By Hiroko Tabuchi
Friday, March 2, 2007
TOKYO, March 1 -- Japan's prime minister denied Thursday that the country's military forced women into sexual slavery during World War II, casting doubt on a past government apology and jeopardizing a fragile detente with his Asian neighbors.
The comments by Shinzo Abe, at a time when a number of lawmakers are pushing to roll back a 1993 apology to the women, were his clearest statement as prime minister on military brothels known in Japan as "comfort stations."
Historians say that about 200,000 women -- mostly from Korea and China -- served in Japanese military brothels throughout Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. Many women say they were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops.
But Abe, who since taking office in September has promoted patriotism in Japan's schools and a more assertive foreign policy, told reporters that "there is no evidence to prove there was coercion" against the women to make them prostitutes.
His remarks contradicted evidence in Japanese documents unearthed in 1992 that historians said showed that military authorities had a direct role in working with contractors to forcibly procure women for the brothels.
The documents, which are backed up by accounts from soldiers and victims, said Japanese authorities set up the brothels in response to uncontrolled rape sprees by invading Japanese soldiers in East Asia.
In 1993, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized to the women, though the statement did not meet demands by survivors that it be approved by parliament. Two years later, the government set up a compensation fund for victims, but it was supported by private donations, not government money, and has been criticized as a way for the government to avoid owning up to the abuse.
The mandate for the fund is to expire March 31.
Abe's comments were certain to rile South Korea and China, which accuse Tokyo of failing to fully atone for wartime atrocities. Abe's government has been working recently to repair relations with Seoul and Beijing.
The statement came hours after South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun marked a national holiday honoring the anniversary of a 1919 uprising against Japanese colonial rule by urging Tokyo to come clean about its past.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment on Abe's statement. "I'll let the Japanese political system deal with that," he said.
Nationalist politicians and scholars in Japan claim the women were professional prostitutes and were not coerced into servitude by the military.
Before Abe spoke Thursday, a group of lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party discussed their plans to push for an official revision of Kono's 1993 apology. Nariaki Nakayama, chairman of the group of about 120 lawmakers, sought to play down the government's involvement in the brothels by saying it was similar to a school that hires a company to run its cafeteria.
"Where there's demand, businesses crop up . . . but to say women were forced by the Japanese military into service is off the mark," he said. "This issue must be reconsidered, based on truth . . . for the sake of Japanese honor."
Lee Yong Soo, 78, a South Korean who was interviewed recently while she was visiting Tokyo, said she was 14 when Japanese soldiers took her from her home in 1944 to work as a sex slave in Taiwan. "The Japanese government must not run from its responsibilities," said Lee, who has long campaigned for Japanese compensation. "I want them to apologize. To admit that they took me away, when I was a little girl, to be a sex slave. To admit that history."