TV & Radio
Rep. Honda riles Japan over brothel apology
Proposed House measure may have driven exchange over WWII 'comfort women'
Edward Epstein, San Francisco Chronicle Washington Bureau
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
(03-13) 04:00 PDT Washington -- South Bay Congressman Mike Honda finds himself at the center of a simmering controversy in Asia over the Japanese prime minister's refusal to apologize to "comfort women," thousands of Asian women who were forced into prostitution by Japan's military during World War II.
Honda may have partly provoked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent comments, which in turn led to angry official reaction from China and South Korea, by sponsoring a House resolution urging Japan to officially apologize to the remaining women 62 years after the war in the Pacific ended.
"The issue is about our conscience as human beings and about reconciliation," said Honda, a Democrat, who has 16 co-sponsors for his resolution. The Japanese government takes the nonbinding resolution very seriously and is using its hired lobbyists in Washington to work against the bill.
Honda's resolution received a House foreign affairs subcommittee hearing Feb. 15, which included testimony from some of the surviving women.
It was just two weeks later that Abe made his controversial remarks.
"There is no evidence to prove there was coercion, nothing to support it," Abe told reporters in Tokyo. Abe is the son of a former Japanese foreign minister and the grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi who served time as a World War II war criminal.
Abe backed away from his remarks on Friday, when in response to international uproar he said members of his ruling party will conduct an investigation into the issue of forced prostitution during World War II.
But despite the furor, Abe told the Diet, Japan's parliament, that Congress shouldn't pass Honda's resolution.
What's especially perplexing to Honda about Abe's remarks is that they contradict a statement in the early 1990s by a Japanese cabinet minister who apologized to the "comfort women." In response to international pressure, Japan created an unofficial "atonement fund" to help the survivors financially. But to get restitution, Honda said the women who participated had to sign a statement saying they understood that the Japanese government was still studying the issue and hadn't taken a final official position.
By raising the question of Japan's responsibility, Honda said Abe has fueled the controversy anew.
"Prime Minister Abe has done more for our side through his contradictory statements than anything else," said Honda, a 65-year-old Japanese American who spent his childhood in a World War II internment camp in Colorado.
Already, he said, some House members who initially opposed his resolution or were undecided have told him they now support his move. The issue will get more international attention today because Australian Prime Minister John Howard says he will raise the topic with Abe in Tokyo.
This isn't Honda's first tussle with Japan. In past Congresses, he unsuccessfully pushed legislation that would allow World War II slave laborers to sue Japanese companies for damages. In addition to Japan's opposition, the bill was opposed by the State Department, which said it violated the 1951 peace treaty with Japan, signed in San Francisco, that blocked such suits.
Abe succeeded Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi last year. Under Koizumi, Japan's relations with its neighbors skidded because of the prime minister's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors war criminals including Abe's grandfather.
Abe pledged to improve relations, and in his first weeks in office visited China and South Korea. But his recent comments have delivered a sharp setback to his efforts with the two neighbors, which were occupied by Japan during the war. Along with other Asian nations, they feel that Japan hasn't done enough to admit its responsibility for wartime atrocities.
"The question of war responsibility is a personal one for Abe," said UC Berkeley professor Steven Vogel, an expert on Japan. "He has a bit of a nationalist streak. He's not an extreme nationalist, but he feels apologies can go too far."
Vogel said that Abe, like his predecessors, is caught between those in Japan who would like better relations with other Asian nations and conservatives who feel apologies undermine Japan's pride.
"Pandering to nationalist sentiment in domestic politics is an uncomfortable reality in many countries," Vogel said.
Honda, who has appeared on Japanese TV to discuss the issue, said Abe may have inadvertently helped raise the issue again by responding to the resolution and the congressional hearing. The subcommittee heard graphic testimony from surviving women who told of daily rapes at camps set up for Japanese soldiers.
"One of my goals is to access the Japanese public. If they are more aware they will say 'you're right, the government should just apologize. Do the right thing,' " he said.
Honda said his personal experience, in which President Ronald Reagan and Congress formally apologized to the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II, is what Japan must do. "A formal, unequivocal apology. That's the way it has to be," he said.
Historians say that about 200,000 women -- mostly from Korea and China, but also a number from the Philippines as well as Dutch and Australian women caught in other countries as Japan pushed its war effort -- served in Japanese military brothels throughout Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. Accounts of abuse by the military have been backed up by witnesses, former Japanese soldiers and documents.
"And my resolution is non-binding. We're not telling the Japanese government what it has to do," Honda said.
E-mail Edward Epstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A - 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle