The study that led Japan to apologise in 1993 for forcing Asian women into wartime prostitution was confirmed as valid by a parliament-appointed panel Friday after South Korea and China slammed the review as an attempt to discredit historical evidence of such abuses.
Officials said Japan stood by its earlier pledge not to change the landmark apology.
“We concluded that the content of the study was valid,” said lawyer Keiichi Tadaki, who headed the five-member panel that reviewed about 250 sets of documents used for the government study that was the basis of the 1993 apology.
The new investigation focused on how the study, which included interviews with 16 former Korean victims, was conducted, not evaluation of its historical findings. But any discussion of bitter World War II history is sensitive, especially when Japan’s relations with its two closest neighbours are soured by territorial disputes.
The panel started its study in April after Nobuo Ishihara, a top bureaucrat who helped in the 1993 study questioned the authenticity of the interviews, while suggesting Seoul possibly pressured Tokyo into acknowledging the women were coerced. Ishihara spoke at parliament as a witness for a nationalist lawmaker who demanded the review.
Tadaki, who briefed the contents of the report, said Japan had enough evidence from other documents to produce the apology and that the hearings of the women were supplementary and intended to show Japan’s compassion rather than to verify historical evidence. His team’s report acknowledged Tokyo and Seoul negotiated at length over the wording but that did not distort historical facts mentioned in the apology, he said.
Historians say 20,000 to 200,000 women from across Asia, many of them Koreans, were forced to provide sex to Japan’s front-line soldiers. Japanese nationalists contend that women in wartime brothels were voluntary prostitutes, not sex slaves, and that Japan has been unfairly criticised for a practice they say is common in any country at war.
Abe himself has been criticised by South Korea and China for backpedaling from past Japanese apologies and acknowledgements of wartime atrocities.
Japanese officials interviewed 16 of such women in 1993 at South Korea’s request as part of an investigation that led to the apology by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. The apology, known as “the Kono statement”, acknowledged many women were forced into prostitution for Japan’s wartime military.
The report said Seoul urged Tokyo to show sincerity and acknowledge coercion to make an apology acceptable to South Koreans. The two countries agreed to keep secret their negotiations over the apology statement.
The report noted Ishihara had insisted Japan should never acknowledge all comfort women were forced. It said Japan was initially reluctant to meet the women due to fear it would create an uncontrollable and endless situation.
In 1995, Japan provided through a private fund 2 million yen ($20,000) each to about 280 women in the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea, and funded nursing homes and medical assistance for Indonesian and former Dutch sex slaves. In South Korea, seven women accepted the money out of more than 200 eligible recipients, following criticism of the private fund instead of official compensation.
Seoul has criticised Japan’s verification as a contradictory action, meaningless and unnecessary.
“The Japanese government should clearly know that action that again picks on the painful wound of the victims will never be forgiven by the international society,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kwang-il told reporters. He urged Japan to admit its responsibility and immediately propose a solution that the elderly victims can accept.
Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga reiterated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pledge not to revise the 1993 apology, saying that evaluation of the historical evidence should be left up to historians and scholars.
“Japan’s relations with South Korea are extremely important and we will try to explain this issue to gain understanding,” Suga said.
The United States counts both Japan and South Korea as key allies. The State Department said it took note of Suga’s statement and the Abe government’s position to uphold the apology.
“Because South Korea and Japan have so many common interests, it’s important they find a way to resolve the past in the most productive manner and look to the future on how they can work together on issues they share,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.
Relations are already strained in the region, and adding to the ire, the South Korean navy on Friday conducted live-fire exercises in seas near islands that are claimed by both countries. Top Japanese officials protested the drills, but South Korean officials said the exercises were routine and rejected Tokyo’s demands to cancel them.