At Harvard, Abe sticks to Kono message when pressed on ‘comfort women’ issue


Staff Writer

Facing an audience Monday at Harvard University in Boston, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to dodge the politically explosive issue of wartime “comfort women” by reaffirming his earlier stance upholding a key 1993 government apology for their ordeal.

“Comfort women” is the euphemism Japan used to refer to females who were forced to work at Japanese wartime military brothels in the 1930s and 1940s.

During a question and answer session after Abe’s speech on the Japanese economy, a Harvard sophomore asked him if he denies that the Japanese government and military were directly involved in forcing “hundreds of thousands of women” into “sexual slavery.”

Abe didn’t directly answer the question, but said he upholds the landmark 1993 apology by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono.

“When it comes to the comfort women issue, my heart aches when I think about those people who were victimized by human trafficking, who were subjected to immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description,” Abe told the audience through an interpreter.

“My feeling is no different from my predecessors,” he said at the event, which the university streamed live online.

Abe was repeating his earlier remarks on comfort women almost word for word, apparently trying to carefully navigate the political minefield surrounding the issue.

When asked what steps Japan should take to reduce diplomatic tension in the Asia-Pacific region, Abe said Japan “has steadily tread on the path of a peace-loving nation” based on “deep remorse regarding World War II.”

Abe has denied that Japanese government authorities or the military forcibly or directly recruited females for the brothels, apparently trying to emphasize that task was carried out by private-sector operators who mainly recruited females from the Korean Peninsula for Japan’s wartime military brothels.

Speaking to the audience at Harvard, however, Abe did not bring up his pet discussion on how the females were brought to the “comfort stations.”

Instead he stressed that he upholds the Kono statement, as has prime ministers who came before him.

Abe is set to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington on Wednesday. His speech there is likely to be provide a preview of the statement he will issue in August to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Many leaders around the world are keen to hear whether Abe’s address to Congress will touch on Japan’s wartime atrocities and colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Abe is widely regarded as a historical revisionist who has tried to play down Japan’s liability for its wartime misdeeds in the 1930s and ’40s.

He and his aides appear to be trying to dispel or at least dilute this image while he is in the United States.

In the speech he delivered at Harvard before the question and answer session, Abe said he was determined to carry out structural reforms to make Japan’s economy more productive.

He also emphasized that he is trying to improve the social status of women in Japan and encourage more of them to enter the workforce.

Abe pointed out that he tapped women for two of the top three executive posts of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and is urging industry leaders to promote more women to management positions.

Hiring more women will improve the performance of those companies, Abe argued.

“I often say that had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Brothers and Sisters, they would still be around,” Abe said, drawing laughter from the audience.

  • billjames

    sb; Japan still teaches High School students that Japan was justified and right to wage WWII. It is disgusting

    • Robert H.

      billjames, I have no idea where you got that idea. I am originally from the states but I attended a public school in Japan because my family took a job there. We were taught that the WW II was a huge mistake caused by Japan, and should not be legitimatised or glorified. It’s disgusting that you criticize another country and its education system without any knowledge.

    • J.P. Bunny

      ???? What books were you looking at?

  • montaigne1

    I wonder if Abe will now pen a letter to the Harvard sophomore telling him/her to be ‘fair’ and ‘unbiased’ with any future questions.

    • TomokoHasegawa

      More likely he will send over a few guys in suits to the dean of Harvard who they will accuse of being on China’s payroll, like he did with the most respected German newspaper the other day.

    • J.P. Bunny

      Surprised he actually allowed himself to attend a function where untamed people were allowed to actual questions.

  • TomokoHasegawa

    It’s quite rich coming from Abe of all people to complain about the lack of opportunities for women in US companies.

    • Ernest Schaal

      The taunting of women legislators by the LDP show how little sincerity the have in their talk of the need of more opportunities for women. Hyprocrisy thy name is LDP

  • Liars N. Fools

    It is nice for Abe Shinzo to display the much nicer Akie-san to soften his image, but in the end Abe Shinzo heads an administration that denies responsibility for war time sexual slavery and which has right wing extremist women ministers like Takaichi, Yamatani, and Arimura as the true face of the Abe Shinzo version of empowerment.

