A government panel has reported that some parts of the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono concerning the “comfort women” at Japan’s wartime frontline brothels were the product of diplomatic negotiations between Tokyo and Seoul. Still, the panel’s findings do not change the basic thrust of the Kono statement, in which Japan expressed its apology for putting large numbers of women — mostly Asian and many from Korea, then under Japan’s colonial rule — into sexual servitude for Japanese troops against their will before and during World War II.
If the government is to uphold the 1993 statement, as it says it will, then the Abe administration needs to do what the statement says Japan will do and make proactive efforts to settle the long-running dispute, instead of repeatedly attempting to play down the nation’s responsibility for the ordeal of the women forced into wartime sexual slavery.
The five-member panel led by former prosecutor-general Teiichi Tadaki, in reviewing the process in which the Kono statement was issued by the administration of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, said that Japanese and South Korean diplomats negotiated the wording of the text before the statement was released in August 1993, including expressions pertaining to the involvement of the Japanese military in the operation of the frontline brothels. In the talks that were supposed to be kept under wraps under a mutual accord, South Korea requested that the statement make clear that the women were recruited against their will, the panel said. It also said the Japanese government did not make further inquiries or fact-checking to back up the testimonies of the 16 former comfort women from South Korea who it interviewed.
At the same time, Tadaki said that Japan “did not admit what it cannot admit” in the statement. Nobuo Ishihara, who as deputy chief Cabinet secretary under Miyazawa was involved in the making of the statement, was quoted in the media as saying the report’s findings do not negate what Japan said in 1993 on the issue.
The 1993 statement says the frontline brothels, called “comfort stations,” were established at the request of Japanese military authorities, who also were involved directly or indirectly in their management and transfer of the women to such establishments. “The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military” and “in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments,” the statement says.
However, resentment has lingered within Japan — particularly among conservative elements — that the Kono statement tarnished Japan’s national dignity by acknowledging and apologizing for the forceful recruitment of the women even though no hard evidence, such as official documents, has turned up to prove its military was responsible for such acts. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during his first stint in office in 2007, adopted a Cabinet position that no evidence has been found to prove the Japanese military itself forcibly took the women to the frontline brothels. Just before he returned to the helm of government in 2012, Abe said the Kono statement disgraced Japan and that he would issue a “new statement” on the issue.
It is obvious that the Abe administration was intending to cast doubts over the credibility of the Kono statement when it ordered a review of the process that led to its creation earlier this year — even though Abe and his Cabinet members later stopped referring to the possibility of changing the statement itself, apparently in the face of pressure from the United States to avoid a deeper schism in Tokyo-Seoul ties.
The panel’s review indicates that at least part of the 1993 statement reflected political decisions aimed at resolving the bitter issue between the two countries. It does not, however, overturn the Japanese government’s apology for the women’s wartime ordeal and its acknowledgment of the military’s involvement in their ordeal.
Following the release of the review’s outcome, the Abe administration repeated that it would not change the Kono statement. If that’s the case, then the administration should wholly commit itself to what Japan said in the statement, and seek to repair ties with South Korea that have been strained at least in part by its attempt to question the stance of past Japanese governments on this matter.