Nearly 200 scholars have signed a statement urging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to renew apologies for the country’s imperialist past and offer to compensate former “comfort women,” victims of its wartime brothel system.
The move comes as the nationalist Abe prepares a statement he is expected to deliver in August to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. It is being closely watched for any sign of backsliding on previous Japanese apologies.
The scholars included experts on Japanese and Korean history. The statement, released Monday, implores Abe to repeat his predecessors’ explicit apologies for Japanese violence.
The statement, which was also signed by dozens of journalists, lawyers and rights activists, says Abe’s announcement “must reaffirm that invasion and colonial control caused harm and pain to neighbor countries . . . and it must express renewed sentiments of regret and apology.”
It says Japan must face up officially to its responsibility for the sexual enslavement of thousands of females, an issue at the heart of the bitter enmity between Japan and South Korea, from where most of the women came.
“We emphasize (the need for a) resolution of the comfort women issue at this time, as the relationship between Japan and South Korea has been strained,” said one of the organizers, Haruki Wada, a historian and professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo. “We hope Prime Minister Abe will reflect our voices in his statement.”
Sitting prime ministers offered explicit apologies for Japan’s colonial rule and aggression on the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the war’s end, but Abe has hinted he is unlikely to repeat that — saying instead he wants to issue a “forward-looking” statement.
That sentiment has caused disquiet among Japanese liberals and anger in Beijing and Seoul, which insist Tokyo has not made amends for the war.
Japan offered an apology to the former comfort women in 1993 — the words of which remain government policy — but campaigners accuse Abe of playing down any official role in the comfort women system by the country or its military.
“A renewed effort is called for from the government of Japan” in taking steps “toward the 50 or so surviving victims,” the scholars’ statement says.
A similar statement signed by several hundred academics was publicized last month. Weeks later, 16 Japanese academic societies — including the Historical Science Society of Japan — issued a statement echoing the same sentiments.
Mainstream historians say tens of thousands of girls and women, mostly from the Korean Peninsula but also from other parts of Asia, were systematically raped by Japan’s Imperial forces in military brothels.
Japanese conservatives, however, dispute the historians’ numbers and claim no official documents prove government involvement in the system. They also claim the females were common prostitutes engaged in a commercial exchange.
They have argued that memories of the survivors cannot be trusted and are highly politicized in an issue that serves as one of the main geopolitical fault lines running through East Asia.
Abe has said he stands by previous pronouncements but questions the need for Japan to repeatedly apologize for events more than seven decades ago.