  • Richard Solomon

    Abe speaks out of both sides of his mouth! He tells the Harvard audience that he holds to the Kono statements and that his ‘heart aches’ over how the Comfort Women were treated.

    Meanwhile, he denies that the Japanese military/government had anything to do with the manner in which these women were enslaved. His Education Ministry issues new textbooks which do not even disclose these events to Japanese youth studying history. And his Foreign Ministry pressures publishers and authors in the USA whose books even mention the issue of Comfort Women. NHK Newsline refers to them as ‘so called Comfort Women’ and never mentions that they were forced into sexual slavery during WW II. Did anyone in the audience at Harvard point out these contradictions?

  • John C

    This article doesn’t mention that over 100 Harvard students held a demonstration protesting his visit to Harvard. 18 Harvard student groups signed an open letter demanding that Abe acknowledge Japan’s direct involvement in operating the comfort stations. Abe entered through the back door to avoid the protesters and the people in the audience were asked to surrender water bottles to prevent anyone from throwing them at Abe during his speech.

    • GIJ

      Wasn’t aware of this protest at Harvard until you wrote this comment. The protest was led in part by one Claudine Cho, a Korean-American woman and member of the Harvard Class of 2015. Ethnic Koreans like her are already a big part of daily life in the United States, and they will only grow in influence as significant numbers of them graduate from top universities and move into positions of power.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    Just out of curiosity, what do American students learn about US military involvement in prostitution around the now closed Subic Bay base in the Philippines or CIA involvement in drug trafficking in South East Asia during the Vietnam War?

    Abe should model his apology on the US apology for the Vietnam War or its invasion of Iraq.

    Or, perhaps he could model his apology for Japanese imperialism on those of France and Britain for their colonial empires.

    • GIJ

      “Just out of curiosity, what do American students learn about US military involvement in prostitution around the now closed Subic Bay base in the Philippines?”

      I don’t know the answer to your rhetorical question (rhetorical because I’m sure you’ve already done some research and have the answer), but I do know that Filipino-Americans and Filipino citizens themselves are nowhere near as vocal about protesting these issues as Korean-Americans and Korean citizens are about protesting official Japanese prime ministerial statements about the comfort women and other matters dating from the 1910-45 period of Japanese rule over Korea.

      This is a critical issue now facing Japan in its relations with the United States. Korean-Americans are a significant constituency, as much a “headache” for the government of Japan as Armenian-Americans are for politicians in Turkey who wish to continue denying the World War I era genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

      Students of ethnic Korean background make up a disproportionately large number of undergraduates at top U.S. universities like Harvard. Basically every top university in the U.S. now has some kind of Korean-American students association. Japanese politicians like Abe who speak at such universities may feel like they’ve stepped into a lion’s den, akin to speaking before a bunch of students at Seoul National University. He does deserve some credit for speaking before such a potentially hostile audience.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        Full agreement from me. I would only add that some American politicians such as Mike Honda also play to the Chinese-American voting block on this issue.

      • GIJ

        I don’t think Chinese-American voters care much about the comfort women issue, but I could be wrong. Honda is a politician and knows his congressional district very well, so he has his reasons to do what he does. That is the nature of ethnic politics in the United States, for better or for worse.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        Logically, it should not be a Chinese-American issue, but it was in 2007. It has been used very explicitly by Chinese-American pressure groups in the US to argue that Japan is not qualified for a permanent seat on the UNSC. I have some very direct and open statements on this issue.

        Mike Honda is, as his campaign contribution records show, very dependent on Chinese-American support. He has received a number of awards and appointments from Chinese-American organizations.

        He has also been criticized for excusing human rights abuses in China.

        If nothing else, he appears to be an old-fashioned social welfare trade union supporting Democrat with essentially zero knowledge of foreign affairs.

