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HOME  > Past issues  > 2007 March 21 - 27  > Government position on wartime sex slave issue undermines its position on North Korea’s abduction issue
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2007 March 21 - 27 [SOCIAL ISSUES]

Government position on wartime sex slave issue undermines its position on North Korea’s abduction issue

March 26, 2007
“[Prime Minister] Abe was unable to conjure the same sympathy and moral outrage over the horrors inflicted on the thousands of women at the hands of the Japanese military,” wrote the Los Angels Times on March 18. Pointing out that the Japanese government “berates North Korea” over North Korean abduction of Japanese nationals but “denies coercion in World War-II era brothels,” the paper wrote that people who support the Japanese government position with respect to the abduction issue are confused.

Rapidly increasing in the international community is the criticism of the Japanese government over having such a double standard concerning human rights issues while loudly complaining about human rights violations by other countries against Japanese nationals. It is insensitive to similar violations by Japan against foreigners, at a time when the Japanese government emphasis on the abduction issue as an important international human rights issue has become widely acknowledged by the international community. The abduction issue must be solved, and by the same token, the wartime sex slavery issue must not be left untouched.

The international community now regards the wartime sex slavery (so-called “comfort women”) issue and the abduction issue as interrelated.

The Boston Globe in its March 8 editorial wrote, “Although Abe’s ardor to revive pride in Japan’s past may have initially been effective in domestic politics, the effect abroad is to isolate Japan at a bad time.” Pointing out that Abe’s remarks “isolate Japan,” the editorial compared Japan’s reactions over the sex slave issue with North Korea’s attitude towards the abduction issue.

Shortly before meeting with Prime Minister Abe in March, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who was in Japan to establish the security relationship between the two countries, said, “[A]ny suggestion that there was not coercion is completely repudiated by me and it’s been completely repudiated by other Allied countries” (The Australian, March 12).

Serious question about Japanese government understanding of human rights

The criticism that Japan fails to truly reflect on its past war of aggression has so far come from Asian countries that were invaded and placed under colonial rule by Japan.

This time around, the criticism of the Japanese government comes from the United States, spearheaded by the Congress and media, and has spread in European countries as well. Taking the Japan-U.S. alliance into consideration, the U.S. Congress and media used to tend to avoid any straightforward criticism of Japan. The recent successive and severe criticism of Japan shows that this wall of silence is collapsing.

Since 1993, successive Japanese governments have dealt with the wartime sex slave issue from the standpoint as expressed in a statement issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei. This statement admitted, “The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.” It further states, “In many cases they were recruited against their will, through coaxing coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments.” Stating, “They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere,” the statement expresses “sincere apology and remorse.”

Although the Kono Statement falls short of satisfying the countries affected, even Japan’s “allies”, including the United States, are demanding that Prime Minister Abe show by his deeds a position that abides by the statement.

However, Abe said at a press conference on March 1, “The fact is that there is no evidence to prove the ‘coercion’ as defined in the Kono Statement.” This remark provoked criticism that the prime minister is backpedaling on his declared position to stand by the Kono Statement. The prime minister further enraged the international community by stating at the March 5 House of Councilors Budget Committee meeting, “We will not make an apology” over the issue even if the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a resolution urging him to do so.

Amid the growing criticism, a written government statement issued under the name of Prime Minister Abe on March 16 stated, “In the materials discovered by the government, no account was found directly indicating that the military or authorities had forcibly taken them away.” Referring to this government statement, the New York Times on March 17 carried an article entitled, “Japan repeats denial of role in World War II sex slavery” that criticized the prime minister by quoting U.S. Ambassador to Japan J. Thomas Schieffer as saying, “I take the word of the women that testified,” adding, “I think they were coerced to engage in prostitution. That means they were raped by the Japanese military at that point in time.”

The written statement has been taken as Abe’s rejection of the Kono Statement and a challenge to international opinion. Without coercion by the military, the massive and continuous human rights violations in areas colonized by Japan of women forced into sex slavery and raped by the military could not have taken place.

The Japanese government is now faced with criticism that can be summed up as follows: “While claiming ‘diplomacy to pursue the universal values of human rights and democracy,’ the Abe government is interested only in the human rights of the Japanese people, despite the fact that the wartime sex slave issue and the North Korea’s abduction issue are serious human rights violations. Unless it attaches as much importance to the sex slavery issue as the abduction issue, Japan will not gain international support over the abduction issue.”

In short, the double standard that the Japanese government holds in dealing with human rights violations is now called into question.

This issue affects the future of Japan-North Korea talks

Last month, the six-party talks held in Beijing adopted a joint document in which the parties agreed on the first step towards making North Korea give up its nuclear programs and on setting up working groups to discuss issues that includes Japan-North Korea relations. The two countries are to discuss pending bilateral issues, including the abduction, the settlement of the past, and the normalization of relations.

The wartime sex slavery issue that is drawing international attention more than before is directly connected with the issue for Japan to settle the past with North Korea. North Korea has a bitter memory that during Japan’s occupation many Korean women were taken to battlefields as sex slaves. The Japanese government is strongly called upon to sincerely face up to its past in order to advance the settlement of the past and to bring progress in the negotiations, including the abduction issue. Otherwise, international understanding over the abduction issue cannot be gained.

Understanding and support by the international community is indispensable in settling the abduction issue. Therefore, the Japanese government has been calling on the U.S. government and other members of the international community for such support.

However, the increasing criticism of the Japanese government for its double standard regarding human rights created a setback in gaining such understanding and support.

The March 22 issue of the International Herald Tribune commented that by refusing to make an apology for the wartime sex slavery issue the Abe government “will have a hard time selling its commitment to universal human rights” in its diplomacy that works as a double-edged blade.

Even U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer, who has encouraged the U.S. government to be concerned with the abduction issue, commented that Abe’s remarks, if they are taken in the United States as “backing away” from the 1993 Kono Statement, would create a disastrous effect. This is a warning that Prime Minister Abe’s response to the wartime sex slavery issue may rob Japan of its moral basis to deal with the abduction issue.

Japan must respond to human rights issues
in accordance with international standards


Prime Minister Abe in an NHK interview on March 11 said that he will stand by the Kono Statement and that he is expressing sincere apology to former comfort women for their traumas and great sufferings.

The U.S. media, however, ignored this statement, thereby sending a strong message that they refuse to allowing a perfunctory comment to forgive his controversial remarks. The prime minister is keeping his mouth shut because, he said, any remark will cause misunderstanding and be unproductive, but such an attitude is absurd.

The United States is urging Prime Minister Abe to make an official apology and to officially and clearly reject the argument that the wartime sex slavery did not exist as stated in the House of Representatives resolution. The U.S. media shares this view.

Today’s situation is serious in that the international community is raising the fundamental objection that the Japanese government’s perception of human rights reneges on the principle of universal applicability. The Japanese government must respond to this objection in a serious manner and address human rights issues in compliance with international standards.
- Akahata, March 26, 2007

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