Tough talks may lie ahead when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets with US President George W. Bush next Thursday at Camp David. US-Japan relations are presently strained by efforts in the US Congress to pass Resolution 121 in the House of Representatives. The bipartisan bill would demand Japan's renewed apology to so-called "comfort women" -- women that were allegedly forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during World War II.
If passed by Congress, the resolution -- albeit non-binding -- would considerably dampen the traditionally strong relationship between the US and Japan. Bilateral ties enjoyed a unique strength during the administration of Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. With Koizumi in power, Japan not only fully backed the US invasion of Iraq and Bush's war on terrorism, but also contributed non-combat ground forces in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah.
Given such unequivocal support for US foreign policy in the past few years, Tokyo appears to be even more taken aback by recent efforts of six US congressmen to pass legislation that would call on the Japanese government to "formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility or its Imperial Armed Force's coercion of young women into sexual slavery."
The question of how Japan is handling its wartime past has been a recurring point of controversy among Japan's neighbors. China and South Korea raised the issue repeatedly to, among other reasons, stir anti-Japanese sentiment while at the same time pleasing nationalists at home.
While the historical fact that military brothels existed is not being questioned, opinions differ about the details. Estimates about how many women were actually recruited range from 50,000 to 200,000 (about 40 percent of them being of Japanese origin), the degree of coercion applied is being disputed (some women had worked as prostitutes before) and apparently not all brothels were directly managed by Japanese forces.
Notwithstanding such particulars, it has been a widely accepted in the international community that the Japanese government should bear responsibility for the wartime recruitment of "comfort women" and other forced laborers.
The US has addressed the issue in four previous resolutions, each time sponsored by now retired representative Lane Evans (known as one of the most liberal House members); they were introduced to Congress in 2001, 2003, 2005 and last year. The current bill however (introduced by Representative Michael Honda, a Democrat) contains the strongest wording thus far. It also provides the largest number of cosponsors (House members who explicitly support the bill), making it more likely to be passed by a Congress entirely controlled by Democrats for the first time since Bush took office in 2001.
Nobody would put the hardship and suffering of thousands of sexually exploited women into question. But at the same time it should be noted that the government of Japan and its highest officials have on several occasions acknowledged the issue of "comfort women," making new legislation by a US chamber superfluous to say the least.
In 1993 Japan's chief Cabinet secretary Yohei Kono recognized the "immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds" the women suffered and extended "sincere apologies" in the name of the Japanese government. Prime minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1994 expressed his "profound and sincere remorse and apologies" and -- in letters to former "comfort women" -- also acknowledged explicitly the "involvement of the Japanese military authorities."