U.S. lawmaker Mike Honda’s push for historical justice gained greater momentum last week with the passage of a spending bill that included a provision pressuring Japan to apologize for its wartime sexual enslavement of Asian women.
Albeit nonbinding, the provision brought fresh international attention to the women whose human dignity was trampled as they were forced to serve at frontline brothels by Japan’s Imperial Army during World War II.
President Barack Obama signed the bill for the fiscal year 2014 into law last Friday. It was the first time the issue of the victims, euphemistically called “comfort women,” had been addressed in U.S. legislation.
Democratic lawmaker Honda of Japanese descent led the congressional efforts to attach the stipulation to the spending bill. It calls on the secretary of state to encourage Tokyo to uphold a resolution on the issue of sexual slavery.
Honda proposed the resolution in 2007, calling on Japan to formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility in a “clear and unequivocal” manner, and refute any claims that the issue of comfort women never took place.
His House Resolution 121 also urged Japan to educate current and future generations about the “horrible crime” while respecting the recommendations of the international community regarding the victims.
Japanese right-wing politicians have long argued that their government did not directly coerce the young women into military prostitution, although a series of historical records showed they were collectively mobilized by Japan’s military authorities.
Historians put the number of the victims at around 200,000.
Amid escalating historical disputes, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said last week that the Abe government has never negated the 1993 “Kono Statement.” In the landmark statement, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized to the comfort women and admitted responsibility for their suffering.
But Seoul and Beijing remain doubtful, underscoring Abe’s lack of atonement for Japan’s wartime atrocities, which they claim are a broader wartime human rights issue beyond bilateral relations.
The prime minister’s recent visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine underscored his historical perception, which critics called “erroneous and anachronistic.” The shrine in Tokyo honors some 2.46 million war dead including 14 “Class-A” criminals of World War II.
Honda’s pursuit of historical reconciliation is based on his early childhood experience in a Japanese-American internment camp in Colorado ― a facility the U.S. set up to accommodate people of Japanese descent living in the U.S. amid public fears of more aggression following Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
The experience led him to push for social and historical justice and speak for minorities, including Muslims, in American society.
Honda, currently a representative for California’s 17th congressional district, has served in Congress since 2001. Before entering the political arena, he worked as an educator for some three decades.
Meanwhile, Japan’s failure to fully recognize its wartime past has posed a diplomatic challenge to the U.S. as Washington has pushed to maintain regional stability in tandem with its core Asian allies of Japan and South Korea.
By Song Sang-ho