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HONOLULU — What was he thinking? That is the question most Japan-watchers grappled with following Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s fumbled questions about the imperial Japanese government’s role in recruiting “comfort women” during World War II. His responses came close to undoing the progress he had made in restoring relations with China and South Korea, and threatened to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington.

The controversy began March 1 when Abe was asked about an Liberal Democratic Party group that wanted the government to revisit the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei. Kono acknowledging that “The then Japanese military was, directly and indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women” and that “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.”

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