A government-appointed council of scholars will review Japan’s famous apology to the women its army forced to work as sex slaves during World War II, officials said Friday. The Kono Statement was made in 1993 and was the first time Tokyo officially acknowledged that the armed forces were at least indirectly responsible for conscripting women in South Korea, China, and other countries Japan invaded during the war years into brothels.
Recently, Japanese officials and parliamentarians have remarked that maybe the apology shouldn’t have been made—that so-called comfort women were just common prostitutes, or that the practice of encouraging women to satisfy the needs of soldiers was widespread among other armies at the time, or that the Imperial army wasn’t really responsible for setting up the brothels. Now, it seems, the government will officially investigate whether the comfort women apology ought to be rescinded.
The announcement came from Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, who said “a team of scholars would be formed to examine what historical evidence had been used in compiling the apology, known as the Kono Statement,” as Martin Fackler reports for the New York Times. Many right-wing nationalists in Japan say the evidence supporting the comfort women’s ordeal is insufficient. “A former official who helped draft the statement was called in to testify that the main evidence [for the apology] was the testimony of 16 former ‘comfort women’ and that no documents were found to collaborate their stories,” Fackler continues.
The comfort women issue and other insensitive comments Japanese officials have made about atrocities committed by their countrymen in the past have poisoned Japan’s relations with its neighbors. The South Korean president refuses to meet privately with Shinzo Abe until he offers conciliatory statements to former South Korean comfort women. “A thousand years will pass and the guilt of Japanese militarism will not be erased,” reads an editorial at China’s official Xinhua News Agency. “If Japan continues to turn a deaf ear to the call of peace and warning bells against its militarist past, it will have no place in the world.” The Chinese government officially announced Thursday that it would create two new national holidays: one to celebrate the country’s victory over Japan in World War II, and the other to commemorate the Nanjing Massacre, which a Japanese media executive and friend of Abe’s recently said never happened.
The disagreement over comfort women extends, strangely enough, all the way to Glendale, California, where a statue dedicated to comfort women has sparked an international debate. Three hundred Japanese lawmakers signed a petition to Glendale asking that the statue be destroyed. They say it spreads “false propaganda” and leads to “racial discrimination,” in the words of a representative of the Japan Coalition of Legislators Against Fabricated History.
This and other efforts by Japan to reassess the accepted accounts of atrocities committed during World War II have led to a more tense relationship with the United States, not to mention Japan’s neighbors. U.S. leaders have said they are “disappointed” with the actions of certain Japanese officials, and that some comments they’ve made are “preposterous.” “The United States wants Japan to be a more respected and more effective contributor to regional security, and to play a larger role in the region. And all that this historical revisionism does is undermine that,” the head of a Pacific Ocean-focused think tank told Time magazine.
Indeed, Abe himself wants the global media to focus more on how Japan has contributed to world peace in the decades since World War II than on past atrocities the country may (or may not!) have committed. As he told Parliament on Thursday, certain countries are trying hard to slime Japan. “There’s propaganda to depict Japan in a way that’s far from the truth. There is danger emerging, where such propaganda will have a huge influence on our children’s generation. I would like to think of a strong public relations strategy going forward.”
If Abe wants a public relations strategy that will improve Japan’s standing in the eyes of its neighbors and allies, and the world, an effort to review the landmark apology to the women that the Japanese Imperial army forced into sex slavery is, to say the least, wide of the mark.