TOKYO/SEOUL -- Japan's top government spokesman on Tuesday strongly criticized a recently installed statue in South Korea that shows a man resembling Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on his knees and bowing to a girl symbolizing wartime "comfort women."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference that if media reports about the statue -- that it depicts Abe -- are true it would be "unacceptable in terms of international courtesy" and would have a "decisive effect" on the relationship between Japan and South Korea.
The neighboring countries have been at loggerheads in recent years over the comfort women, wartime labor issues, and the sovereignty of small islands claimed by both sides. Seoul has lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization over Japan's imposition of curbs on exports to South Korea of key materials used to make semiconductors and displays.
The private Korea Botanic Garden in Pyeongchang has put up a statue entitled "Eternal Atonement." A spokesman for the park said there would be an opening ceremony on August 10, and it would open to the public from August 25.
The spokesman told the Nikkei Asian Review: "It is not true to say that it is a statue of Abe. It's meant to be symbolic. It could be Abe, it could be another person."
"The work expresses the atonement that the comfort women deserve and enhances the spirit of our people while wishing for a new Japan that truthfully apologizes and faces up to history," artist Wang Kwang-hyun told the Kyunghyang newspaper.
A photo released by the Korea Botanic Garden shows a pair of statues on a green lawn. One is of a girl in what appears to be traditional Korean attire sitting on a stool. The other is of a man in what seems to be a Western-style suit on his knees, his palms placed on the ground and head facing down in front of the statue of the young woman.
Suga added that the Japanese government has not confirmed the authenticity of the reports.
Regarding the comfort women issue, he stressed, that Japan "continues to urge the steady implementation of the Japan-Korea agreement that confirmed it was finally and irreversibly resolved."
In 2018, South Korea dissolved a foundation created to assist comfort women, in a move that essentially gutted the 2015 deal with Japan to settle the issue.
Additional reporting by Steven Borowiec in Seoul