Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, stepping gingerly to avoid being drawn into a quagmire over his sense of history--an issue of acute concern to Japan's Asian neighbors--gave guarded responses during Diet questioning Feb. 7 on matters relating to the past.
Making his first appearance at the Lower House Budget Committee since he formed his Cabinet in late December, Abe on Feb. 7 found himself having to explain his views on various history issues that especially resonate with China and South Korea.
Seiji Maehara, a one-time foreign minister and now senior member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, hammered away at history issues in the apparent hope of tripping up Abe over his rightist leanings.
Maehara focused on the 1993 statement released in the name of then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that acknowledged involvement of the Imperial Japanese Army in the establishment of so-called comfort stations where women were brought to provide sex for Japanese military personnel.
The statement also recognized military involvement in managing the comfort stations and transporting women to work there. It expressed an apology and remorse on behalf of the government.
Maehara asked Abe about his past remarks indicating he wanted to review the Kono statement.
Abe responded: "There is a tendency for this statement to develop into a diplomatic issue between Japan and South Korea. It should not be turned needlessly into a diplomatic or political issue.
"Because the statement was issued under the name of the chief Cabinet secretary, in my administration, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga will respond. We will first have to hear the various opinions of academic experts."
A panel of specialists is expected to be established under Suga to discuss the issue.
In March 2007, when Abe first served as prime minister, his Cabinet approved a document that said, "There was no mention in the documents discovered by the government (in the course of the study that led to the Kono statement) that directly pointed to forcible transport of the women by the military or the authorities."
During the Liberal Democratic Party's leadership race last September, Abe showed signs that he wanted to revise the Kono statement when he said: "Many people do not know about (the March 2007) decision by the Cabinet. There will be a need to once again confirm that the Kono statement has been revised."
However, Abe has toned down his rhetoric since becoming prime minister.
An associate said, "The prime minister knows best of all the risks surrounding the Kono statement."
At the same time, there were instances Feb. 7 when Abe demonstrated the strength of his feelings about the issue.
Maehara asked Abe, "Isn't it a self-contradiction to say you will stop (making comments) after becoming prime minister because it could turn into a diplomatic issue?"
Clearly irritated, Abe said, "You are contorting my intentions."
He added, "(Under my first Cabinet) we made clear that there were no documents that showed officials went into homes like kidnappers and turned those women into comfort women."
Maehara also asked Abe about his plans to visit Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo while he was prime minister. Visits by leaders are controversial because the shrine memorializes 14 Class-A war criminals in addition to Japan's war dead.
Abe simply repeated what he said in the recent past.
"It was extremely painful to not have been able to visit the shrine when I was first prime minister," Abe said. "At the present time, I would like to refrain from commenting on whether or not I will visit."
Before becoming prime minister late last year, Abe told his associates that history issues could become the Achilles' heel of the administration, in apparent reference to lessons learned from his first stint as prime minister.
Abe reflected on his thoughts at that time in response to a question from LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba.
"I first became prime minister before I really understood what was happening," Abe said. "I felt that it might be possible to implement my principles and policies immediately. I may have been somewhat arrogant."
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