Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s expression of “deep repentance” Wednesday over Japan’s World War II atrocities received a largely negative response in Asia, with victims of sex slavery complaining Tokyo had again failed to draw a line under the issue. In a historic speech to the United States Congress, the first by a Japanese prime minister, Abe deferred to apologies by his predecessors and largely focused on pain caused to Americans. “Our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries. We must not avert our eyes from that,” he said, in one of the few references to the horrors inflicted outside the battlefields. “I will uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard.” Abe hinted recently that he may again stop short of issuing the “heartfelt apology” of his predecessors when he makes a speech in August to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, despite a growing chorus of disapproval in the region. Last week, the prime minister called Japan’s self-reflection over wartime atrocities “self-masochism” in an interview with domestic broadcaster Fuji TV. The Japanese military enslaved between 80,000 and 200,000 women and girls between 1932 and the end of the war, mostly from Korea, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan itself. In a reference to the sex slavery issue during Wednesday’s speech, Abe said that “armed conflicts have always made women suffer the most”, adding that there is a need to build a world where “finally women are free from human rights abuses”. In recent years, Abe’s administration has looked at revising previous apologies on comfort women and changed school textbooks to reflect a softer line. Textbooks published this year called the Nanking Massacre an “incident”. In China, where there is enduring disgust at Japan’s harsh occupation of Manchuria, Abe’s speech was widely panned on social media and in the state press which accused Washington of collaborating in historical revisionism. “Abe just kept focusing on Japan’s post-WWII role in the world. But Japan’s positive contribution to the world in the past decades does not grant Japanese leaders and politicians the right to whitewash history,” said the state-run China Daily
in an editorial Thursday. Since becoming president two years ago, Xi Jinping has created two new holidays marking Japanese aggression amid resurgent nationalism in China. Abe met Xi for the first time last week, the first sign relations may be thawing amid an enduring dispute over the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu in China. But Beijing remains weary over Japan’s recent reinterpretation of its pacifist charter and closer relations with the US on security in East Asia, one of the key reasons behind Abe’s visit to Washington DC this week. Among their closest allies in the region is the Philippines, where President Benigno Aquino has downplayed the comfort women issue with Japan, failing to mention it with Abe last July in a bid to build ties despite pressure at home. Lila Pilipina, a Manila-based group of comfort women, said that Abe needed to take responsibility by issuing an “unequivocal apology”, ending historical revisionism and by paying compensation to victims, an issue Japan has dismissed out of hand.
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“Abe’s statement is nothing but lip service,” the group’s executive director, Rechelda Extremadura, told ucanews.com. In South Korea, media also said Abe had fallen short in his apology. But commentators reminded the government to be pragmatic in relations with Tokyo amid its own security concerns, particularly with North Korea. President Park Geun-hye has recently refused a bilateral summit with Abe until he does more to atone for Japan’s wartime atrocities, despite a recent poll that showed 70 percent of South Koreans hope for talks. However, in a rare display of political unity, South and North Korea on Thursday each condemned Abe for failing to apologize. Their respective foreign ministries both issued statements criticizing Abe for distorting history, with Pyongyang comparing the Japanese leader to a psychotic hooligan. "It is very regrettable that Japanese Prime Minister Abe's speech at the US Congress … lacked a sincere apology," the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The statement argued that Abe had missed a golden chance for Japan to foster a fresh spirit of "true reconciliation" with its neighbors. A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said Abe's failure to offer a proper apology was an "intolerable" insult to the women who had suffered. The spokesman accused Abe of working with right-wing Japanese groups to try to negate Japan's war crimes record and avoid responsibility for abuses. "This can be done only by hooligans devoid of morality and human conscience and psychopaths bereft of elementary common sense," the spokesman was quoted as saying by the North's official KCNA news agency. Ahead of Abe’s speech, surviving South Korean comfort women made their regular Wednesday protest outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, the 1,176th time they have done so. “While the victims are still suffering, Abe is having a political show in the United States,” the protesters said in a statement that also criticized the United States. “Justice has not been served over the last 70 years. The victims are still waiting for true liberation.” Among those watching Abe’s speech in Washington DC yesterday was Lee Yong-soo, 86, one of fewer than 60 Korean comfort women still alive. She was invited by Mike Honda, the Japanese-American Democratic congressman, who led a rare attack on Abe in what was otherwise a speech well received by US politicians. “My heart breaks for Ms Lee and her sisters, as she must now return to Korea without having received an apology from Prime Minister Abe,” Honda said. Additional reporting by AFP