What’s behind Abe’s new position on ‘comfort women’?

Author: Kazuhiko Togo, Kyoto Sangyo University

On 28 December, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea announced that the issue of comfort woman was ‘resolved finally and irreversibly’. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed anew ‘his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences’. Japan also committed to contributing approximately one billion yen (roughly US$10 million) to a foundation that the South Korean government will establish to support former ‘comfort women’. For its part, the South Korean government ‘will strive to solve the issue’ of a commemorative statue built in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul ‘in an appropriate manner’.

In 2012, when Abe regained the post of prime minister, there were suggestions that he would keep his distance from the Kono Statement and not take further action to heal the ‘comfort women’ issue. Why then did Abe change his position?

The agreement is perhaps not as surprising as it first seems. It is in line with Prime Minister Abe’s positioning on the ‘comfort women’ issue since April 2015.

In Abe’s visit to the United States in April, he stated very clearly that ‘just like all my predecessors, my heart is aching for the immeasurable pain these women had to suffer, and the 1993 Kono Statement will be maintained’. The language used by foreign minister Fumio Kishida on 28 December resembles the Kono statement, which Abe had already approved in April.

Then in his August speech commemorating 70 years since the end of World War II, Abe confirmed the most important part of the 1995 Murayama statement, ‘deep remorse and heartfelt apology for Japan’s actions during the war’, with concrete reference to the suffering of Asian people, including the Republic of Korea. He also stated that Japan should not to forget ‘that there were women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured’.

With this background Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye had their first bilateral meeting in early November, where they agreed to ‘continue and accelerate the consultations [on the ‘comfort women’ issue] in order to conclude them as promptly as possible’. There was some hint that the issue could be resolved by the end of 2015 — the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of Japan–ROK relations.

Whatever Abe’s original thinking, he has always been a pragmatist capable of listening to a wide range of views. There are many reasons to prefer this new policy, including the moral authority that Japan could gain from resolving the issue, the importance of paying respect to gender issues in the 21st century, and the diplomatic necessity of forging stable relations with South Korea given a rising China. Such rational and pragmatic considerations likely outweighed Abe’s fundamental nationalist thinking. Except for his Yasukuni Shrine visit in December 2013, the past has shown Abe to be a pragmatist, particularly on history issues.

The United States’ position must have affected Abe too. US President Barack Obama has made it abundantly clear that the US was very unhappy with the tensions between its two most important Northeast Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also likely played an important role advising Abe and finding the appropriate language and content for the agreement.

Despite these key reasons for resolving the issue, it is still difficult to understand how Abe persuaded his nationalist followers of his new position. But the political reality is that Abe is the most powerful political leader who shares sympathy to the nationalists’ thinking. Some nationalists have already begun protesting against the present agreement, but ultimately they are bound to follow their leader’s decisions.

It is more difficult to understand why the South Korean government consented to the agreement. The agreement does not include an acknowledgement by Japan of its criminal and legal responsibility, which had previously been a prerequisite for the South Korean civic movement. Possible reasons for this shift in policy include the US position, better balancing with China and some domestic frustration at the lack of policy flexibility toward Japan.

So is the recent agreement tenable and will both countries remain committed to it? It is certainly possible. But the long-term success of the agreement depends on both sides continuing to act in the spirit that led to this agreement: efforts to understand each other and to find a mutually acceptable solution.

For the Japanese side, the agreement cannot be taken for granted. This is not the end of the ‘comfort women’ issue. In his August statement Abe said that Japan should ‘not let our future generations be predestined to apologise’. And, at the same time, ‘Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future’. In this spirit of humility and remembrance, will Japan implement what it has committed to and patiently wait for South Korea to implement their commitments?

For South Korea, the task is no less difficult. Will the government succeed in convincing the civic movement around former ‘comfort women’, which has already voiced serious criticism, to soften their position and accept the government’s agreement with Japan?

In the end, history is what one makes of it and there is no ultimate reason why the two countries cannot proceed further down the path of reconciliation.

Kazuhiko Togo is the director of the Institute of World Affairs and professor of international politics, Kyoto Sangyo University. He was formerly the Japanese ambassador to the Netherlands.