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May 28, 2017

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Abe takes a good first step toward reconciliation

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave an answer to a question during a meeting of the Upper House Budget Committee last Friday, in which he said that his government would not revise the position on "comfort women" that previous Japanese administrations have held. He put to an end the fear that a review of the statements on sex slaves — euphemistically called "comfort women" — made by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993 and by Prime Ministers Tomiichi Murayama and Junichiro Koizumi in 1995 and 2005 respectively would lead to a further exacerbation of relations with South Korea and China.

Abe pointed out his Cabinet "upholds the position on the recognition of history outlined by the previous administrations in its entirety," adding "with regard to the comfort women issue, I am deeply pained to think of the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering, a feeling I share equally with my predecessors." He picked up the Kono statement in particular and quoted his Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshide Suga as stating it wouldn't be revised. In a previous press conference, Suga said no revision would be made, but the review would continue.

The Kono statement admits that the Japanese Imperial Army forced women in South Korea, China and Taiwan to work in military-run brothels before and during the Second World War. The Japanese government had denied that the women had been coerced until Kono acknowledged that the Japanese Imperial Army was involved, directly or indirectly, in the establishment of comfort facilities and that coercion had been used in the recruitment and retention of the women. His subsequent call for historical research and education aimed at remembering the issue became the basis for addressing the subject of forced prostitution in school history textbooks.

The statement was welcomed in South Korea. It also led to the creation of the Asian Women's Fund, which provided aid and support for women who had been forced into prostitution during the war. It has also been the target of criticism by nationalistic politicians composing the bulk of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, who want the current review to reexamine the background of the issue.

The latest Abe statement on the comfort women, though made in order to mollify Seoul lest relations between Japan and South Korea worsen, is a good start for reconciliation. Abe had stated there was no evidence that coercion was resorted to in the recruitment of sex workers for the Japanese military. The next step Abe has to take is to offer Japan's official apology to those countries from which the comfort women were "recruited" and retained.

There are only seven former comfort women left in Taiwan. All of them are in their upper 80s and low 90s. They have been looking forward to that apology before they leave the world.

But reconciliation won't be complete unless Japan owns up to all the war crimes committed in its invasion of China and Southeast Asia in order to create a Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Abe has to face history squarely. He should stop visiting the Yasukuni Shrine — where war criminals are honored along with the war dead — as prime minister, reign in his ultra-nationalistic LDP politicians — who call the Rape of Nanking a concoction of Chiang Kai-shek — and have history textbooks revised so as to teach a true history of Japan in World War II, including its undeclared war with the Republic of China starting in 1937. Above all, he has to agree to go to the negotiating table to settle the sovereignty disputes with Taiwan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands and with South Korea over Takeshima/Dokdo.

It's a tall order. Abe is unlikely to comply. But at the very least, he can officially state "We are sorry" for the coercion of sex slaves to serve the Japanese Imperial Army. Well begun may be half done.

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