In late December, newly installed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he will revisit Japan's 1995 apology for the suffering the country wrought in Asia during World War II. That apology admitted that the Japanese Imperial Army had forced females, mostly from Korea, China, Japan, and the Philippines, known euphemistically as "comfort women," to work in brothels during the Japanese occupation. "This is entirely inexcusable," the prime minister at the time, Tomiichi Murayama, said in a statement. "I offer my profound apology to all those who, as wartime comfort women, suffered emotional and physical wounds that can never be closed."
The hawkish Abe, who has publicly and repeatedly denied that comfort women served Japanese soldiers against their will, is unrepentant about Japan's wartime behavior. In his best-selling book utsukushii kuni e (To a Beautiful Country), published during his previous term as prime minister in 2006, Abe even argued that Japanese war criminals convicted in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal were not guilty under Japanese law.
None of this has gone over well with the neighbors. South Korea's president-elect Park Geun-hye responded to Abe's remarks by saying that Japan "needed to come to terms with its colonial history," while a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman urged Japan to "adopt a spirit of reflecting on history." On Jan. 4, an anti-Japanese protester stabbed himself in the stomach at Seoul's Kimpo Airport to protest the arrival of a special envoy dispatched by Abe to soothe ties between the two countries, while former comfort women, now in their 80s and 90s, continue to gather outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, as they have for decades, to demand even more contrition and reparations from Tokyo.
For the past few weeks, Abe has kept a low profile on the subject. He avoided mentioning it in his policy address to the Diet on Jan. 28, focusing mainly on domestic matters such as recovery and reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake and escape from the "bog of deflation" that has plagued Japan in recent years. Few analysts, however, doubt the ultranationalist politician will eventually make good on his promise to unapologize.
Why is the Japanese apology such a big issue? The Japanese emperor surrendered on August 1945; Japanese officials have made an estimated 54 different apologies to Japan's Asian neighbors, including South Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, and the Philippines, since they began apologizing in 1957, in addition to paying more than $3 billion in reparations and surrendering more than $23 billion of government and private assets Japan held in the countries it occupied. (Japan never apologized or paid compensation to North Korea, however, because the two countries have never had formal diplomatic relations.) But from Japan's neighbors' perspective, it hasn't been enough -- and Abe's curious decision to re-open these old wounds has only heightened their sensitivity.