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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Abe to dodge sex slave issue, reaffirm U.S. ties


Staff writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to leave Thursday on a two-day visit to the United States -- his first since taking office in September -- and will mainly focus on cementing ties with Washington, which have frayed somewhat since his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, was in charge.

Government officials say Abe will downplay the issue of "comfort women" -- mostly Asian women forced into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers before and during the war -- that recently threatened to cast a shadow over bilateral relations.

Last month, Abe faced a storm of criticism from Asia and the U.S. when he commented on the draft of a U.S. House of Representatives resolution demanding that Japan make a formal and unequivocal apology over the issue.

Abe said that there is no documentary evidence proving the Japanese military was directly involved in delivering the women by force to the frontline brothels.

During his two-day visit to the U.S., Abe will not discuss the sex slave issue, nor go into detail on what he called the "misunderstanding" in foreign media reports on the matter, a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Instead, Abe will reiterate his "sympathy" for the former sex slaves and his support for an earlier government apology on the issue, if asked to comment by reporters, the official said.

"The Japan-U.S. relationship is the basis of (Japan's diplomacy), and if this is shaken, all of (Japan's diplomacy) will be shaken," the official said on condition of anonymity. "Abe will go to the U.S. to confirm that Japan-U.S. ties are as solid as a rock."

Though perhaps solid, relations between the two nations appear less cordial than in the Koizumi days.

Koizumi, an avid supporter of the U.S-led war in Iraq, established a personal friendship with President George W. Bush and built up what was touted as "the best Japan-U.S. relationship" in the postwar decades.

In contrast, Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma, a key member of Abe's Cabinet, sent a chill over the security alliance when he described the war in Iraq as "wrong." Vice President Dick Cheney did not meet Kyuma when he visited Japan in February.

Ever since Robert Gates was appointed the new U.S. defense secretary in December, Tokyo has asked Washington to arrange a "two-plus-two meeting" of both nations' foreign and defense ministers.

But the U.S. refused -- partly because of Kyuma's remark on the Iraq war, according to government sources. The meeting has finally been set for May 1, shortly after Abe's visit to the U.S.

Foreign Ministry officials have tried to downplay the negative impact of Koizumi's departure on U.S. ties. Abe, they note, is set to hold long meetings with Bush at the Camp David presidential retreat as well as at the White House.

"I think (the visit) will be a good opportunity (for the two) to establish a confidential relationship," Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi told a news conference Monday.



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