The sensitive debate over Japan’s wartime conduct was reignited Thursday when nationalist lawmakers demanded that the government recant its admission that the Japanese military forced women into sexual slavery, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed there is no evidence that it did.
But Abe also said the government would not revise or reopen debate on its 1993 apology to the victims, in which it acknowledged the Japanese military’s role in forcibly recruiting women and holding them in “comfort stations” against their will.
A group of about 120 lawmakers from Abe’s governing party want the prime minister to revise the official apology, which has become a pillar of Japanese diplomacy and a litmus test of its sincerity about atonement for war crimes.
The lawmakers claim there is no evidence to suggest the Japanese military was directly involved in coercing the women. They said they would present the government with a petition next week demanding a rewrite of the apology, which they consider a stain on Japan’s national honor.
On Thursday, Abe told reporters in his Tokyo office that he shared the belief that there was no direct proof of the military’s involvement.
“The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion,” he said.
But Abe also said he would stick by his pledge to parliament last October that he and his government would abide by previous admissions of Japan’s responsibility for the suffering caused by its occupation of swaths of Asia. In 1993, the government offered a “sincere apology and remorse” for the confinement of the women for sexual slavery and acknowledged that the Japanese military “directly or indirectly” was responsible for maintaining these “comfort stations.”
Most historians and Japan’s own government inquiries have concluded that the military worked with private contractors to force about 200,000 women from across Asia to provide sex to its troops. Many of the surviving victims have said that the 1993 apology did not go far enough, and some have continued to seek compensation in Japanese courts.
Meanwhile, nationalist politicians and academics have continued to press their claim that the women were professional prostitutes.
The conservative lawmakers are not contesting the existence of “comfort stations,” only the assertion of a military role in their management. But critics inside and outside Japan contend that the move is an insidious attempt to chip away at the international consensus over Japanese war guilt and war crimes.
The issue is awkward for Abe, who must balance the demands of his conservative base with a Japanese national interest that requires better relations with China and South Korea, two countries that nurse raw wounds from living under Japanese occupation. Abe visited the capitals of both countries during his first month in office and received what aides describe as a private lecture from South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on the importance of acknowledging Japan’s past crimes.
But Abe comes from the conservative wing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, part of a new generation of politicians calling for a more assertive brand of nationalist politics. As a rising politician, he had questioned the validity of the Tokyo war crimes tribunal’s guilty verdicts as well as the historical consensus on the Japanese military’s role in enslaving the “comfort women.” He has muted those views since becoming prime minister in September.
Abe made clear that his first priority as prime minister was to repair Japan’s badly strained relations with its neighbors, which had been damaged by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan’s war dead, including several war criminals.
In October, Abe told parliament that he had not altered his personal views but merely accepted a broader definition of the concept of coercion.
That middle ground angered many in his conservative base, who accused him of bending to pressure from China. Their disillusionment has only grown as Abe’s approval ratings have continued a downward plunge into the mid-30% range.
“Some people want to put the prime minister on the spot, saying that once he became prime minister he shifted his views,” said Hiroshi Suzuki, an Abe spokesman. “But he is saying that while it may be true there’s no smoking gun, from a broader point of view the Japanese military was involved.
“He has no intention of diluting the content of the statement.”