Congress reignites Japan sex slave row

The Japanese government on Wednesday moved to avoid a showdown with the US Congress after the House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee voted to call for Tokyo to apologise for the sexual exploitation of young women during the second world war.

Yasuhisa Shiozaki, chief cabinet secretary, responded that Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, had “shown our stance” on the issue when he visited Washington in April. Mr Abe had apologised “both personally and as prime minister” for the women’s treatment. “There is nothing additional for us to say,” said Mr Shiozaki.

The non-binding resolution calls on Japan to make an unequivocal apology for coercing up to 200,000 women, many from Korea and China, into working in brothels run by Japan’s Imperial Army. Mike Honda, a California Democrat who submitted the resolution, said: “There was a systematic military programme that captured and coerced women and girls to be used as sex slaves.”

Mr Abe ran into trouble over the issue this year when he appeared to question whether the army had been directly involved in coercing those euphemistically referred to as “comfort women”. His remarks provoked consternation among critics, partly because some Japanese conservatives considered close to Mr Abe have suggested most volunteered to work as prostitutes.

The prime minister spent weeks trying to extract himself from the ensuing diplomatic storm, repeating the so-called Kono statement of 1993, in which Japan had acknowledged, and apologised for, forcing women into sexual service.

In April, Mr Abe appeared to have defused the row by telling Congressmen that, “both personally and as prime minister of Japan, my heart goes out in sympathy to all those who suffered extreme hardships as comfort women, and I express my apologies for the fact that they were forced to endure such extreme and harsh conditions”.

George W. Bush, US president, said he had accepted the apology. But critics said Mr Abe’s remarks were grudging and skirted the issue of whether Japan’s army was directly involved in abducting and repeatedly raping young women.

The House committee’s resolution could reignite the controversy, particularly if US politicians are tenacious in demanding a new and unequivocal apology.

The issue comes at a tricky time for Japan, in part because this year is the 70th anniversary of the Nanking massacre, in which Japanese troops are accused of slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Last week, a group of ruling party lawmakers said the massacre was a fabrication and de­manded Chinese museums remove pictures showing mass killings that they said were of no historical merit.

“Japan’s occupation of Nanking was nothing more nor less than an ordinary battlefield,” the group said in a statement.

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