US lawmakers pushing for apology from Japan

Democrats under domestic pressure to pass resolution on sex slave issue.

US LAWMAKERS in an unprecedented move yesterday were expected to endorse a resolution demanding that Japan apologise officially for forcing thousands of women to work as sex slaves during World War II.

The move by the House Foreign Affairs Committee – which is likely to go to a congressional vote next month – has caused some consternation in Japan, a close and strategic American ally.

Japan responded yesterday saying it would stick to its position on former “comfort women” even if the United States congressional panel backs the Bill.

“Japan will continue asking for understanding for the government’s position,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told reporters. Among other things, the non-binding resolution urges Tokyo to “formally acknowledge, apologise and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner” for the so-called comfort women’s ordeal.

It adds that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should give the apology as a public statement in his official capacity.

Democrat Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, described the resolution as “a very important and overdue piece of legislation”. He predicted it would pass by “a substantial margin”.

Some 140 Democrat and Republican lawmakers have backed the resolution. They had been mulling over congressional action since January last year, after hearing testimony from Asian women regarding their ordeal at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army.

Observers revealed that the “tipping point” in the long-simmering and contentious debate in the House was when a group of Japanese leaders, including more than 40 members of Parliament, published an advertisement in the Washington Post on June 14.

The newspaper advertisement claimed that many of the women worked in brothels by choice. It also maintained that the Imperial Army had punished any Japanese officials who were involved.

Mr Daniel Kohns, an aide to lawmaker Michael Honda, the Bill’s main sponsor, said that the arguments in the advertisement “have been floated for years and years”, and Mr Honda would not respond to something that “already has been proved baseless”.

“To respond would legitimise calling these women (who testified) liars, which he is not willing to do.”

Significantly, domestic pressures on the Democratic leadership have also had a bearing on this issue.

Mr Honda, a Japanese- American Democrat from California, is under heavy pressure from Korean-American groups in his district. Foreign Affairs Committee head Tom Lantos and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi face a similar predicament.

Mr Chris Nelson, who authors the Nelson Report, an insider’s brief on political developments in Washington, noted that the efforts of Korean-Americans were similar to those of Cuban-Americans in 2000.

They had lobbied the Clinton administration when a seven-year-old boy was forcibly returned to Cuba from Miami.

The Bush administration clearly values Tokyo as one of its closest allies. But sources disclosed that Washington was none too pleased with the newspaper advertisement. Indeed, the White House and the State Department believed that it could seriously “get in the way” of US interests.

The Nelson Report quotes an administration official as saying: “This ad is mystifying. Who could have thought it was a good idea?

“Most Americans seem willing to let World War II be history, if the Japanese will, and we can instead focus on common values, burden-sharing and strategic cooperation.”

Tokyo’s response has been one of unease. Officials there say that their country’s leaders have apologised repeatedly – including during Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Washington in April this year.

Mr Ryozo Kato, Japan’s Ambassador to the United States, warned last week that it is “harmful for bilateral relations if a factually unfounded resolution is passed”.

However, when asked to comment yesterday, Prime Minister Abe said he believes “Japan-US relations are unshakeable as an indispensable alliance”.

There is also a danger that this issue could drag Beijing into the picture. Some in Tokyo have painted the whole affair in conspiratorial terms as “a Chinese plot” to discredit Japan.

But diplomatic sources here say that Beijing has carefully steered clear of this particular historical tar baby, putting Tokyo on notice that it had nothing do with it.

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