Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has again deepened international suspicion that it aims to revise history despite repeated denials.
The Foreign Ministry has deleted a page from its website that carried a 1995 appeal for donations to a government-linked fund for former “comfort women” forced to work at Japanese wartime military brothels.
The move drew immediate protest from the South Korean government, which issued a written statement by a spokesperson at its Foreign Ministry, because it came at the demand of a right-leaning lawmaker who has called for the retraction of the government’s apology, made in 1993.
A key part of the appeal read: “Particularly brutal was the act of forcing women, including teenagers, to serve the Japanese armed forces as ‘comfort women,’ a practice that violated the fundamental dignity of women. No manner of apology can ever completely heal the deep wound inflicted on these women both emotionally and physically.”
Hiroshi Yamada, secretary-general of Jisedai no To (Party for Future Generations), said those lines erroneously suggested that Japanese authorities had directly and forcibly recruited women for military brothels.
“This has been posted on a government website, which is a big problem,” Yamada said during a Diet session on Oct. 6.
“The education ministry, too, might have a document like this, which implies forced recruitment,” Yamada added. “We need to search through the ministries” and remove them.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida did not challenge Yamada directly, only saying the ministry would consider Yamada’s demand. The page disappeared last Friday.
During a news conference on Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the ministry had deleted the page on the grounds that it was a document produced not by the government but by key proponents of the Asian Women’s Fund. The fund’s website still carries the missing text.
“On the (ministry’s) website . . . pages produced by the government and others were intermingled. We have organized (the website) so that it would not give any unnecessary misunderstanding,” Suga said.
He added that the removal was “in its nature, just a technical thing.”
Asked whether Tokyo still admits that “comfort women” were coerced to work at the military brothels, Suga said only that Abe’s government upholds the 1993 government apology, issued by the then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono.
Suga’s attitude seems to reflect Abe’s strategy of ambiguity on a sensitive issue, in order to keep nationalist lawmakers on board but avoid outright criticism from the international community.
Abe and Suga have repeatedly said the government upholds the Kono statement. Abe has also said he is “deeply pained to think of the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering, a feeling I share equally with my predecessors.”
But he does not contest allegations made publicly by lawmakers such as Yamada, apparently believing that support from right-leaning politicians represents valuable political capital.
Conservative, nationalistic lawmakers such as Abe were long considered a political minority in Japan during the Cold War. But in 1997, young right-leaning lawmakers formed an association that called for reforming the history curriculum taught in state schools, including a revision of the “comfort women” issue. Abe served as the director general of the group.
The group has become “a springboard for conservatives like us to go mainstream,” Abe told magazine Rekishi-Tu in 2011. “I take pride in changing the conservatives in the Liberal Democratic Party.”
Mainstream Japanese historians agree that as far as the Korean Peninsula is concerned, women were rounded up for brothel work mainly by private brokers, not by the Japanese civilian or military authorities.
Thus many right-leaning politicians in particular those belonging to Abe’s association, try to play down Japan’s overall responsibility for the misery of the women by focusing their discussion on the process of recruitment.
But the Kono statement admitted that “comfort stations” were set up and operated under the orders of the Japanese military, and that Japan has some moral responsibility for the hardship of women “who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds.”
The Kono statement also says that “in many cases (women) were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.”