“Comfort Women” Controversy Cast A Shadow On Japan

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By Yuki Tatsumi – On March 1, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, questioned the degree and nature of Japanese government’s involvement in recruiting so-called “comfort women (jugun ianfu)” —women who were forced into sexual slavery—during World War II. His statement has provoked a huge outcry of criticism not only in South Korea and China, but also in the United States. In many people’s eyes, this controversy over “comfort women” confirms concerns that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to lead Japan back to its nationalist past. It has also neutralized at least some of the progress that has been made in Japan’s relationship with South Korea and China, and hurt his image in the United States, undercutting the efforts by those who have argued that Abe is not an ideologue and can make decisions based on Japan’s national interest.

Abe’s comments were intended to be for his support base of conservatives. Abe’s subsequent efforts to express his personal apologies have been judged insufficient, and the comfort women do not consider past Japanese statements or offers of compensation to be acceptable. The US House of Representatives is considering a resolution that demands the Japanese government officially apologize to the surviving comfort women. Should the resolution pass prior to Abe’s scheduled visit to Washington, DC in April, the issue could cast a shadow over his visit.

Furthermore, Abe is undercutting his own efforts to raise Japan’s international profile by making these insensitive remarks. The insensitivity in his initial remarks on the issue of comfort women contradicts the “value-based diplomacy” that his government tries to pursue. Moreover, these comments aggravate concerns in some corners of Asia that Japan is becoming a belligerent power, hindering his government’s efforts to play a more robust role in global and regional security affairs.

There are many in and outside Japan that try to use Japan’s legacy of World War II for their own political gains under the best of circumstances. Abe (or the rest of the Japanese leadership for that matter) should not help them by making unthoughtful comments.

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