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Japan to review apology made to wartime ‘comfort women’

TOKYO – Japan will re-examine a landmark apology it made two decades ago to women forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels, a government spokesman said Friday, in a move that could further outrage South Korea, where many of the women came from.

The spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, the chief Cabinet secretary, said a team of scholars would be formed to examine what historical evidence had been used in compiling the apology, known as the Kono Statement. The statement, issued in 1993 by the chief Cabinet secretary at the time, Yohei Kono, admitted for the first time that the Imperial military had been at least indirectly involved in coercing women, known euphemistically as comfort women, to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Suga did not say whether the inquiry could lead to a possible scrapping of the statement, something that would most likely draw an explosive reaction from South Korea, where the women are seen as an emotionally potent symbol of their nation’s brutal early 20th-century colonization by Japan.

It was also unclear whether Suga was simply offering to form the team as a way to deflect pressure from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s supporters in the political far right, who say the statement should be scrapped because, they say, there is insufficient objective evidence to support the testimony of the women that the Japanese military forced them to provide sex. (Most scholars reject that, saying the military was at least indirectly complicit because it allowed the brothels to operate.)

Officials in the Abe administration have said that Suga does not support discarding the statement, because he is well aware that such a move would be condemned in other nations like the United States, which view the comfort women as a human-rights issue.

However, the creation of the team may still draw the ire of the United States, which has been frustrated by the inability of its two central Asian allies to work together to offset the growing strength of China. Visiting U.S. officials have repeatedly urged Abe, an outspoken conservative, not to engage in historical revisionism that might isolate Japan in the region.

For many Koreans, the questioning of the women by Japanese rightists is seen as proof of a lack of remorse for the women and other victims of Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula. The South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, has refused to even meet Abe until Japan shows more contrition toward the women.

Friday’s move may also lead to renewed concerns in Washington and elsewhere that Abe, who struck a very pragmatic tone in his first year in office, may be reverting to his earlier nationalistic agenda of challenging what he calls masochistic views of Japan’s wartime history.

In recent days, his government has faced growing calls to revisit the statement by right-wing lawmakers in parliament, who analysts say appear to have been encouraged to speak out by Abe’s visit in December to a controversial Tokyo war shrine.

Recently, nationalist lawmakers have demanded that the government look into whether the Kono Statement was based on inadequate evidence. A former official who helped draft the statement was called in to testify that the main evidence was the testimony of 16 former “comfort women” and that no documents were found to verify their stories.

That testimony seemed to confirm the position of nationalist lawmakers, who have questioned the women’s testimonies, accusing them of being politically motivated. They say the women were not coerced but were common prostitutes who worked in the brothels to earn money.

On Friday, Suga appeared to bow to that pressure.

Largely unheard of for decades after the war, the women began to receive international attention in the early 1990s as hundreds began to speak out about what had happened to them a half-century earlier during the war.

Scholars say that tens of thousands of Korean and other women worked in Japanese military brothels, and many of the survivors, who are now in their 80s and 90s, say they were tricked or coerced into laboring in wretched conditions that left them sterile.