Toru Hanai / Reuters

Japan’s Abe expresses ‘grief’ but doesn’t apologize for WWII atrocities

Japanese statement briefly mentions ‘women behind the battlefields’

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed "utmost grief" Friday for the suffering Japan inflicted during World War II. He vowed that Japan would never again use force to settle international disputes but added that future generations should not have to keep apologizing for mistakes of the past.

“In Japan, the post-war generations now exceed 80 percent of its population. We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” Abe said. “Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past.”

His statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II was the latest in a decades-long drama of Japanese “apologies,” considered inadequate by surviving victims on the one hand, and humiliating and unnecessary by right-wing factions on the other. It comes, too, as the country’s parliament, led by Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, pushes forward with security bills that would expand the Japanese military and repeal the “peace clause” of the constitution, which explicitly renounces war and prohibits armed forces with “war potential.”

The legacy of World War II still haunts relations with China and South Korea, which suffered under Japan's brutal occupation before Tokyo's defeat in 1945. Beijing and Seoul had made clear they wanted Abe to stick to the 1995 “heartfelt apology” by then-Premier Tomiichi Murayama for suffering caused by Tokyo's “colonial rule and aggression.”

As part of his statement, Abe said Japan should “never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.” But he made no direct reference to the 1937 Nanking Massacre, in which the Japanese army raped and killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians, or to “comfort women,” the euphemism for an estimated 200,000 women, nearly all colonial subjects, forced into a system of sexual slavery by Japan’s military.

Tokyo and Seoul have long been at odds over the issue of the majority-Korean “comfort women,” with South Korea saying Japan has not done enough to atone for their suffering. Japan has accused the women of being voluntary prostitutes and denied that the state sponsored World War II brothels. Survivors and their allies maintain that no Japanese leader has ever offered an official apology; nor have governmental reparations been paid.

Rape as a tool of war

World War II was not first or last time women’s bodies were a terrain of war. The systemic use of rape has been used as a weapon for centuries, from the crusades to contemporary battles in the Middle East. As the New York Times reported Thursday, fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in August 2014 began raping Yazidi women and girls in Iraq, justifying sexual violence as a core tenet of its quest to create a caliphate because the women do not practice Islam.

“The offensive on the mountain [Mount Sinjar beginning in August 2014] was as much a sexual conquest as it was for territorial gain,” Matthew Barber, a University of Chicago expert on the Yazidi minority, told the Times.

The international aid group Doctors Without Borders began documenting rape as a form of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the 1990s, with Serbian soldiers raping between 12,000-60,000 Bosnian women during the war so that they would give birth to Serbian babies.

And during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the country’s Hutu military forces raped an estimated half a million women who belonged to the Tutsi ethnic minority.

Still, despite a U.N. resolution in 2008 condemning the practice, sexual violence persists in war zones in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and the Darfur region of Sudan, according to the U.N.

Japan is not the only country grappling with how to deal with a violent past, but with Tokyo and Beijing feuding over tiny islands, the tension over this contested history has an additional urgency. Japan is wary of China’s growing military assertiveness in the South China Sea.

During the news conference in which he issued his statement, Abe referred to the wartime sufferings of the Chinese but said that attempts to “change the status quo by force” were unacceptable.

Abe said the question of whether a specific act was “aggression” should be left to historians. He continues to advocate for a more robust defense policy through measures that domestic critics say violate Japan's pacifist constitution.

While Washington has welcomed these changes, the Japanese public has not. Abe’s domestic approval rating has slid to below 40 percent.

Reuters, with reporting by E. Tammy Kim and Marisa Taylor

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