The ever-shifting sands of Japanese apologies

Author: Tessa Morris-Suzuki, ANU

On 16 February, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida signed a ‘Strategy for Co-operation in the Pacific’, in which both countries emphasised their shared values of ‘democracy, human rights and the rule of law’.

Protestors gather in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on 17 February 2016, after Japan told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women that it has found no documents confirming that so-called ‘comfort women’ were forcibly recruited by military or government authorities. (Photo: AAP).

As they were doing so, Japanese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Shinsuke Sugiyama was in Geneva addressing a meeting of the UN committee which oversees the implementation of one of the world’s key human rights accords: the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). On the agenda was the Japanese government’s treatment of the problems of memory, justice and redress arising from the imperial military’s mass recruitment of women (the so-called ‘comfort women’) to military brothels during the Pacific War.

It was a great opportunity for the Abe administration to follow up its 28 December 2015 joint statement with South Korea on ‘comfort women’. In the December statement Foreign Minister Kishida acknowledged ‘an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time’ and passed on Prime Minister Abe’s ‘sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women’.

The December statement committed the Japanese government to contributing to a fund to assist surviving South Korean former ‘comfort women’, but its rather curious wording left some observers unsure just what Japan had apologised for.

Since coming to power the Abe administration has told the world that it is continuing to uphold — or (in the Japanese version) to ‘inherit’ (keisho suru) — the 1993 Kono Declaration. In that declaration, issued after an extensive study by the Japanese government, Japan acknowledged that ‘in many cases [‘comfort women’] were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments’. The Japanese government also promised to ‘face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history’.

If the Abe administration has indeed ‘inherited’ the Kono Declaration, one would assume that Abe’s December ‘sincere apologies and remorse’ were apologising for the historical fact that many ‘comfort women’ were recruited and held against their will, and a reaffirmation of Japan’s determination to take the lessons of history to heart.

But oddly, neither Abe nor any of his ministers or spokespeople has ever been heard to echo the key words of the Kono Declaration. Instead, when challenged on the question of state responsibility for the ‘comfort women’ issue, they repeatedly respond with a formula developed during the first Abe administration of 2006–2007: ‘in the documents discovered by the Japanese government, none confirmed the forcible taking away of comfort women’.

This statement is extremely significant. It treats official Japanese government and military documents (the most incriminating of which were deliberately burnt in the closing days of the war) as the only reliable source of information on the topic. It entirely discounts the testimony of surviving former ‘comfort women’. This includes testimony collected and taken into account by the Japanese government at the time of the Kono Declaration. By implication, this formula says to the survivors that their testimony is at best unreliable evidence and at worst lies.

So the key question about the 28 December deal was this: when Foreign Minister Kishida referred to ‘an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time’, was he speaking about the involvement of the military in recruiting, transporting and holding women against their will? Was he upholding the promises of the Kono Declaration? If so, then the December accord was indeed a major step forward in Japan–South Korea relations. If not, it starts to look uncomfortably like a move that was motivated less by a desire to bring justice and redress to the victims than to buy their silence.

Foreign Ministry official Sugiyama’s response to the CEDAW committee on 16 February made the answer to these questions disturbingly plain. Pressed on the comfort women issue, he replied ‘in the documents discovered by the Japanese government, none confirmed the forcible taking away of comfort women’. He added that the notion that comfort women had been forcibly recruited was a misconception based on fabricated testimony by a former Japanese labour recruiter named Yoshida Seiji, and that this misinformation had been disseminated by the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun, which later retracted the claims.

This statement by Sugiyama is entirely misleading. The Yoshida testimony (which was reported in the early 1990s by almost all the Japanese mainstream media, not just Asahi Shimbun) has been known to be unreliable for more than a decade. And it has had no significant influence on the ‘comfort women’ debate in recent years. More importantly, it is far from the only evidence. The evidence that women were recruited against their will comes from a mass of testimonies from survivors and other eyewitnesses as well as evidence given to war crimes trials and court cases, alongside other historical material.

Australian survivor Jan Ruff-O’Herne, who was marched out of an internment camp and into a military brothel at gunpoint during the war, has never received an apology. Nor have many others forcibly recruited in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

It is time for Japan’s friends and allies, particularly those like Australia who plan to cooperate with Japan in protecting human rights around the region, to ask the hard questions. Will Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet repeat the words of the Kono Declaration loud and clear? Or will they admit that they have abandoned the declaration? They cannot have it both ways. Sugiyama insisted to the CEDAW committee that the Japanese government is not ‘denying history’. Now we need an answer to the follow-up question: which history are they not denying?

Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki is an ARC Laureate Fellow based at the School of Culture, History and Language, at the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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