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[Editorial] Abe’s ambiguity

Japan’s leader should not be allowed to sidestep history

In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe outlined the goals of his April trip. The tenor of the interview was that the U.S.-Japan alliance remained strong, based on both economic and security partnerships as well as the two countries’ shared universal values.

There was also a strong suggestion of a growing threat from China and how a stronger U.S.-Japan alliance would be able to counter that threat. By emphasizing that Japan is a country which, like the U.S., upholds freedom, democracy, and rule of law, Abe appears to underscore how China is different and poses a threat to the universal values shared by the U.S. and Japan.

In the hourlong interview, Abe sought to mislead on the issue of Japanese Imperial Army’s military sexual enslavement of women during World War II. Asked whether he is a historical revisionist, Abe said that his cabinet “upholds the position on the recognition of history of the previous administrations, in its entirety.” These included the 1995 Murayama Statement, the 2005 Koizumi Statement, and the 1993 Kono Statement, which, Abe said, his cabinet was not reviewing.

What he omitted to say was that his administration had ordered a review of how the Kono Statement was drafted and a government panel, last June, reported its finding that some parts of the statement concerning the military sex slaves were a product of diplomatic negotiations between Seoul and Tokyo. Clearly, the Abe administration intended to discredit the Kono Statement, which acknowledged the Japanese military’s role in the establishment of military brothels and its role, directly or indirectly, in the management and transfer of the women to the military brothels.

It should be noted that it was U.S. pressure that stopped Abe referring to the possibility of changing the Kono Statement, a goal he had never made secret. In 2007, during his first stint as prime minister, Abe adopted a cabinet position that no evidence was found to prove Japan’s military forcibly took the women to the military brothels. Just before his comeback as prime minister, Abe, in 2012, said that the Kono Statement disgraced Japan and that he would issue a “new statement” on the issue.

Although Abe’s attempt to issue a new statement to replace the Kono Statement appears to have been thwarted, he is expected to issue his own statement in August on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. If Abe’s interview last week is any indication of what may be contained in his August statement, that statement may prove wanting.

In the interview, Abe referred to the military sex slaves as victims of human trafficking. While this is an improvement over his previous position, Abe conveniently sidesteps the Japanese military’s involvement in the system of military sexual slavery. By referring to the women as victims of human trafficking, he purposely fails to distinguish between commercial prostitution and a sexual slavery system run by the Japanese Imperial Army.

Another troubling point is Abe’s use of the phrase “when my thought goes to these people … my heart aches.” There is no remorse, contrition or apology in “my heart aches.” It is a mere expression of emotion: His heart aches for the “comfort women” but there is no apology on behalf of the perpetrators, the Japanese military, who violated these women’s rights.

By raising the point that women’s human rights have been violated in many wars, Abe seeks to “dilute” Japan’s own wrongdoing, claiming that Japan is not alone in wartime violations of women’s rights. However, the fact that other countries are also guilty of the crime does not make Japan any less guilty.

Abe appears to be a master of ambiguity, ready to distort historical facts to suit the tastes of his conservative supporters. We cannot stop Abe from saying what he will. What we can do is to make greater efforts to tell the historical facts as they are, so that people unfamiliar with the issue are not misled by Abe’s distortion of history.