Comfort women issue tops Abe’s US agenda

Japanese leader brings up sensitive subject at meeting with American lawmakers.

THE issue of “comfort women” topped the agenda on the first day of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s official visit to the United States.

During a meeting with US lawmakers on Capitol Hill, he raised the sensitive issue that has long riled Japan’s neighbours and gained the attention of a new Democratic controlled Congress.

He “expressed regret that his comments were not as he intended for them to be and expressed great sympathy with people who had been placed in that kind of situation”, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt told reporters.

Mr Abe alarmed the international community last month by saying the Japanese military did not have a direct role in forcing women to work in brothels throughout Asia during World War II.

Many saw it as an example of Tokyo not coming to grips with its wartime past yet again.

Japanese officials maintain that he believes his comments have been misunderstood – and that he stands by a 1993 government apology that concedes Japan’s official role in the brothels.

Still, Mr Abe saw the need for damage control as he brought up the matter with President George W. Bush in a phone call early this month, where he made clear he sympathised with the victims.

While US officials say his recent public statement supporting the earlier apology is convincing, Congress thinks otherwise and is debating a non-binding resolution seeking an unambiguous apology.

That might have prompted Mr Abe to raise the “history question” of his own accord on Thursday, much to the surprise of the Democratic and Republican legislators.

He said he personally felt “heartfelt sympathy for those who were put in this situation”. He then added: “I have a sense of apology.”

But this raised eyebrows among legislators, who were left unclear about a perceived difference between a “personal” and an “official government” apology.

Mr Abe’s 45-minute meeting with congressional leaders led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also covered US-Japan ties.

The Japanese leader said he hoped to build on the strategic relationship that grew under his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, a personal friend of Mr Bush and a staunch backer of the Iraq war.

“The Japan-US alliance is an indispensable and unshakeable one,” he said. “It is necessary to further strengthen this alliance. I would like to work together with the United States to continue dealing with various issues such as North Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Nelson Report, an insider’s brief on political issues here, noted that Mr Abe was “politely interrupted” several times by lawmakers seeking clarifications during the discussion of bilateral cooperation.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer asked him how Japan’s investments in Sudan fit into that picture, and Mrs Pelosi followed up with a similar query on Tokyo’s economic relations with Iran.

Late on Thursday, Mr Bush hosted Mr Abe to an informal dinner. Both men were scheduled to hold talks at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains yesterday.

Mr Abe was expected to seek reassurances from the US President on North Korea. Tokyo had rejected a US-backed aid-for-disarmament deal with North Korea.

Other issues likely to be on the agenda were the environment, free trade, energy security, intellectual property rights, missile defence and realignment of US bases in Japan.

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