Washington enters 'comfort women' debate

Posted in Japan | 30-Mar-07 | Author: Eli Clifton| Source: Asia Times

Former South Korean "comfort women", who served as sex slave for Japanese troops during World War II, wave butterfly-shaped placards during an anti-Japanese rally in Seoul.

WASHINGTON - Pressure has been growing in Washington in support of a bipartisan resolution calling on the government of Japan to acknowledge its role in forcing some 200,000 so-called "comfort women" into forced prostitution during World War II.

In a change from his previous stance, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a public apology on Monday, saying that he stood by the 1993 statement issued by then chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono acknowledging that "in many cases [the women] were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc, and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments".

"I am apologizing here and now as the prime minister, and it is as stated in the Kono Statement," said Abe when questioned by an opposition lawmaker.

Earlier this month, however, Abe had denied there were written records to confirm the sexual slavery of women during World War II.

Abe's political career was largely built on his promises to discover the whereabouts and seek the return of Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korea, more than two decades ago, to teach Japanese to North Korean spies. Criticism has been aimed at Abe for his failure to address Japan's own human-rights violations while demanding that North Korea acknowledge its injustices to Japan.

When asked about inconsistencies in Japan's willingness to admit its own human-rights failures, Abe told reporters, "That is a completely different matter. The issue of the abductees is an ongoing violation of human rights.

"The 'comfort women' issue is not ongoing. As for the abductees issue, the situation is that Japanese people who were kidnapped by North Korea have not been released," he said.

But Chejin Park, director of constituency services at the Korean-American Voters Council, said, "Look how many people were kidnapped [by North Korea] - only 17. But the Japanese kidnapped 200,000 women and mistreated them far worse.

"Of course the North Korean and comfort-women [issues are] related," he said. "They are both human-rights issues."

Groups calling for an official Japanese apology for human-rights violations against comfort women during the war have not been satisfied by Abe's apologetic statement, made in a parliamentary subcommittee rather than the full House of Representatives.

On January 31, Congressman Michael M Honda, a California Democrat, introduced legislation before the US House of Representatives calling on the Japanese government to apologize unambiguously and acknowledge the tragedy that more than 200,000 comfort women experienced at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army during the occupation of various Asian countries and Pacific islands.

On Tuesday, more than 100 organizations, led by Korean-American groups, called on the US Congress to support Honda's initiative, saying, "We call upon US citizens and the members of Congress to support House Resolution 121. The resolution is a matter of human rights, women's rights, truth and reconciliation."

Japan surprised some analysts at six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear-weapons program when it refused to discuss any improvements in relations until information about 17 kidnapped Japanese citizens is provided.

Abe has used the demand for the return of abducted Japanese citizens by North Korea as a rallying cry to prop up his weakening domestic support. Critics have called his stance hypocritical given that he has simultaneously, over the past month, issued statements pointing to the lack of written evidence that Japanese engaged in forced prostitution while demanding the return of Japanese citizens from North Korea.

The Honda legislation is attempting to leverage the close ties between the US and Japan to bring pressure on the US government to address this issue.

"The House resolution is non-binding, but it will have meaning, since the US is the country most closely aligned to Japan," said Park.

Abe is scheduled to visit the United States next month, but it is highly unlikely Honda's legislation will come up for vote before that visit.

Last June, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, a World War II veteran, blocked any plan former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi might have had to address a joint session of the US Congress because of his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which is dedicated to the spirits of soldiers and others who died fighting on behalf of the emperor of Japan.

(Inter Press Service)