On ‘comfort women’ and Japan’s war history, Abe’s historical amnesia is not the way forward
Jeff Kingston says the anniversary of the Kono Statement, in which Japan apologised for its treatment of ‘comfort women’, is a reminder that the country must reckon sincerely with its past if it wants to build a new future with its neighbours
Yohei Kono, the chief cabinet secretary, affirmed that “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. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere … Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honour and dignity of many women.”
Abe is closely associated with a revisionist whitewashing of Japan’s shared past with Asia and since entering politics in 1993 has been active in various Diet groups lobbying for this agenda. He has persistently denounced and undermined the Kono Statement because the forthright reckoning it embraces is the antithesis of the revisionist history he stands for.
The Asian Women’s Fund (1995-2007), a quasi-state non-governmental organisation that provided solatia and letters of apology to former “comfort women” signed by sitting prime ministers, was an ill-fated gesture of atonement for the indignities inflicted that Kono also promised. Very few former “comfort women” agreed to take the money offered because it appeared that Japan was evading legal responsibility by channelling redress at arm’s length, a calibrated measure designed to protect Japan’s legal stance that all issues of compensation were resolved in the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations with South Korea that normalised relations.
The fund thus was a half-hearted effort towards reconciliation that fell well short of the grand gesture required. When the South Korean government offered former “comfort women” the equivalent redress if they shunned the Asian Women’s Fund, Tokyo felt betrayed.
Watch: South Korea, Japan reach landmark agreement to resolve ‘comfort women’ issue
Back in 2007, during his first stint as prime minister, Abe disavowed the Kono Statement by claiming disingenuously a lack of evidence. This comprehensive backsliding on history repudiates the spirit of the Kono Statement and closes the door it opened for Japan to advance reconciliation.
Like-minded conservatives complain that Japan’s numerous apologies have done little to assuage wartime grievances. Indeed, Japan has issued many apologies, but these gestures of remorse have also been belittled, renounced or disowned comprehensively. Little wonder that they have been so ineffective.
In 2010 when prime minister Naoto Kan issued a forthright apology to the Korean people for the traumas of Japanese colonial rule, Abe was quick to nullify any goodwill by denouncing Kan’s statement as “Baka!”(stupid) on NHK television. In 2015, Abe struck a back-room deal with Park to resolve the “comfort women” issue, but his failure to meet with any of the victims or offer a public apology showed a glaring lack of compassion.
However, prime minister Tomiichi Murayama’s warning against the perils of sanctimonious nationalism has apparently been forgotten.
At that time there was a consensus in Japan that moving towards future-oriented relations in Asia requires a forthright reckoning and unequivocal remorse, wisdom that is, lamentably, being ignored.
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan