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Thursday, Mar. 08, 2007
Japan's Abe Reopens an Old Wound
By BRYAN WALSH/TOKYO
When Shinzo Abe took over as Japan's Prime Minister last September, there was concern inside and outside of Tokyo that his right-wing leanings would put Japan on a collision course with its Asian neighbors. As a young legislator, Abe had pushed for a reexamination of Japan's expressions of guilt over its actions in World War II, and had called for changes in Japanese textbooks on the war. But during his first few months in office, Abe confounded critics by appearing to curb some of his earlier conservative inclinations. He moved to repair relations with China and South Korea, which had been damaged by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where Japan's World War II military leaders are commemorated. Abe quickly earned a reputation as a pragmatist smart enough to prevent ideology from getting in the way of good foreign policy.
Last week, however, Abe put his pragmatic reputation in doubt when he stepped into one of the most toxic controversies surrounding Japan's conduct in World War II, publicly expressing his doubt that the Japanese military had coerced foreign women into prostitution. Though many Japanese historians and politicians dispute the details, scholars believe that up to 200,000 women were compelled to serve in military brothels as "comfort women," a euphemism for virtual sex slaves, many of whom were horribly abused. In 1993, after years of evading responsibility, the Japanese government issued a statement officially acknowledging the army's role — direct or indirect — in the forced prostitution. The reaction across Asia to Abe's remarks was instant and angry, with South Korea's foreign minister calling on Japan to "face the truth," while septuagenarian former sex slaves in the Philippines furiously denounced Abe as a liar.
The Prime Minister's aides rushed to assure the world that his administration still supported the 1993 statement, but Abe repeatedly denied the military's role in actually forcing women to serve as prostitutes. He was responding in part to a nonbinding resolution introduced by a Japanese-American Democratic congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives that calls on Japan to make a fuller apology for the abuse of the "comfort women." That, Abe has said, would never happen — and on Thursday he announced that his government would assist a group of right-wing Japanese legislators in their efforts to reinvestigate the allegations of forced prostitution in order to refute "ungrounded criticism" of Japan's wartime behavior. Nariaki Nakayama, the former education minister who is leading the group, denies any military role in procuring "comfort women," and last week said "it is useful to compare the brothels to college cafeterias run by private companies, who recruit their own staff, procure foodstuffs and set prices."
Although Abe's stance on "comfort women" looks set to spark a new wave of outrage in the region, in reality the Prime Minister is simply drifting back toward the right-wing opinions he expressed as a legislator. More interesting is why he's choosing to do so now. One theory is that becau se his approval ratings have been falling for months ahead of vital elections to be held in the spring, he may feel the need to shore up his conservative support base. But in pandering to the right, he could throw away something far more important — Japan's improving relations with China and South Korea, its vital neighbors and trade partners. With the 70th anniversary of the Nanking massacre (when invading Japanese troops targeted the Chinese city) coming up at the end of 2007, attempts by Japan's leader to revise his country's wartime history potentially carry a heavy diplomatic price.
Abe might want to remember words written by his predecessor, Koizumi: "We must not evade the weight of the past, nor should we evade the responsibilities for the future." That was in a letter of apology to the "comfort women."
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Thursday, Mar. 08, 2007
Japan and North Korea at an Impasse
By Bryan Walsh/Tokyo
For those confused by the strange sight of suddenly friendly American and North Korean diplomats hitting a Broadway show together in New York this week, take comfort that in Asia Pyongyang is still a diplomatic migraine. As part of the agreement reached in the Six-Party talks last month, Japan and North Korea met yesterday and today in Hanoi for bilateral discussions aimed at normalizing relations between the two nations. (Like the U.S., Japan has never established official diplomatic connections with North Korea.) But while American negotiator Christopher Hill happily characterized his meetings with the North Koreans earlier this week as "very constructive," Japan's summit with the North never got off the ground. North Korea pulled out of a planned session yesterday afternoon, and today's talks lasted just 45 minutes. And guess what? It may be Japan's fault.
The sticking point is one that has dogged relations between the two nations for the last several years: the fate of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Tokyo insists that there are at least four Japanese still unaccounted for in North Korea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who built his career on his tough stance against Kim Jong Il — has repeatedly insisted that there can be no diplomatic normalization or aid provided as part of any nuclear deal with North Korea unless the abductions are resolved first. That means the safe return of any surviving abductees by Pyongyang or conclusive proof of their deaths. North Korea has admitted 13 kidnappings, but says that all abductees have been repatriated to Japan or have died, and considers the issue closed.
When Japan's chief negotiator told reporters before the talks that the return of the abductees was his "main objective," it was clear the meetings were unlikely to go anywhere. Normally the blame for failure would fall squarely on North Korea's negotiators, who never met a summit they couldn't stall. But this time Pyongyang may have a point. If North Korea really is telling the truth — admittedly, an unusual occurrence — and there are no surviving abductees, there may be little that Pyongyang can do to satisfy Tokyo's demands.
It's doubtful, however, that Japan would be ready to listen. The abductions were tragic — as anyone would know who has heard the elderly parents of abductee Megumi Yokota tell of their daughter, snatched near her home at the age of 13 by North Korean agents, never to be seen by her family again. But under Abe the quarter-century old kidnappings are increasingly taking precedence over the North Korean nuclear program on Japan's foreign policy agenda — and that is not healthy. His administration has connected Japan's tough sanctions against North Korean trade not to nuclear weapons, but to the kidnappings. Tsuyoshi Takagi, chairman of the Japanese Diet's special committee on abductions, recently told TIME that the kidnappings actually present a more significant danger to Japan than North Korean nuclear weapons because Pyongyang's missiles are merely a potential threat. The abductions, he says, were a "real physical attack" on Japan's sovereignty.
Given that Japan is more directly threatened by a nuclear North Korea than any other nation, that's not the wisest risk calculation, but it seems to be one that Abe is making. There are strong domestic reasons for focusing on the abductions — lingering public anger in Japan over the kidnappings represents a wellspring of support for Abe, whose approval ratings have nosedived over the last few months. But as Masao Okonogi, dean of Keio University School of Law in Tokyo, points out: "What's in the best interest of the current Japanese government may not necessarily be in the best interest of the Japanese people."
Abe also surrendered some of the moral high ground last week when he publicly expressed doubt that the Japanese military during World War II had coerced citizens of occupied countries into becoming "comfort women," a euphemism for sex slaves. Though Abe's aides scrambled to downplay his statement, he announced today that his government would assist a group of right-wing Japanese lawmakers in their efforts to reinvestigate the comfort women issue — which could be the first move in overturning a 1993 government apology on the subject. That Japan's Prime Minister is seen as calling on North Korea to come clean on the kidnapping of a handful of Japanese while casting doubt on his own country's responsibility for the trauma suffered by possibly hundreds of thousands of sex slaves — many of them Korean — doesn't exactly help his negotiation position.
Abe's refusal to compromise even slightly on the abductions means that Pyongyang and Tokyo will remain estranged — which puts Japan a bit out of step with a U.S. ally that's suddenly ready to engage with North Korea. Washington has repeatedly said that it respects Japan's position on the kidnappings, but if American and North Korean negotiators in New York remain on theatergoing terms, there's a risk that Japan might be left behind — and that would only make Kim Jong Il happy.
With reporting by Toko Sekiguchi/Tokyo
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