TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday his government would stand by a 1993 admission that Japan's World War II military leaders were complicit in rounding up women for army brothels.
"I have no thought of my cabinet revising" the so-called Kono statement, Abe told the upper house budget committee in what seemed a gesture of conciliation to South Korea, which has railed against the issue of wartime "comfort woman."
Responding to a committee member's question, Abe addressed the issue himself, rather than let Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga continue handling it. The prime minister seems to be trying to clear the air for a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has so far refused to meet with Abe.
Abe had sounded keen on retracting Japan's admission of involvement in recruiting "comfort women." As a candidate for leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2012, he said the crux of the 1993 statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono was the recognition that women were forced to work in brothels. "There was no evidence" of such coercion, a fact that is not widely known, he argued.
On Friday, he sought to distance himself from that rhetoric, saying such questions "ought to be left to historians."
South Koreans told to tune in
Two days earlier, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Akitaka Saiki went to South Korea to meet with counterpart Cho Tae-yong. Saiki sounded out Park's stance on a possible summit with Abe next week on the sidelines of a nuclear disarmament conference at The Hague. He left empty handed, with the South Korean side insisting that Japan make sincere efforts to right past wrongs.
Then on Friday, a senior Japanese foreign ministry official asked the South Korean embassy in Tokyo to watch that day's budget committee session.
Abe's remarks "were meant to fulfill South Korea's expectations as much as possible," a different ministry official said afterward.
Tokyo was also trying to send a message to the U.S., which wants its two East Asian allies to make up, lest the bad blood distract them from dealing with North Korea. Abe's government "wants to avoid having the issue of Japanese-Korean relations come up during President Barack Obama's visit to Japan in April," a source said.
But that may not be the end of the matter. Last month, Nobuo Ishihara, Kono's deputy at the time of the statement, told the lower house budget committee that no effort was made to corroborate testimony from former comfort women, the most damning evidence that they were forced into becoming sex workers. Nor was there any documentation of coercion, Ishihara said. He speculated that there may have been some back-and-forth between Tokyo and Seoul on the wording of the statement.
Prodded by an right-leaning opposition lawmaker critical of the statement, Suga promised an investigation. While he has since tried to tone down expectations of what this might entail, saying victims would not be asked for fresh testimony, Suga still intends to confirm whether there was contact between Tokyo and Seoul in the drafting process. Such a revelation may embolden conservative lawmakers in Abe's LDP and opposition parties who want to retract the admission.