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A wrong turn in Tokyo
Mar 21st 2007
Military brothels tarnish Japanese diplomacy
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A MERE six months into his term as Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe has shredded his international reputation by charging into a thicket of wartime history. The trouble began when Mr Abe was asked to respond to the views of a group of revisionist members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and agreed with them in asserting there was no evidence that the Imperial Japanese Army had abducted up to 200,000 women (mainly Korean and Chinese, but also Taiwanese, Burmese and Dutch) and forced them to work in a system of military brothels that operated during the second world war.
This assertion was news to the many elderly women who had testified across Asia and before America’s Congress about the horrors of their servitude as what the Japanese euphemistically call “comfort women”, when they were victims of serial- and gang-rape.
It also goes against evidence unearthed in military archives that eventually obliged the Japanese government to admit in 1993 that coercion had taken place, and to offer remorse of sorts. As outrage over Mr Abe’s comments grew, the prime minister affirmed that his government still stood behind the 1993 admission and apology—but on March 16th his office issued a report that supported his initial statements.
At a stroke, then, Mr Abe has managed not only to set back much of the progress Japan made recently in improving ties with neighbours. He has also antagonised America, an ally. His remarks have given added momentum to a resolution now being debated in Congress, which seeks a full apology from Japan in the matter of wartime sex slaves. Last week the American ambassador to Tokyo, Thomas Schieffer, said that, “the Japanese need to be aware that there is really no constituency for forced prostitution.”
Yet the real measure of Mr Abe’s ineptitude is that he has allowed the issue of the comfort women to give the moral upper hand to one of the world’s most repugnant regimes, that of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. It is quite a feat.
It helps to recall at this point that North Korea specialised for decades in its own brand of cruel, random and often weird abduction. From the 1950s North Korean spooks began to snatch opponents of Mr Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung, from Soviet-block countries. Then they turned to kidnapping South Koreans, of whom perhaps 500 have been seized and have never returned. In the 1970s and 1980s individual Japanese began disappearing mysteriously, usually from places near or on the west coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu.
For years, successive Japanese governments played down the possibility that North Korea might have kidnapped the missing people. They dismissed the notion of North Korean frogmen landing from submarines on Japanese beaches as the stuff of B-movie fantasy. But five years ago, when Mr Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, was visiting Pyongyang, Mr Kim unexpectedly admitted to abductions. Mr Abe, then a little-known politician, was with Mr Koizumi. He swiftly took a tough line on the issue, grabbing a political break that led last year to his appointment as prime minister.
Five abductees are now back in Japan. In late 2002 Mr Abe fought for Japan to renege on its commitment to Mr Kim to have them return to North Korea after being allowed to visit their families. Japan says that North Korea must properly account for at least another 12 missing. North Korea says that they are either dead already, or they were never kidnapped.
More than anything, Mr Abe’s shaky domestic standing rests on the abduction issue. It is, he says, his “top priority”. In turn, anger over the abductions helps cynical nationalist politicians and right-wing groups to push their agenda of “patriotic” education in schools and a revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution. It is a national taboo for the press or mainstream politicians to point out the links between the abduction movement and these sometimes violent groups.
The abduction issue is not formally part of the six-nation talks designed to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear-weapons programmes, but thanks to Mr Abe’s insistence on its inclusion, it is adding complications there. Two weeks ago in Hanoi bilateral discussions between North Korea and Japan broke down over the abduction row. A new round of collective talks takes place in Beijing this week. North Korea is demanding gleefully that Japan stop talking about abductions, and has called for Japan to apologise and pay for its own historical wrongdoings.
The chief American negotiator at the six-party talks, Christopher Hill, insists that North Korea will not be able to “drive any wedges” between America and Japan. All the same, patience may fray over Mr Abe’s stance on the comfort women. As it is, Japan may already be getting sidelined in the negotiations. Its denial of the comfort women will only compound that. Whatever Mr Abe hoped to achieve by his new assertiveness, it was surely not this.