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U.S. lawmaker pushes Japan to treat ‘comfort women’ as human rights issue

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

A key member of the U.S. Congress who is pressing the Japanese government to issue a thorough apology for the wartime “comfort women” system urged Tokyo on Thursday to view the matter as a human rights issue, not as a political spat between nations.

“The comfort women issue is not one of pitting Japan against South Korea. There are fewer than 100 former comfort women survivors. Japan needs to offer a formal and unequivocal apology and memorialize the issue in its textbooks,” Mike Honda, a Democratic congressman from California’s Silicon Valley area, said during a telephone news conference.

Honda was behind a U.S. House of Representatives nonbinding resolution in July 2007 that called on Japan to formally acknowledge and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for the military’s coercion of young women into sexual slavery during its colonial and wartime occupation of Asia and Pacific islands from the 1930s to the end of World War II.

Last month, Honda wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry requesting a meeting with State Department officials to discuss the 2007 resolution. This came after he secured language in the 2014 budget bill urging Kerry to encourage Japan to address the resolution.

So far there has been a lot of talk but no sign from the U.S. that it will formally raise the issue with Japan anytime soon. Honda said there are no plans to introduce another resolution on the issue.

U.S. congressional support for pressing the comfort women issue is mixed at best. Many representatives prefer to focus on bilateral trade or the Trans-Pacific Partnership. There is also concern in and out of Washington that U.S. pressure could lead to Japanese demands that the U.S., in turn, apologize for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo.

Asked about Japanese right-wing denials of the comfort women issue, Honda, a Japanese-American who was interned as a child during World War II, said his purpose is only to move the Japanese government to do the right thing.

“As (the Spanish philosopher) George Santayana said, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” he said.

Honda’s calls for Japan to settle the comfort women issue came as South Korea’s government stepped up unprecedented international pressure on Japan over the issue. In a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se criticized efforts in Japan to revise the 1993 comfort women apology statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, saying that without repenting the past, there is no future.

On Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed regret at Yun’s speech, saying Japan will continue to explain its position, possibly at the same U.N. session Yun addressed.