OSAKA — The passage by the U.S. House of Representatives of a nonbinding resolution calling on Japan to apologize for forcing thousands of young women into sexual slavery during the war will further inflame Japan’s rightwing politicians and media, according to experts on Japan’s relations with the U.S.
But most agree it is unlikely to have a long-term effect on the broader bilateral ties.
The resolution, sponsored by California Rep. Mike Honda, has been the center of controversy since February when it was introduced. Although Japan admitted in 1993 that the government was involved in recruiting the women, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caused a stir when he claimed earlier this year there was no proof the government coerced the women into the brothels.
Abe’s remarks sparked a war of words between those in Japan who deny the government forced the women to work as sex slaves and those in the U.S. who see the issue as a historical one that Japan needs to address, both for moral reasons and to improve relations with its Asian neighbors.
Speaking to reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo Monday, Gerald Curtis, a professor of political science at Columbia University and one of America’s top experts on Japanese politics, said much of the blame for the controversy lies with Abe.
“The ‘comfort women’ issue has cost Japan in terms of its image in the U.S. It became a much bigger issue than it deserved to be. The problem is that Abe put fuel on the fire with his comments denying government or military involvement,” Curtis said, using the Japanese euphemism for the sex slaves.
Over the past six months, rightwing media commentators have produced a stream of newspaper and magazine articles denying government involvement, insisting the women were either professional prostitutes or participated of their own free will, and that the reason Honda was pushing the resolution was because he is an agent of anti-Japanese ethnic groups in the U.S.
In addition to rightwing commentators, Ambassador to the U.S. Ryozo Kato warned that the resolution’s passage would harm bilateral relations. But the Abe government insisted there would be no damage.
Most American experts agree bilateral relations will not be fundamentally changed. Some hope passage of the resolution will assist those in Japan who accept the historical facts.
“Ambassador Kato made a serious mistake in saying this kind of ‘historical memory’ issue would seriously harm U.S.-Japan relations, which are strong and convergent in so many areas,” Steven Clemons of the Washington-based New America Foundation and an expert on U.S.-Japan political relations, said in an e-mail interview with The Japan Times.
“If there is any impact of the resolution, it will empower those inside Japan who want a more liberal, intellectual-friendly nationalism to prevail over the Abe-led, history-whitewashing, hawkish nationalism that has become prevalent in Japan’s high government circles,” Clemons added.
Haruki Wada, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo and a leading Japanese expert on the sex slave issue, agrees.
“I don’t think the passage of the resolution means there will be any damage to the Japan-U.S. relationship. However, it’s now a big political problem for the prime minister and those of his advisers who pushed him to deny the Japanese government’s involvement,” Wada said.
One expert who disagreed with the notion that there would be no negative impact is Yoneyuki Sugita, an American history professor at Osaka University of Foreign Studies.
“As Ambassador Ryozo Kato predicted, the resolution will damage U.S.-Japan relations. It may anger not only Japanese nationalists but also younger Japanese who have confidence in Japan as a major power. They may accuse the United States of interfering with Japan’s domestic affairs and start saying the U.S. should apologize for dropping the atomic bombs,” Sugita said.
Supporters of the U.S. House of Representatives resolution on Japanese wartime sex slavery were quick to praise its adoption, calling the development “a welcome move.”
Facing reporters near the Diet building, Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima said the government must face the motion sincerely and vowed her party would “take advantage of the power shift in the Upper House” to further advance the issue.
Lawyer Kunio Aitani, a corepresentative of the Center for Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility, also welcomed the resolution.
“It must be understood that the resolution was not intended to criticize Japan,” he said. “It is a display of concern by the American lawmakers on what Japan must do as a responsible member of the international society. Japan must face the issue with an earnest attitude.”
Aitani said his group, along with Violence Against Women in War Network Japan and Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace, submitted a proposal to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requesting that the government abide by the demand and apologize for the sexual exploitation of women in the Asia-Pacific region during the war.
Japan Action Network for the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery, which comprises 17 human rights groups supporting the former “comfort women,” released a statement saying many of its corresponding activist organizations in Asia, including the Asian Center for Women’s Human Rights in the Philippines, have commended the U.S. resolution.