army brothels.
However, a minority of right-wing Japanese insist there was no official involvement by the state or the military and say the women were common prostitutes.
Murayama, now 89, visited South Korea this month at the invitation of an opposition party and met three elderly South Korean former comfort women, after which he said he believed “that this issue must be settled expeditiously”.
Parlous relations between Seoul and Tokyo, who often differ over interpretations of Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula, have been further inflamed in recent months by growing calls in South Korea for a Japanese apology.
A series of statements and gaffes from senior officials around Abe are adding to the impression that Japan does not accept its guilt.
These include an assertion by the head of public broadcaster NHK that sex slavery was commonplace among militaries.
While Abe himself has trodden carefully over the issue since coming to power in December 2012, he triggered uproar during his first stint as prime minister in 2007 when he said there was no evidence Japan directly coerced comfort women.
He later elaborated by saying he was talking of coercion in the “strict” sense, such as kidnapping women.