BY DENYING THAT Japan's military coerced women in conquered countries into sex slavery between 1937 and 1945, and by refusing to issue an official apology for those crimes against humanity, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has added fresh insult to old injuries suffered by "comfort women" who are still alive today. He has also revived resentment and mistrust of Japan among its Asian neighbors and its American allies.
Abe's denial of the need for an official admission of guilt for the suffering of some 200,000 women who were kept in military brothels should not be taken as a reflection on the Japanese people. Rather it is symptomatic of the nationalism Abe and other rightists within the governing Liberal Democratic Party have employed as a stepping stone to power.
Although Abe's ardor to revive pride in Japan's past may have initially been effective in domestic politics, the effect abroad is to isolate Japan at a bad time.
Abe has taken a tough line against North Korea because of that regime's failure to be truthful about Japanese citizens it abducted in the '70s and '80s. North Korea says there were 13 Japanese abductees who were made to train spies for Pyongyang, that eight died and five have been repatriated. Japan asserts that there were at least 17 captives and that North Korea provided false data and implausible explanations for those who perished. In one case, North Korea gave Japan ashes said to be of one of the dead abductees, but a DNA analysis performed in Japan found the ashes did not belong to Megumi Yokota, whose remains Pyongyang claimed to be returning.
Abe used the issue of the abductees to fuel his ascent to power. And because the kidnapping of Japanese citizens was so barbaric, there was sympathy for Abe's hard line on North Korea among Japan's partners in the six-party Beijing talks aimed at persuading North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program. But Abe's refusal to apologize for the enslavement of "comfort women" has incited popular anger in South Korea, China, and the Philippines -- countries where women now in their 70s and 80s remember all too well how they were captured, beaten, and raped by Japanese soldiers.
Some of those victims testified recently at congressional hearings on a nonbinding House resolution urging Japan's prime minister to "formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner" for imperial Japan's crimes against captive women. Abe claimed the draft resolution "is not based on objective facts." Instead, he ought to acknowledge well-established historical truth, apologize, and make official restitution to the surviving victims. A wise nationalist would recognize that facing history in this way would be the best thing for Japan's true national interests.