In a political move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that he would not retract a 1993 apology towards the alleged 200,000 women – mostly Koreans – who were forced to work as sex slaves for military in Japan during World War II. This was the first time since Abe took office in December 2012 that he said his administration would uphold the apology.
The Kono Statement of 1993 gave frank admission that the military played a key role in requiring “comfort women” to serve as brothel workers for soldiers. In his declaration on Friday, Mr. Abe expressed regret and emotion in reaffirming the earlier apology. As part of his announcement, he also recognized the harm done by the Japanese military in the early 20th century.
Abe’s statements on Friday were unexpected from the right-wing Prime Minister, presenting him as more moderate on this historical issue that has divided Asia for over 100 years. In addition, he showed a shift from his pre-election stance, whereby he questioned whether Japan’s imperial military had, in fact, coerced women.
Some in Japan wonder why it took so long for Mr. Abe to reaffirm the apologies. Japanese officials suggested that the recent proclamation is part of a strategy for the Prime Minister to repair the relationship with South Korea. He may try to connect with South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, at an international summit meeting in the Netherlands this month to discuss nuclear security.
President Park had heretofore refused to meet with the Japanese Prime Minister until he reissued an apology for the brutal colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945. She had expressed concern that Japan was trying to dismiss past atrocities without sign of remorse. Ms. Park cited Germany’s repentance for its past wrongs as precedence for Japan’s renewed apology. Korea’s support is ever important to Japan today as an ally as Japan faces the challenge of China’s recent revival. In fact, President Park said that Japan would find itself isolated politically should it choose to renege on its earlier apology.
It is important for Japan to apologize to South Korea because most of the women who served as sex slaves during the war came from South Korea. Moreover, President Park is a strong advocate for women. To simply forget the past is untenable to Ms. Park, who as Korea’s first female president, pledged a “women’s revolution” when she came into office in December 2012. And, because of Ms. Park’s personal history in which her father – a prior president – was assassinated, it is essential that Abe uphold Japan’s promise.
Japan has not been more forceful with its apology because some nationalist lawmakers in Japan have said that to do so would disgrace the soldiers who died for Japan. They claim also that there is insufficient evidence to prove the claim. However, 16 women who were compelled to work in sexual servitude during the war testified in 1993, leading to the apology at that time. Appearing contrite, Japan’s Abe spoke of the importance of being humble before history.
Prime Minister Abe’s demeanor was welcomed by President Park. She stated that she was pleased that the 1993 apology was being upheld. She expressed that this would be an opportunity to ease the pain of the victims of Japan’s sex slaves during World War II.
By Fern Remedi-Brown