      • GIJ

        Well, the whole world effectively excuses human rights abuses in China through foreign direct investment, trade, tourism, the purchasing of manufactured goods made there, and other activities that contribute every day to the growth in power of the government in Beijing. Honda is hardly alone in that category. Business-oriented conservatives in Japan who support Abe would probably like to see him tone down the criticism of China and have likely advised him to do so.

        I’m not sure why you felt the need to mention Honda’s support of social welfare provisions and trade unions. In a country where corporations are people, it is nice to know that at least one member of Congress isn’t bought and paid for by the heirs to the Walmart fortune.

        The unhappy back and forth in this case between interest groups lobbying on behalf of Japanese and Americans appears set to go on for some time. Voters in Yamaguchi Prefecture’s 4th district will keep re-electing Abe to the Diet, and voters in California’s 17th Congressional district are likely to keep sending Honda back to the House.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        No problem with his support for unions and social welfare. I just think he should stick to what he knows and stay away from foreign affairs.

    • Jonathan Fields

      False equivalence. The point isn’t that the students don’t learn about it. The point is that it isn’t denied, reframed as ‘just,’ or blamed on Koreans.

      If a US official said, “actually, all those guys selling drugs were Koreans dressed up like CIA operatives” then you’d have a valid comparison.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        Some people in Japan say something approximating what you claim but such assertions are hardly mainstream. Japan is at least as much a democracy as the US and people are at least as free to say dumb things as in the US. And, some do.

  • Chad

    I’m surprised by how many people side with the Harvard students given that they are talking about incidents that went on long before they were born.

    • GIJ

      I’m not sure why this surprises you. I’m sure many people side with Harvard or other university students who wish to talk about, for example, the Armenian genocide of 100 years ago.

      • Chad

        The kid that asked the question was Korean, the protestors for the Prime Ministers visit are all Korean and Chinese. If they are from the past generation that actually lived through the ordeal, I can understand their continued hatred, but most of these folks are from the current generation who weren’t even there. They look very ignorant. They act like they were the only group of people that faced an atrocity, when there were plenty of other incidents like the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust. They need to get over it, because they sound like the sports player that keeps on whining to the media about how his former team traded or cut him.

  • Ekadish Bal

    I dont understand why i see news articles to do with this over and over again on this website. Why is the prime minister of japan being harassed over something that happened years ago, much before he could have had any part in it?!! If getting apologies from political leaders for what their country did years ago really helped anyone then im sure there is no country that wouldn’t have a litany of apologies to make! I find this fuss over comfort women and over making apologies for war crimes surreal. I am Indian and there is enough that the Britishers did in India that they would make them owe us several apologies! Conversely, Indians must have done many wrongs to other people of other nationalities as well over the years! But thankfully most people here see the pointlessness of rehashing them and demanding apologies.

    • GIJ

      “Why is the prime minister of japan being harassed over something that happened years ago, much before he could have had any part in it?”

      There are several complex issues at work here. First, Abe himself is the grandson of a politician (Kishi Nobusuke) who was intimately involved in Japan’s imperial and wartime activities of the 1930s and 1940s. Like a lot of hereditary politicians (think of all the corrupt, venal Nehru-Gandhi clan members in India), Abe appears to care more about upholding his family legacy than most other things. Abe, all the Bush family members, the president of South Korea, and too many others out there are pretty good arguments against voting for 2nd or 3rd generation politicians who tend to have weird psychological complexes about their forebears.

      There was a brief period in the mid-1990s, right after the Cold War ended, when Japan was led by left-of-center politicians before rightists came back. Murayama, the country’s only socialist prime minister since 1948, led the country from 1994 to 1996 and issued a profuse apology to Asians on the occasion in 1995 of the 50th anniversary of WWII’s end. It was well received in China and South Korea.

      Abe was a young politician 20 years ago, and by all accounts he never really accepted how left-leaning leaders in Japan at the time apologized as they did. This accounts for a good deal of the suspicion people feel towards him.

      • Ekadish Bal

        I see. That sheds some light on the issue. But do you really believe an apology in such cases is worth anything? Is it demanded just to discern the politician’s stand on an issue? Does it really do anything more?