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As Tokyo re-examines its apology over the use of South Korean and Chinese women as wartime sex slaves, Seoul claims there is a sense Japan is attempting to distance itself from the atrocities of the past.
A committee of the lower house of the Japanese parliament will hear the results of a new investigation into the so-called 1993 Kono Statement on June 20, with the South Korean government, media and general public keeping a watchful eye on just how the administration in Tokyo intends to interpret a document that was meant to settle the issue of "comfort women" once and for all.
The statement was issued in the name of Yohei Kono, who served as Chief Cabinet Secretary in 1993 and marked the first time a Japanese government acknowledged that the Imperial Japanese Army had been involved in the forcible recruitment of women from Japan's colonies and conquered territories in the 1930s and 1940s to serve in front-line brothels.
The majority of the women were taken from the Korean peninsula, while others came from Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Thailand and islands across the Asia-Pacific region.
The left-leaning administration that Kono served in has long been replaced by a series of more conservative governments, with Shinzo Abe, the incumbent prime minister, seen as something of a nationalist. Abe has, in the past, indicated that he does not accept the testimony given by former comfort women to be completely accurate.
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has indicated that he does not accept the testimony given by former comfort women to be completely accurate
The argument of the nationalists is that these women were merely common prostitutes who were assisted in plying their trade by civilian brokers. Under pressure from his conservative supporters, the Abe administration announced in February that it was setting up a team to "re-examine and understand the background" of the Kono statement, including attempting to verify the testimony provided by former comfort women.
The outcry, from South Korea and China in particular, was swift and loud. Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, says the strength of the outrage expressed in Seoul, Beijing and elsewhere surprised Tokyo. And there are suggestions that Washington - Japan's most important ally - may have had a quiet word as well.
"They backtracked at a very early point in the process and said they would only be examining the process of the development of the statement," Okumura told DW.
Wording of the statement
"That means they are not now making a direct challenge to the veracity of the testimony of the former comfort women," he said. "What the two sides are now disputing, it seems, is what part the South Korean government played in the wording of the statement."
In the review, the Japanese government is expected to say that the two governments negotiated on the exact phrases that were used.
"What the Abe administration wants to achieve is that the document was a collaborative effort that was agreed by both sides and that it should be the definitive closure of the issue that allows both sides to move on," Okumura said.
South Korea has similarly seen the rise of a right-of-center administration and does not see the dispute in the same way. Unsurprisingly, Seoul now insists that it provided data but had no say in the wording of the final document. In a statement, the Korean Foreign Ministry said that if the Japanese government "announces a result that challenges the Kono Statement on the pretext of an investigation, our government will actively present authoritative claims and records from Korea and abroad."
"The Abe administration has attempted to undermine the apology since it came to power in December 2012, and these efforts continue by fair means or foul," the Chosun Ilbo newspaper wrote in an editorial this week. "The Abe administration clearly intends to portray the Kono statement as the result of Korean pressure rather than objective research," it added.
"The Abe administration's goal is simple: to disown responsibility for the atrocities Japan committed in World War II," the paper wrote, describing the forced mobilization of women as sex slaves as "an act of unspeakable depravity."
Japan's Prime Minister may already be regretting addressing this issue, as the right-wing who form the majority of his support base at home have been disappointed that he went back on his initial plan to completely reconsider the Kono Statement and is likely to react strongly should the panel be perceived as pulling its punches to mollify the Koreans.
Five nationalist claims
"Anyone who wishes to arrive at an accurate understanding of the comfort women controversy needs to be aware of five basic facts," said Hiromichi Moteki, secretary general of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact. "I am referring not to opinions or perceptions, but to irrefutable, objective, social facts," he said.
Those five tenets of the nationalists' claim are that prostitution was legal in Japan at the time; that foreign comfort women received the same wage as Japanese women; that US documents describe comfort women as prostitutes; that Korean women were treated the same as Japanese comfort women; and that the police and health authorities were only involved "to ensure that prostitutes were not mistreated."
Yet another party with a voice is the United States, points out Okumura. "My guess is that the Abe administration wanted to go further than this and eventually release a new comment to replace the Kono Statement with a new interpretation," he said. "And while Korea's reaction might not matter too much, what Washington says does matter.
"The US wants Japan and South Korea to work together as part of its broader alliance on security and trade issues, even more so now that the Koreans are being wooed by the Chinese," he added.