Japan's PM apologizes to WWII sex slaves -- kind of

News reports conflict over whether Prime Minister Abe's apology was sincere or just another denial of responsibility.

Published March 26, 2007 8:33PM (EDT)

At first, it seemed like Monday was starting off with some good news. "Japan PM apology on sex slaves," today's BBC headline read. Hey, wow, really? The same Japan PM who earlier this month responded to international pressure to compensate so-called "comfort women" by saying "the fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion," despite testimony to the contrary from soldiers and comfort women and their families, and despite the fact that that in 1993 Japanese government officially acknowledged running brothels for imperial army troops during World War II? Too little, too late, perhaps, but a show of accountability from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe still seems like a step in the right direction.

Except the apology may not have been much of an apology. The BBC version of events seems okay, if lukewarm -- reportedly, Abe said he stands by the government's 1993 acknowledgement, and told the country's parliament, "I apologize here and now as prime minister...As I frequently say, I feel sympathy for the people who underwent hardships, and I apologize for the fact that they were placed in this situation at the time."

In coverage of the same event in the New York Times, though, Abe's translated remarks seem almost passive-aggressive. In an article with the headline "Japan Again Denies Role in Sex Slavery," the Times reports that under questioning from an opposition lawmaker, Abe "refused to withdraw a recent statement in which he said there was no evidence that the military had forcibly recruited women to work in brothels established throughout Asia," and "repeatedly refused today to acknowledge state responsibility in recruiting the so-called comfort women, but offered them an apology." That apology, according to the Times, went more like, "I express my sympathy for the hardships they suffered and offer my apology for the situation they found themselves in." Which doesn't sound like much of an apology at all, and sounds even less like anything resembling accountability.

Translation is famously subject to translator interpretation, so possibly both accounts of Abe's remarks are close to accurate. But not having a Japanese speaker handy, it's tough for me to know how to parse the discrepant reports. At least one former "comfort woman" seems happy about Abe's statements, though -- Jan Ruff O'Herne, an 84-year-old who has testified about her sexual enslavement by Japanese soldiers during WWII and who currently lives in Adelaide, Australia, told an area news network, "It's just fantastic news, I could hardly believe it...It means the comfort women, they've got their dignity back. We've been waiting for this for 60 years."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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