The momentum for a re-examination of the statement gathered pace during the week, following on from former Deputy Cabinet Secretary Ishihara Nobuo declaring in a Diet Budget Committee hearing on the 20th that the Kono Statement, which Ishihara had been involved in drafting, was not backed up by verified evidence. The right-wing Sankei Shimbun, together with the Fuji News Network then conducted a survey of attitudes towards the Kono Statement, and found that a majority of members of the Abe Cabinet (or 70.3%) were in favour of a re-examination of the statement (as to the particulars, 66.7% of Reformist Party members, 65.4% of LDP members, and 62.2% of New Komeito members supported such a move, with opposition mostly coming from SPJ and JCP members. Members of the ‘Everyone’s Party’ were also not in favour of a revision, stating that ‘history should be left to historians’) (J).
As to why this issue should cause such a ruckus, it might be worthwhile quoting from the text of the Kono Statement itself so as to provide some context surrounding the position of the Abe government towards the statement, and why this has upset South Korea so much. According to MOFA’s website, the statement says;
“The Government of Japan has been conducting a study on the issue of wartime "comfort women" since December 1991. I wish to announce the findings as a result of that study.
As a result of the study which indicates that comfort stations were operated in extensive areas for long periods, it is apparent that there existed a great number of comfort women. Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day. The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.
As to the origin of those comfort women who were transferred to the war areas, excluding those from Japan, those from the Korean Peninsula accounted for a large part. The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule in those days, and their recruitment, transfer, control, etc., were conducted generally against their will, through coaxing, coercion, etc.
Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honor and dignity of many women. The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.
It is incumbent upon us, the Government of Japan, to continue to consider seriously, while listening to the views of learned circles, how best we can express this sentiment.
We shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history. We hereby reiterated our firm determination never to repeat the same mistake by forever engraving such issues in our memories through the study and teaching of history.
As actions have been brought to court in Japan and interests have been shown in this issue outside Japan, the Government of Japan shall continue to pay full attention to this matter, including private researched related thereto”.
The statement provided the then government of Miyazawa Kiichi with an opportunity for reconciliation with South Korea through recognition of the suffering that Japan had inflicted upon South Korea, and it was accepted by South Korea in that spirit.
The announcement then by Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga on the 21st of last month that the Abe government would begin a review of the Kono Statement in lieu of former Secretary Ishihara’s comments (J) thus hit Japanese-South Korean relations for six and elicited criticism from around the Asia-Pacific and further afield. The most vociferous criticism came from South Korea (understandably enough), with President Park Guen-hye urging Abe on the 95th anniversary of the March First Independence Movement to “stop denying the past and write a new history of truth and reconciliation”.
As for why President Park reacted so strongly to the Abe government’s decision, apart from the political gains to be made from criticism of the Japanese government (no South Korean government ever lost votes using such a strategy), the following paragraphs from Jeff Kingston pretty much sum it up…”…the Kono Statement has been Japan’s official stance on this historical controversy — a stance that infuriates Abe and like-minded conservatives who have continually disparaged it.
Why has Abe repeatedly vandalized Japan’s wartime and colonial history? He arrogantly dismissed Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s 2010 apology to Koreans on the centenary of the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty; he bashed Prime Minister Tomoichi Murayama’s 1995 apology for Japanese aggression; he oversaw forced revisions of school textbooks in 2007 regarding the Battle of Okinawa that implicated Imperial armed forces in instigating collective suicides by Okinawans; and he has worked to overturn the Kono Statement”.
The decision to revise the Kono Statement will only increase the rift that exists between the governments of Japan and South Korea, for the South Koreans will take it (and indeed, have taken it) as evidence that the Abe government has no interest in reconciling Japan’s colonial record with the suffering of the Korean people, and that Abe seeks to distort history by using it to promote a false version of Japan’s past that dismisses any controversy in favour of an ideal to inspire the present. It also plays into the fears of a return of Japanese nationalism, that by taking a more active approach to its defence and ignoring the objections of its neighbours Abe is leading Japan once again down the path to militarism.
On Sunday, LDP Chairman Ishiba Shigeru went on Fuji television (video) to refute any claim of belligerency on the part of Japan and the Abe Cabinet, adding that at the present time it was important to countries such as South Korea and Japan, as allies of the US, to combine their efforts in order to offset the threat presented by North Korea (J). While any strategic analyst would agree with this observation, the fact that Ishiba, as deputy head of the LDP, chose to emphasise this rather than a possible reconciliation with South Korea over the Kono Statement spoke volumes about the LDP’s priorities, and how the Park government can’t expect any contrition from Japan anytime soon. This is disappointing, but not unexpected.
From the point of view of the Abe government, past Japanese administrations have repeatedly made apologies for Japan’s behaviour during its past but these have failed to placate its critics. Hence the value and meaning of an apology is diminished by the refusal of the other side to accept it. Japan, as an emerging power in the early twentieth century, was forced by circumstance to pursue imperialism lest it too suffer at the hands of Europe and the US. If this process meant that Japan had to annex the territories of its neighbours to secure its future, then any acts taken during that process were justified by the result – a stronger Japan, able to defend its interests.
No country pursued Imperialism without inflicting suffering on native populations, yet Japan has been unfairly singled out in contrast to the behaviour of Europe and the US who were, in the eyes of Japanese revisionists, as guilty of committing acts of cruelty as Japan. Why should Japan apologise, when it was trying to survive at a time of rapacious European and US exploitation of non-European nations? A lack of territory and resources left Japan vulnerable to sanctions imposed, again, by European and US administrations who did not consider Japan (and more broadly Asians) to be their equal. Japan would forever remain at the mercy of European and US demands if it did not act, and so it embarked on the colonisation of nations closest to it and which could not offer (so it was thought) sustained resistance to its rule.
This view, which sees Japan as a victim of circumstance, overlooks the impact of Japan’s colonialism on Korea and China, two nations with strong identities of their own who found themselves humiliated and divided by their neighbour. The trauma of Japan’s colonial rule completely transformed the nature of both countries, for the legacy of Japan’s rule left both deeply suspicious of other states and their motives, particularly that of their former ruler. Neither China nor Korea were involved in the post-war occupation and de-militarisation of Japan, and were not privy to the decisions taken in San Francisco in 1951 regarding reparations. As such, both Korea and China did not undergo any reconciliation with Japan until 30 to 40 years after the end of WWII.
No matter how one looks at it, any move to reconsider or re-examine apologies made for wartime conduct will only prove detrimental to Japan’s interests. Perhaps in recognition of this fact, on Monday Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga stated that the Abe government was not ‘directly’ seeking to re-examine the Kono Statement, and that the government’s position had not changed vis-à-vis the content of the statement. Instead, argued Suga, the government was merely seeking to establish how Japan and South Korea had conducted interviews with the former comfort women (J). If this is so, why go to the trouble of announcing a re-examination of evidence in the first place? Perhaps the LDP felt they were being outmanoeuvred by the Reformists on nationalist issues and wished to seize the initiative.
If this was the justification for the press conference of the 21st, the LDP/New Komeito might be better off without Reformist support, especially if it means the further destabilisation of Japan’s relations with its neighbours. Then again, perhaps the Abe government felt nothing would be lost in terms of cooperation from South Korea by announcing the revision (the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ defence). Ultimately the best thing to do would be to leave the Kono Statement be and concentrate on matters more pressing to the average citizen.