News Analysis: Japanese Prime Minister’s Apology for Sex Slaves: What Next?

By Aruna Lee, New America Media
Tuesday March 27, 2007

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent apology for his country’s involvement in the abduction of thousands of Asian women for use as prostitutes during World War II has drawn a swift response from Asian Americans. The issue has been a point of tension between Japan and its neighbors for decades, and many here question Abe’s sincerity. 

Kai Ping Liu, editor at the Chinese-language the World Journal in San Francisco, says the apology is not enough. “Japan’s imperial forces killed more than 35 million Chinese over the course of eight years, atrocities that should never be forgotten.” He says if Japan is sincere in its regret, it should sponsor the construction of a memorial to the victims of Japanese aggression similar to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. 

Tae Soo Jung, editor at the Korean-language daily Korea Times in Oakland, questions the timing of Abe’s apology. He says it reflects Japan’s overwhelming concern with Western opinion and its disregard of the opinion of neighboring Asian countries. “Abe’s actions seem to be a gesture towards the West to avoid bad press there more than a sincere apology to Japan’s neighbors.” Like Liu, Jung says more needs to be done, including the payment of reparations and the revision of Japanese history textbooks that currently omit the country’s wartime past.  

Asian media in the United States has followed the issue closely, as many here have relatives who were affected by the war. Chinese and Korean media covered protests in Seoul and Taipei, where former South Korean and Chinese comfort women gathered at the Japanese embassy to denounce Abe’s earlier statements. In the United States, more than 70,000 Korean Americans signed a petition in support of a House bill calling for Abe to apologize for Japan’s wartime atrocities, according to the Korean-language Korea Daily. 

The non-binding resolution, sponsored by California Congressman Mike Honda, a Japanese American, urges the Japanese government to offer an official apology for the forced sexual enslavement of thousands of Asian women during WWII. In an interview with the Nichi Bei Times, Honda said it was important for Japan to reconcile with her neighbors. “Out of the 200,000 women victimized there are only about 300 left. Every day is a day that we lose an opportunity to get them an apology.” 

Harry Bang is a Korean American who has been working in conjunction with community groups in the Bay Area around the issue of comfort women. He says Abe’s apology might be a move to stop the resolution sponsored by Congressman Honda from passing. As far as what Japan must do now, Bang says Abe’s statements should be made official by the Japanese Parliament, which should then vote to pay compensation to the families of the victims.  

Seattle resident Chizu Omori, a columnist for Nichi Bei, said because most of the surviving victims are in their 80s and 90s, Japanese politicians believe time is on their side. “They think the problem will just go away in a few years,” she says, “but they are misjudging the temper of the times.” 

Los Angeles resident Kyu Sang Won, 77, scoffs at Japan’s earlier denials. He says he remembers seeing Korean women forced into the sex trade by Japan. “I saw them with my own two eyes, and I remember when they came back after the war. Their lives were ruined.” Won says an apology won’t be enough and agrees that Japan must offer reparations in the name of its victims.  

Won’s sentiments are echoed across the Asian American community. Sung Park is a Korean student studying acupuncture and integrative medicine in Berkeley. She calls Abe’s previous denials humiliating, saying, “Like the holocaust, the memory of what Japan did cannot be wiped away.” 

Shinzo Abe, who was born after the war, is Japan’s youngest prime minister ever. Masahiro Miyata, 37, a Japanese living in the United States, says Abe’s earlier denials are a reflection of his generation’s understanding of WWII. Miyata says he himself did not learn about the sex slave issue until coming to the U.S. “History classes in Japan don’t mention things like this.” He says that education is key to a better understanding between Japan and her neighbors. 

In addition to Chinese and Koreans, victims of Japanese abuses included many Filipino women taken as sex workers for the Japanese military. An editorial in the Philippine News says that while Abe’s apology may not be enough, it is a start. Referring to the Philippines’ own history under the military dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 80s, the author writes that Japan’s wartime activities should serve as a reminder to the present generation of the dangers of a militarized state. 

“That regime which lasted all of two decades was capable of committing heinous crimes against its own citizens. History should teach us lessons so that the sins of the past may never be repeated.” 

Hye Rin Seok is a Korean woman who has lived in Tokyo for the past 20 years. She says the issue of sex slaves during WWII tends to be ignored by the Japanese government and the press there, and that people follow suit. Those aware of the issue insist Japan has already apologized, and that no further action is necessary. 

Peter Schurmann, a student at UC Berkeley in Asian Studies, says the issue goes beyond Asia and World War II. “As conflicts erupt in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa, women are at the frontlines of the violence. They are abused by opposing sides, inciting further hatred.” Schurmann says Japan must play a part in advocating for women’s rights today if it wants to show its sincerity.