by Martin Fackler
THE NEW YORK TIMES
TOKYO, March 5 — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that Japan would refuse to comply if the United States Congress demanded an apology for his nation’s use of foreign women as sexual slaves during World War II.
Japan has already lobbied against a resolution, under consideration in the House of Representatives, that would call on Tokyo to take clearer responsibility for its enslavement of some 200,000 mostly Korean and Chinese women known euphemistically here as “comfort women.”
Japan has apologized before and issued a major report in 1993. But there are widespread concerns that Mr. Abe and other conservative Japanese lawmakers may try to water down or reverse such admissions of guilt as part of a broader push to revise their nation’s wartime history.
Speaking in Parliament, Mr. Abe reiterated the position of conservative scholars here that Japanese officials and soldiers did not have a hand in forcing women into brothels, instead blaming any coercion on contractors used by Japan’s military.
Mr. Abe rejected testimony before a House committee by surviving victims, who said they had been kidnapped by Japanese soldiers to serve in military brothels. He said “testimony to the effect that there had been a hunt for comfort women is a complete fabrication.”
He also criticized the proposed House resolution, which blames Japanese authorities for the coercion, saying it “was not based in objective fact, and does not consider the Japanese government’s measures so far.”
Political analysts said ignoring the House resolution, which is nonbinding, was not likely to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington, its most important ally. The fear among Japanese diplomats is that Mr. Abe or other Japanese politicians will overreact and make claims that reinforce the perception in the United States and elsewhere that Japan remains unrepentant for its wartime aggression, analysts said.
“It just looks bad for the prime minister to be getting involved in these sorts of historical details,” said Minoru Morita, a political analyst who runs an independent research institute in Tokyo. “Plus, his argument isn’t going to sway world opinion anyway. Even if the military wasn’t pointing guns at the women, they still could have been coerced.”
Apparently in a nod to such concerns, Mr. Abe appeared to pull back from a comment last week denying that the women had been forced at all to work in brothels. On Monday, he told Parliament he supported the 1993 government statement, which acknowledged that the military had at least an indirect role in forcing the women into sexual slavery.
That government had also apologized to the women and set up a fund to pay them compensation, which is set to expire this month.
“There probably was not anyone who followed that path because they wanted to follow it,” Mr. Abe said, speaking of the women’s entry into military brothels. “In the broad sense, there was coercion.”
With that limited concession, Mr. Abe appeared to be trying to defuse a growing diplomatic row with Asian neighbors over last week’s denial, which outraged officials and women’s groups across the region.
As opinion polls show his approval falling among Japanese voters, Mr. Abe can ill afford to be seen as provoking China and South Korea, much less undermining ties with the United States, political analysts and opposition lawmakers said.
“If Japan doesn’t apologize and repent for its past violations of human rights, won’t it lose international trust?” a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party, Toshio Ogawa, asked Mr. Abe during Monday’s parliamentary debate.
Mr. Morita and others said that vowing to ignore the possible House resolution appeared to be an attempt by Mr. Abe to appease his conservative base even as he supported the 1993 statement.
But Mr. Abe’s claims that Japan had no official role in its military brothels carried another potential public relations risk, they said: in making such denials, he was in effect dismissing as liars the aging women now coming forward with tearful testimony of their ordeals.
One was Lee Yong-soo, 78, from South Korea, who testified in the House last month that she had been kidnapped by Japanese soldiers at age 16 and raped repeatedly at an army brothel. In a news conference last week in Tokyo, she said Japanese soldiers had dragged her from her home, covering her mouth so she could not call to her mother.
“I want Japan and the Japanese prime minister to apologize,” she said. “As a victim who was forcibly taken, as someone who lived through those events, I’m a living witness.”