TV & Radio
No truth and no reconciliation
March 12, 2007 8:30 PM
It is fair to expect that the announcement, by one of world's dominant political parties of the past 60 years, of a re-examination its country's role in a wartime atrocity is a prelude to an acknowledgement of past wrongs and, perhaps, an attempt to make amends to the victims.
But the outcome of a fresh study by rightwing MPs from the Liberal Democratic party (LDP) into the Japanese military's use of an estimated 200,000 sex slaves in the 1930s and 40s is unlikely to leave much room for truth and reconciliation.
Last month, as members of the US House of Representatives foreign affairs committee heard three elderly women recall how they were snatched from their homes by military officials and forced to have sex with up to dozens of soldiers a day in "comfort stations", Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, suggested the women were either volunteers or had been procured by private contractors.
There was "no evidence," he said, to support claims that the women were forced to work in frontline brothels. There had been no coercion "in the narrow sense," he said, meaning that sexual enslavement was not military policy.
He now finds himself at the centre of a political storm, not least because the most indignant responses to his remarks have come not from commentators in China and Korea, but from those in the US and Australia.
Mr Abe's denials contradict the oral testimony of survivors and repentant former Japanese soldiers; they are also at odds with an unofficial apology, which admitted that military coercion had occurred, offered by the government's then top spokesman, Yohei Kono, in 1993.
In an attempt to mollify his critics overseas, Mr Abe claims to stand by the Kono apology, while agreeing to help his party colleagues prove that the Kono's statement was a mistake.
It is a tricky political contortion for a man with impeccable nationalist credentials, who rose to power partly on the back of his reputation as a hardliner against North Korea.
He is, after all, a founder and former leader of the same group that hopes to bury the Kono apology and dismiss the brothels as an example of distasteful wartime entrepreneurship.
That is not how the estimated 2,000 comfort stations located across Asia are regarded abroad, not least in the US, where a Los Angeles Times editorial denounced Mr Abe for "pandering to the Japanese right wing's most disgusting tendencies toward historical revisionism."
And all this, just weeks before Mr Abe is due to meet President Bush in Washington and greet the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, in Tokyo.
He now faces the near impossible task of winning over allies who regard Japan's historical amnesia as an inexplicable blight on an otherwise mature democracy, while appealing to his conservative power base at home as the LDP braces itself for difficult upper house elections in July.
When his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, encountered bumps in the road, he turned to the electorate to resurrect his reformist agenda. Mr Abe, whose approval rating has plummeted since he took office last autumn, turns instead to the far right of his party.
As it attempts to expunge from the historical record that it bears direct responsibility for the sexual enslavement of women, Japan's problem may not only be that it is led by an unreconstructed nationalist, but also by a man who is increasingly out of touch with voters.
While Mr Abe constructs grand visions of a "beautiful Japan" where children are raised as patriots and the military is released from the shackles of a pacifist constitution, the electorate has more pressing matters on its mind: pensions, health care, the declining birthrate and the rising income gap.
Rightwing Japanese politicians may well regard international criticism as a price worth paying for rolling back the progressive gains of the postwar era. But Mr Abe's decision to indulge their zealotry at this critical time in his fledgling premiership could come at a huge political cost.