Scoffing at Washington’s pressure to pursue reconciliation with Seoul, the Tokyo government is stepping up provocations against its neighbor, threatening to ruin the already frayed bilateral relationship.
One cornerstone of Seoul-Tokyo relations is the Kono statement of 1993, which was issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono to acknowledge and apologize for the involvement of the Japanese government and military in forcing Korean women to serve as “comfort women,” or sexual slaves for their troops during World War II.
The statement was based on a study conducted by the Japanese government since 1991. The study concluded that “the then-Japanese military was, directly and indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.”
It prompted the Tokyo government to “extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”
Now, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving to withdraw the statement in its bid to whitewash the shameful wartime atrocities committed by Japan’s imperial military.
On Thursday, a Japanese opposition lawmaker called into question during a parliamentary session the credibility of the testimonies given by 16 Korean victims at the time of the Japanese government study.
He called for an inquiry into the testimonies, asserting that no attempts had been made to establish their veracity, although they had provided an important basis for the 1993 apology.
Answering the lawmaker’s questions, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he would consider having historians and experts reexamine the testimonies.
Suga’s remark should be seen as a sign that the Japanese government is embarking on a campaign to disavow the Kono statement. Such a campaign was recently suggested by Abe during a parliamentary session.
He described the Korean government’s efforts to bring the comfort women issue to the attention of the international community as an attempt to “abuse and slander Japan using erroneous facts.” Then he said his administration would refute such false claims with facts.
Abe effectively denied the Kono statement during his first term as prime minister. At a press conference in March 2007, he expressed strong doubts about it, asserting that there was “no evidence” that the Japanese military had coerced Korean women into sexual slavery.
More recently, he suggested he would consider issuing his own statement in 2015, indicating his reluctance to inherit the Kono statement and another official apology: the Murayama statement of 1995, which went one step further to acknowledge and apologize for Japan’s aggression as well as wartime atrocities.
The Tokyo government may attempt to discredit the testimonies of the Korean victims by highlighting factual inaccuracies in them. But it was only natural that their testimonies included some inaccuracies, given that they testified what they had experienced several decades ago. It would have been strange had they remembered everything accurately after so much time had passed.
Any move to challenge the Kono statement is nothing more than an attempt to deny and whitewash Japan’s wartime atrocities. Such a move is cause for grave concern as it would shake Seoul-Tokyo relations to their very foundation.
Japanese leaders need to realize that their negation of the Kono apology will trigger criticism not just from Korea but from around the world. They would further isolate their country. They need to pause and think about where they are taking their country.