Japan Warns U.S. House Against Resolution on WWII Sex Slaves

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Japan has warned leaders of the House of Representatives that serious, long-term damage to Japanese-U.S. relations is likely if the House passes a resolution demanding an official apology from Japan for its wartime policy of forcing women to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers.

In an unusually blunt letter sent to five House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Japanese Ambassador Ryozo Kato said passage of the resolution "will almost certainly have lasting and harmful effects on the deep friendship, close trust and wide-ranging cooperation our two nations now enjoy."

The ambassador said that since 1993 Japan has repeatedly and officially apologized for its harsh treatment of "comfort women," the term used for the estimated 50,000 to 200,000 Asian women forced by the Japanese government into brothels before and during World War II.

His June 22 letter, obtained by The Washington Post, also suggests that Japan may reconsider its role as one of the few loyal supporters of U.S. policy in Iraq, where it is the second-largest donor for rebuilding, after the United States.

In the letter, immediately after warning of "lasting and harmful effects," Kato gives an example of what could be at risk for the United States, noting that Japan has recently extended for another two years its spending on reconstruction in Iraq.

The non-binding resolution is scheduled to go to a vote before the House recess in August.

Support for it grew as many American lawmakers expressed outrage over statements this year by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who publicly backed away from his nation's previous apologies to the comfort women. He said there is no documentation proving that the Japanese military coerced Asian women into becoming prostitutes.

With 156 co-sponsors, the resolution was approved overwhelmingly last month by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is expected to pass easily when it comes up for a vote.

The resolution's primary sponsor, Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.), dismissed the ambassador's letter as lobbying bluster. "It's not going to hurt our relationship diplomatically or trade-wise," he said.

Honda, 66, a Japanese American who was sent to an internment camp in Colorado during World War II, said Japan should apologize formally for its actions concerning the comfort women in the same way that the United States has apologized for interning its Japanese American citizens.

"If Abe insists that there may not have been coercion of the comfort women, it doesn't constitute a genuine apology in my view," he said.

The resolution's demand for a "clear and unequivocal" apology has provoked intense press coverage in Japan and angered the Japanese public. It looms as yet another embarrassment for Abe, whose approval ratings after less than a year in office have fallen below 30 percent, driven by financial and pension scandals.

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party could lose control of the country's upper house in an election on July 29, some public opinion polls suggest. Not wanting to embarrass Abe before that election, the House leadership has agreed to put off adoption of the comfort women resolution until after the vote, Honda said.

In its lobbying in Washington, the Japanese government is attempting to persuade lawmakers to view Abe's remarks on the comfort women as a regrettable misstep by a politician -- and not as a repudiation of a series of official government apologies that began in 1993, according to a U.S. government official familiar with the matter.

In a visit to Washington in April, Abe made a carefully worded public apology for the "extreme hardships" suffered by the comfort women, but did not retract his claim about the lack of documentary proof of Japanese government involvement.

Previous studies by the Japanese government have disclosed more than 100 documents showing Japanese military involvement in the building of brothels and the recruitment of women, according to a report last year by the Congressional Research Service.

The ambassador's letter followed an intense debate inside the Japanese government about how to limit domestic damage from the resolution, according to Michael Green, a professor at Georgetown University who until 2005 was senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

Green said Japan apparently decided to write the aggressively worded letter to House leaders after it failed to persuade the Bush administration to lean on lawmakers to quash the resolution.

Several Japanese and American experts on Japanese politics said that Abe's remarks this year on the comfort women appeared to have been an attempt to curry favor with his conservative, neo-nationalist base within the ruling party, which resists and resents foreign demands that Japan show contrition for its behavior during the war.

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