Why Abe is out of touch on the comfort women controversies

Author: Mikyoung Kim, Hiroshima Peace Institute

Ever since Shinzo Abe’s second stint as prime minister began in December 2012, his administration has been forging a worrisome trajectory for Japan’s foreign policy. Abe was re-elected because the Japanese people considered him a strong leader who would revive Japan’s ageing society and energise its declining economy. And Abe has initiated a series of bold policies regarding the economy, national defence and foreign affairs. But his motives and strategies raise concerns about maintaining peace and stability in East Asia.

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For the past one-and-a-half years, Japan has witnessed abrupt changes and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has made little effort to create a social consensus. These changes include a consumption tax hike, hasty passage of special state secrets laws and the establishment of the National Security Council. Japan’s neighbours have been particularly concerned by manoeuvrings to reinterpret the Article 9 ‘peace clause’ in the constitution and the controversial visits by politicians to Yasukuni Shrine. The Abe administration has also beefed up patriotic educational content, with state-sanctioned textbooks claiming unilateral sovereignty over disputed territories. With all this unfolding on the domestic front, Abe has also been promoting the export of Japanese nuclear technology overseas, despite the continuing controversy over nuclear energy following the Fukushima incident. Recent efforts to undermine the Kono Statement are no exception to this pattern of bold and provocative acts.

The 1993 Kono Statement officially acknowledged for the first time that women were forcibly recruited into sexual slavery to provide services for Japanese military personnel as ‘comfort women’. A panel investigation commissioned by the Abe government announced on 20 June this year that the Kono Statement was drafted under pressure from Seoul and was the by-product of diplomatic negotiations, not rigorous fact finding. Questioning the objectivity of the Kono Statement challenges the previous apology to the ‘comfort women’ and undermines reconciliation efforts in East Asia. The announcement resulted in an immediate rebuttal from Seoul and an angry denunciation from Beijing. A South Korean journalist described it as crossing a ‘bridge of no return’.

Abe’s statecraft can be seen plainly in his book Towards a Beautiful Country. National pride has become a crucial component of Abe’s ruling principles. But prioritising pride in lieu of balanced moral judgement entails a damaging lack of critical self-reflection — it is important for national pride to avoid being translated into a reckless foreign policy.

According to Abe’s logic, a ‘beautiful country’ ought to be impeccable. The accusation that the Imperial Japanese Army forced women to provide sexual services for its military contradicts this ideal. Criticisms of Japan’s battlefront behaviour, combined with the fact of Japan’s WWII defeat, demands for reparations and restitution and the textbook issue are an assault on his idealised perception of Japanese nationhood.

The Kono Statement has been a persistent target of vicious attacks from the right wing in Japan. In 2007, during Abe’s first term as prime minster, the part of the Kono Statement that admitted Japanese military and government officials were directly involved in forcibly recruiting ‘comfort women’ and overseeing the ‘comfort station’ system was retracted via a cabinet decision. Abe reiterated his dissatisfaction with the Kono Statement because he rejected evidence of the Imperial Japanese Army’s involvement in the ‘comfort station’ system. Abe was forced to back down and apologise, however, after US President George Bush forced his hand.

Upon its surrender, the wartime government destroyed numerous documents, making it difficult to conduct a factual investigation into the ‘comfort women’ issue. But eye witness testimonies of deceptive recruitment, coercion and physical confinement in the ‘comfort stations’ consistently support the content of the Kono Statement. In their rebuttal of Abe’s position, South Korean comfort women asserted ‘we are the living testimony’.

This controversy is no longer confined to the countries — South Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Netherlands — of ‘comfort women’ who suffered from the Imperial Japanese Army’s exploitation. The International Commission of Jurists and two UN special rapporteurs on human rights are now involved. The US Congress has also been an active advocate of reconciliation in East Asia.

Abe’s worldview is at odds with international sentiment — it is becoming increasingly important for him to recognise the weight of morality as political capital.

Mikyoung Kim is an Associate Professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University.

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