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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced this week that he will not retract his country’s official apology for its military’s use of sex slaves during World War II. Abe’s cabinet had been reviewing a landmark 1993 cabinet statement in which Tokyo acknowledged for the first time that the Japanese military had directly or indirectly been involved in establishing brothels for its soldier in territories occupied by imperial Japan during its brutal conquest of east Asia in first half of the twentieth century. Up to 200,000 women are estimated to have been forced to work as sex slaves in Japan’s military brothels.

Speaking on Friday to the budget committee in the upper house of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, Abe said he had, ” no thought of my cabinet revising,” the 1993 apology, known as the Kono statement, after then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. “We must be humble regarding history… it should not be politicized or made into a diplomatic issue,” Abe said.

The decision by Abe, a rightwing nationalist who recently angered his country’s east Asian neighbors by visiting a controversial war shrine commemorating Japan’s war dead, is being seen as an effort by the hawkish prime minister to placate South Korea, which has criticized Tokyo for its perceived failure to atone for wartime atrocities. Japan annexed the Korean peninsula in 1910 and ruled it as a Japanese colony until the end of World War II in 1945.

Abe’s attempt to mollify Seoul, a strategic partner in countering China’s economic and military rise, comes ahead of a possible meeting between the Japanese prime minister and South Korean President Park Geun-hye next week on the sidelines of a nuclear disarmament summit in The Hague.

On Wednesday, Japanese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Akitaka Saiki traveled to South Korea in a bid to lock down a meeting between the two leaders at next week’s summit. After meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Akitaka left without obtaining a commitment from South Korea for a meeting between its president and Abe, as Seoul continued to insist that Tokyo do more to make amends for it militaristic past.

The Prime Minister’s decision not to revise the 1993 apology comes about two weeks after Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced that Abe’s government was forming a team to review the Kono statement, in which Tokyo acknowledged for the first time that, “The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.” Comfort stations is a Japanese euphemism for the brothels operated by the Japanese imperial military in territories conquered by Tokyo during its conquest of east Asia in the first half the twentieth century.

Abe’s refusal to revisit Tokyo’s groundbreaking admission represents a u-turn for the sometimes hard line prime minister, who at times has pushed a revisionist version of history that white washes over Japan’s wartime atrocities. When he was running to be the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2012, Abe said “there was no evidence” that the comfort women had been forced to work in the brothels.

Late last year, Abe angered China and South Korea, both of which were occupied by Japan during the first half of the twentieth century, when he visited Yasukuni, a Shinto shrine that commemorates Japan’s war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals.

– Eric Erdahl

Sources: BBC, BBC, Nikkei Asian Review
Photo: Enformable