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Friday, March 16, 2007

Apologies of dubious quality


HONG KONG -- The recent verbal gymnastics of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe show why, more than 60 years after the end of World War II, Japan's wartime behavior remains a sensitive issue around the region and why the country's apologies are regarded as insincere.

Ordinarily, one would have expected wartime wounds inflicted over half a century ago to have healed and the emergence of a new generation of Japanese who are able to hold their heads high, acknowledging that horrible things were done in their grandparents' generation but that their country has done what it can to make amends.

However, this has not happened. Many contemporary Japanese political leaders, it seems, have not come to terms with the past and that means, unfortunately, that Japan and its neighbors are not ready to move on -- not just yet.

It is not because Japan has not apologized. As Japanese officials are quick to point out, their leaders have apologized on numerous occasions. Rather, because the apologies are frequently hedged by so many qualifiers, or contradicted by statements made by other Japanese leaders -- sometimes by the same leader -- they create the impression that, despite the apologies, Japan is not really sorry, indeed, that Japan feels it has done nothing for which it needs to apologize.

This is the situation surrounding Abe and the sex slaves known euphemistically as "comfort women." The prime minister insists that he stands by an apology issued in 1993 by the then chief Cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, which said in part: "The then Japanese military was, directly and indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. The government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc. We shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history."

However, on March 1, Abe flatly denied that the women were forced into becoming sex slaves, telling reporters, "There is no evidence to prove there was coercion, nothing to support it."

Hours before Abe spoke, a group of ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers met to discuss plans to water down the Kono apology if not its total repudiation.

Abe's controversial remarks stirred strong reaction around the world. The South Korean Foreign Ministry called it an attempt to "gloss over historical truth," adding that the comments "cast doubts on the sincerity of Japan's regret and atonement" as expressed in the Kono statement. Abe then appeared to have second thoughts, as his aides said over the weekend of March 4 that he still stood by the Kono statement. Yet, on Monday, (March 5), he told the Japanese Parliament that he would refuse to apologize for the military brothels even if the U.S. Congress demanded it.

"I must say we will not apologize even if there's a resolution," he said, adding that there had been no "coercion, such as authorities breaking into houses and kidnapping women."

Three days later Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the chief Cabinet secretary, told a news conference: "The government stands by the Kono statement, including its recognition of coercion. The prime minister's recent remarks are not meant to change this government's position."

If that wasn't confusing enough, the prime minister announced the same day that LDP legislators would conduct a new investigation into the whole issue and that the government would cooperate.

Since the whole brouhaha in a way stemmed from the conservative lawmakers' request to water down the Kono statement, the announcement that the lawmakers will now conduct an investigation is by no means reassuring. These legislators have succeeded in getting references to the wartime sex slaves removed from junior high-school textbooks. Now, apparently, they want the Kono statement to go.

As the China Daily said in an editorial, the new study "should serve to educate current and future generations about what really happened." But, the paper concluded, "if Abe and Japan's rightwingers have their way, it will do the opposite."

The latest twist occurred Sunday when Abe, interviewed on NHK television, declared: "We have stated our heartfelt apologies to the 'comfort women' at the time who suffered greatly and were injured in their hearts. I want to say that that sentiment has not changed at all."

What will he say next? Who is one to believe? The Shinzo Abe who says there is "no evidence" that coercion was used? Or the Shinzo Abe who apologizes? And is the apology sincere?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: frank.ching@gmail.com


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