Sunday, October 13, 2013

Japan shunned probe into ‘comfort women’ issue in Southeast Asia

Japan shied away from investigating the “comfort women” issue in Southeast Asia in the early 1990s to stem negative public attention that was sure to arise from the contentious issue, The Asahi Shimbun has learned from classified diplomatic papers and interviews with government officials

That secret refusal came despite a pledge publicly to launch probes into countries in addition to South Korea.

In 1992 and 1993, the comfort women issue emerged as a sticking point between Japan and South Korea. In July 1993, the government conducted a round of interviews with former comfort women in South Korea.

However, according to a confidential diplomatic document dated July 30, 1993, Foreign Minister Kabun Muto stated the Japanese government’s policy that it would not conduct interviews with former comfort women in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

“We want to avoid (interviews) as much as possible also from the viewpoint that we should ward off a situation in that we only end up fanning public interest (in the issue) unnecessarily,” Muto said in the document telegraphed to the Japanese embassies in the three countries.

Comfort women refer to women who were forced to work in front-line brothels to provide sex to Japanese troops before and during World War II. Many of them were from the Korean Peninsula, which was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945.

The Asahi Shimbun obtained those diplomatic documents through the information disclosure law.

The paper in question was produced ahead of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono's landmark acknowledgement of military authorities’ involvement in the management of brothels in a statement released on Aug. 4, 1993. The statement offered apologies to the victims, saying, the comfort women system “severely injured the honor and dignity of many women.”

At that time, Japan showed a willingness to also conduct a government study in countries that fell under Japan’s wartime aggression, apart from South Korea.

At a Diet session, the head of a section at the Cabinet Secretariat that handles diplomatic issues said that a government study on comfort women “will not be limited to the Korean Peninsula.”
But the document showed that despite the pledge, the government behind closed doors was trying to keep the issue from spreading beyond Korea.

That policy can be seen in a comfort women study it started in December 1991, when a study team formed under the administration of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa started collecting relevant documents kept at Japanese ministries and agencies. Tokyo also interviewed former comfort women in South Korea in July 1993.

But Japan deliberately steered away from getting to the bottom of the issue in Southeast Asian nations in its initial report, released in July 1992, which acknowledged the government and military's involvement in setting up the comfort women system.

When the Indonesian government issued the same month a statement protesting that Tokyo’s study on comfort women was insufficient, Keiichi Hayashi, then director with the Foreign Ministry’s Second Southeast Asia Division, expressed anger in a document dated July 14, 1992. The paper was addressed to the Indonesian envoy in Tokyo.

Hayashi, now ambassador to Britain, objected to the statement, saying that it was tantamount to saying that Japan was not trustworthy.

He also said that it is impossible for the compensation issue to be resurrected because the question of war reparations was already settled between Japan and Indonesia in 1958.

Furthermore, he denounced an Indonesian official for commenting on the need to punish former Japanese troops when Jakarta released the statement.

Hayashi said the official’s remark was surprising in light of the fact that even South Korea did not demand such a step.

A factor behind these moves was the Japanese government’s attempt to prevent the comfort women issue from sending ripples throughout Asia.

“We wanted to keep the issue from spilling over to countries other than South Korea,” said a high-ranking official who handled the issue under the Miyazawa administration. “Our thinking was that relations with other countries should not be destabilized by raking over old ashes."
The comfort women issue was not only between Japan and South Korea. The victims include women from various parts of Asia, as well as the Netherlands.

But it gave an impression that it was a political issue between the two neighbors because Japan intended to settle it by separating other countries from South Korea, where criticism of Japan mounted.

“It is only South Korea, which harshly called on Japan to confront the issue,” said Nobuo Ishihara, deputy chief Cabinet secretary, who oversaw the entire corps of Japanese bureaucrats. “Other countries did not raise the issue, so we did not have the intention to look into it on our part.”

Ishihara is one of 12 officials who granted an interview to The Asahi Shimbun. He said that Japan did not conduct interviews in countries in Southeast Asia because it was questionable that those nations, which have problems conducting administrative tasks, would not be able to locate true victims.

“As long as the Japanese government conducts the study, fairness and accuracy are crucial,” he said.

But a senior Japanese government official recalled that Tokyo was afraid that an investigation, including interviews of the victims, would reveal the stark reality that these women had to endure in those countries invaded by Japan.

The governments of Southeast Asian countries, too, were reluctant to pursue the issue. With many dependent on aid from Japan, they chose not to strain ties with Tokyo by pressing it as a political issue.

As a result, former comfort women had little access to redress. Most of the Indonesian victims are now around 90.

They could not receive “atonement money” from the Asian Women’s Fund, an entity established by the Japanese government in 1995 to raise donations from the public and conduct welfare and other programs for the victims.

It was because the Indonesian government did not want it that way, according to former Indonesian government officials. Instead, the fund's welfare program was provided for people not limited to the victims. THE ASAHI SHIMBUN (This article was written by Jun Sato, Hiroyoshi Itabashi, Tamiyuki Kihara and Kenji Oda.)

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