Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has kept a diplomatically low profile, particularly over historical issues, focusing instead on economic and other domestic matters ahead of the July Upper House election.
But if his Liberal Democratic Party fares well in the polls and adds an Upper House majority to the one it already commands in the Lower House, he may again attempt to push a nationalistic agenda.
A key focus will be his stance on the “comfort women,” the women and girls forced into sexual slavery in Japanese-occupied Asia during the war.
Following are basic questions and answers about the comfort women and the prime minister’s stance:
Whom does the term comfort women refer to?
Comfort women refers to females who were forced to provide sex at military brothels for the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. Most of them came from occupied Asian lands, including China, the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, present-day Indonesia and the Philippines, but from even Japan as well.
The term is a euphemism first used by the Japanese military. Many historians and activists in Asia now refer to them as “sex slaves” to reflect the harshness of their situation and inability to escape their plight.
No historical materials apparently remain to document their exact numbers. But Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a leading historian who unearthed a number of records on the females, estimates there were at least 50,000, on the basis of one female for every 100 Japanese troops, with the victims having a hypothetical replacement rate of about 1.5.
Some believe there were as many as 200,000 females placed into sexual servitude, but this figure is not backed up by existing records, according to Yoshimi.
Nor have any records been found breaking down the women by nationality.
However, there is one Imperial army document on sexually transmitted diseases suffered by Japanese soldiers in China up to 1940 that breaks down the females who infected them by nationality.
According to the army document, Koreans accounted for 51.8 percent, Chinese 36 percent and Japanese 12.2 percent. Yoshimi believes most of those were comfort women.
What’s the main point of contention?
Besides the lingering trauma and stigma the survivors have had to endure for decades, many former comfort women and their supporters, in particular those in South Korea, say the Japanese government has not yet offered a full apology and official compensation for their brutal experiences at the military brothels, or “comfort stations,” many of which were set up in China and Southeast Asia.
In 1993, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono for the first time admitted the responsibility of the Japanese military and other authorities “at times” in recruiting women “against their will” and forcing them to work at comfort stations set up by the military.
Tokyo, however, has maintained that all postwar compensation issues were settled by the 1965 Japan-South Korea basic treaty and an attached agreement, which literally stipulates that postwar compensation “is settled completely and finally.”
But the apology and compensation issue flared up again after August 2011, when the South Korean constitutional court ruled it is unconstitutional for Seoul not to help the former comfort women seeking compensation from the Japanese government.
Has Japan offered any official apology or compensation?
Japanese prime ministers have repeatedly offered what they termed official apologies, but critics have branded them as insincere. Meanwhile, compensation money was provided by a government-linked fund, but not directly by the government.
Thus many former comfort women in South Korea have refused to accept the money and letter of apology.
In 1995, the Japanese government set up the Asian Women’s Fund, which provided “atonement money” of ¥2 million per person from donations by Japanese citizens, and ¥1.2 million to ¥3 million “medical/welfare” support money from contributions from the government.
A letter of official apology, signed by Prime Ministers Ryutaro Hashimoto, Keizo Obuchi, Yoshiro Mori and Junichiro Koizumi, was sent to women who agreed to accept the money from 1996 through 2001.
Separately, since 1993, every prime minister has officially upheld the Kono statement, including Abe himself.
Some Japanese politicians and commentators have tried to play down the responsibility of the Japanese authorities and military, further offending the South Koreans and complicating the issue. What do they say?
Many right-leaning politicians and commentators have argued the comfort stations were no different from state-regulated brothels that existed in many other countries, including Japan itself, before and during the war years, when the rights of females were not protected as they are today in developed countries.
They have also claimed that private-sector brokers, not the Japanese military or government authorities, recruited females for the comfort stations.
The rightists reckon the females were professional prostitutes willing to work, or they were sold off by their impoverished parents to brokers.
Was recruiting outsourced?
Yoshimi and many mainstream historians also claim that as far as South Korea is concerned, it was private-sector brokers, not the military or government authority, that mainly rounded up women for the comfort stations.
But the military brothels were set up under instructions from the Japanese military, which regarded them as their “logistical facilities” to provide “comfort” to soldiers during wartime, Yoshimi said.
“In today’s terms, the military just ‘outsourced’ recruitment work to private-sector businesses, which were selected by the (Japanese) military or administrative authorities,” he said.
It is the Japanese military and administrative authorities that should be held directly liable for the women’s misery, he said.
In other parts of Asia, including China, the Philippines and Indonesia, the Japanese military directly “recruited” women and forced them to work in military brothels in some cases.
Has Abe maintained the same position as right-leaning politicians?
Apparently not, at least officially, although the difference is very subtle and often ignored by Western media.
During his first prime ministership, which ended in 2007, Abe caused a stir when he claimed no hard evidence had been found proving there was “forced recruitment” of women by the military or administrative authorities, throwing the focus on how the females were brought to the comfort stations.
Meanwhile, Western media have repeatedly reported that Abe has categorically denied there was any coercion in the military brothels, which helped to make his remarks contentious in South Korea, China and the U.S.
Why has he only focused on how the females were placed in the brothels?
Abe has said no historical materials have been found to show the military had forcibly or directly abducted hundreds of females in a systematic manner.
Japanese historians also agree Abe may be technically correct at least as far as the situation in present-day South Korea is concerned.
During past Diet sessions, Abe argued many people still believe the Imperial army carried out something like “human-hunting” to abduct a large number of females in South Korea. Abe claims the accounts are false, and, because they were put forward to “disgrace” Japan, they should be dismissed and the facts clarified.
Abe in particular pointed to allegations made by former Japanese soldier Seiji Yoshida, whose accounts were widely featured in media reports both at home and abroad in the early 1990s.
Yoshida claimed that he kidnapped hundreds of Korean females during the war, based on an official order from an Imperial army commander.
However, based on the accounts of locals, historians now generally agree that Yoshida’s account is most likely a fabrication. But the story got considerable attention, and was also mentioned in a high-profile report by U.N. human rights official Radhika Coomaraswamy that was submitted to the United Nations in 1996.
Regardless of how the victims were impressed into service, weren’t the females forced to provide sex for Japanese troops and is Abe denying this as well?
Abe has never denied the women were forced to work against their will.
“I feel heartbreaking pain when I think of (the comfort women) who suffered cruel experiences hard to describe with any words,” he told the Diet on Jan. 31.
But at the same time, Abe has rarely elaborated, saying only he officially upholds the 1993 Kono statement as the prime minister.
This attitude has only deepened suspicions that Abe is trying to focus on accounts that are technically deniable and play down the significance of the overall responsibility of the Japanese military and authorities.
Does Abe plan to revise the official stance and replace the 1993 Kono statement, as he indicated during the election campaigns last year?
Only Abe knows what his intentions are. Many are worried he will revise the official stance if the LDP wins big in the Upper House election and establishes a strong power base.
But Abe has given repeated assurances that he will not let the comfort women issue develop into a diplomatic or political row, and now no longer comments on whether he will consider replacing the 1993 statement.
“I’m no different from the prime ministers of the past. I don’t think this issue should be made into a political or diplomatic problem,” he told the Diet on Jan. 31.
Abe has also passed the buck to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, saying it is his duty to handle the issue because the 1993 statement was issued by a chief Cabinet secretary.
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