Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pursuing dead-end diplomacy in East Asia at precisely a time when Japan most needs to shore up relations with neighbors so as to position itself well for China’s ongoing rise. Alas, he doesn’t grasp that regional reconciliation over history should be his calling card, not his nemesis.

August 4 marks the 20th anniversary of the Kono Statement, the apology for the “comfort women” system issued on behalf of the Japanese government in 1993 by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. That system of wartime sexual slavery involved tens of thousands of teenage girls, mostly from the then Japanese colony of Korea. It started in 1932 and lasted until 1945.

The government had always denied the system even existed until the inconvenient discovery in January 1992 by Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a professor at Chuo University, of archival documents in the Defense Agency Library. In two days of digging, he found what the Japanese government had been unable to locate for decades — documents proving the military’s direct role in managing the network of wartime brothels known as “comfort stations.”

Within days of Yoshimi’s discovery, Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Kato issued an official apology, declaring: “We cannot deny that the former Japanese army played a role” in abducting and detaining the “comfort girls.” He continued: “We would like to express our apologies and contrition.”

Soon after that, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa issued an apology to South Korean President Roh Tae Woo and also apologized in a speech to the South Korean National Assembly.

Then came the Kono Statement, which followed a government investigation that drew on archival documents and the testimony of 16 former comfort women. It included the following admission: “Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day. The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.”

Ever since, the Kono Statement has been Japan’s official stance on this historical controversy — a stance that infuriates Abe and like-minded conservatives who have continually disparaged it.

Why has Abe repeatedly vandalized Japan’s wartime and colonial history? He arrogantly dismissed Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s 2010 apology to Koreans on the centenary of the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty; he bashed Prime Minister Tomoichi Murayama’s 1995 apology for Japanese aggression; he oversaw forced revisions of school textbooks in 2007 regarding the Battle of Okinawa that implicated Imperial armed forces in instigating collective suicides by Okinawans; and he has worked to overturn the Kono Statement.

Abe believes that the purpose of history is to nurture national pride — and this means airbrushing the bad bits. Of course, his spin-doctors now say he will refrain from further hit-and-run attacks on Japan’s shared history with Asia — even as he quibbles over what constitutes “aggression” and demonstrates no appetite or sincerity about promoting reconciliation in East Asia.

Abe is riled because the Kono Statement forthrightly acknowledges not only the role of Japan’s military in relation to comfort stations, but also that, “The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The Government study has revealed 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. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere. … their recruitment, transfer, control, etc., were conducted generally against their will, through coaxing, coercion, etc.”

The Kono Statement further resolves: “We shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history.”

But the evasions did not end.

In 2007, Abe’s demise began with his caviling over the degree of coercion used in recruiting comfort women.

Yoshimi criticizes Abe’s hair-splitting about coercion, pointing out that once they were recruited the girls had no freedom and were under strict military control.

As with Toru Hashimoto’s recent comments that appeared to justify the comfort-women system, Abe sparked a firestorm of international condemnation. More importantly, by trampling on the dignity of the comfort women, both he and Hashimoto have demonstrated a lack of contrition.

While these elite politicians have failed the test of history, Japanese public opinion has overwhelmingly rejected their antediluvian stance. The problem is that in East Asian perceptions, the Japanese people’s common sense is overshadowed by the shrill voices of these barking reactionaries who seek pride in shirking and shifting war responsibility.

Archival evidence regarding the comfort women is limited precisely because officials worked hard to destroy incriminating documents following Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. Nonetheless, enough have survived to demonstrate conclusively that the military and government were involved in recruiting women through deception and coercion, and in transporting the women to comfort stations established and maintained by military commanders. While private entrepreneurs were also involved, they were acting solely at the behest of the military.

The archives also reveal that daughters of men who opposed the kenpeitai (military police) were sent to front-line comfort stations as punishment.

One of the most incriminating documents is a notice written on March 4, 1938, by the adjutant to the chiefs of staff of the North China Area Army and Central China Expeditionary Force. Titled “Concerning the Recruitment of Women for Military Comfort Stations,” the document states that, “armies in the field will control the recruiting of women,” and that “this task will be performed in close cooperation with the military police or local police force of the area.”

The Kono Statement inspired both the Asia Women’s Fund (AWF), which operated from 1995-2007, and a revision of school textbooks. By 1997, all seven government-approved junior high school textbooks contained passages about the former sex slaves. As of 2007, however, only two did and currently none do so; but comfort women (jugun ianfu) are now mentioned in most high school textbooks.

The AWF was a deeply flawed initiative aimed at demonstrating Japanese contrition toward the former comfort women by providing small solatium and letters of apology from sitting premiers.

It was Japan’s first attempt to provide redress to individuals who suffered from Japanese aggression, but it was an equivocal gesture. The government created this quasi-nongovernment organization to disburse mostly public funds at arm’s length so as not to jeopardize its own legal position that all wartime claims have been resolved.

But half-hearted doesn’t cut it in matters of reconciliation, and only 364 comfort women accepted the token compensation.

Abe scores points with his support base by muddying Japan’s war responsibility and then having his mouthpieces offer reassurances — though this political expediency inevitably provokes China and both Koreas.

This uninspired Abe-plomacy prevents Japan from getting on with the imperative of responding constructively to the ongoing geopolitical power shift in China’s favor. Kono suggested a way forward — but Abe is lurching backward.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.