The question on the minds of many in the region: can Japan play a bigger role in the region and the world?
In the eyes of some countries, especially China and South Korea, historical issues remain the biggest barrier for their acceptance of a more prominent Japanese role in the region. The latest row which was sparked off by Congressional activity in the US over Japan’s wartime record in hiring comfort women forced to perform sexual favors for the troops during WWII has created international tensions for Japan and her diplomacy.
In 1993, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono publicly announced that a governmental investigation confirmed that Japan did in fact force women into the brothels. Using this angle, the Abe administration has moved fast to repair damage done and has clarified his statement that the official statement by the Japanese government admitting the existence of comfort women made in 1993 still stands. However, this contradicted Abe’s own statement who said a 14-year-old government study had found no evidence that the government or military had kidnapped women to serve in the brothels.
In addition, the conservative faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have been trying to conduct a new investigation to scrap the 1993 statement, arguing the military did not force foreign women into sexual slavery. The issue is complicated by the fact that PM Abe used to be the leader of this group.
However, the issue of comfort women continues to spread like wildfire. This time, former firebrand Japanese PM Nakasone of the ruling LDP party is under fire from the opposition for being personally involved with wartime brothels. "Some (soldiers) started assaulting (indigenous) women and others started to indulge in gambling. I took great pains to set up a comfort station for them," Nakasone recalled in "Owarinaki Kaigun" ("The Navy Without End"), a collection of memoirs written by navy veterans, published in 1978. "Comfort station" was the government's term for frontline brothel.
One of the first reported casualties of this issue is the unconfirmed report that Chinese PM Wen Jiabao is cutting short his visit to Japan in response to Tokyo saying there was no proof that women (mostly Koreans) who worked in wartime brothels were coerced. If this is true, it would be a setback for Sino-Japanese ties, especially after Japan has taken a pro-active approach to repair her relations with China in the post-Koizumi era with PM Abe visiting China as his first stop after taking over as Prime Minister.
Other rumors attributed PM Wen’s shortening of his trip to Japan as a reaction to the recently inked Japan-Australia security cooperation. For Japan, this was something of a late starter. "We didn't understand the merits" of security cooperation with Australia until recently, Abe said. The security cooperation arrangement will include annual strategic talks between their respective foreign and defense ministers, augment peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance jointly. This was especially since the two countries had cooperated in three occasions already: U.N. peacekeeping operations in Cambodia, security missions in East Timor and the deployment of troops in southern Iraq.
For his part, PM Howard of Australia stressed the importance of Japan to Australian national interests: Australia has "no more reliable partner within the Asia-Pacific region than Japan." And when both countries deny the use of their new military cooperation as a containment device of Chinese power, China’s reaction was subdued. "We hope what they are saying is true," Qin Gang told a regular press conference.
According to Korean press reports, PM Wen will cut his trip by two days from five to three days and cancel an appearance for a direct TV dialogue with a Japanese audience drawn from the public, something that his predecessor former Premier Zhu Rongji has done with great success. South Korea criticized the statement through its Foreign Ministry official which termed PM Abe’s actions as 'regrettable'.
Besides the Chinese and the Koreans, even Japan’s closest ally, the US, has responded to the issue of comfort woman and spoken out against Japanese revisionists. The "comfort women" who were forced to provide sex to the Japanese military across Asia during the war were the victims of rape, according to U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer. The U.S. ambassador hopes that the Japanese government "would not back away" from the 1993 statement.
Tiny Singapore is one of the strongest advocates for Japan to play a bigger role in the region. Singapore-Japan friendship has created a model in the region of a win-win situation through a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Japan, the first country in the region to do with the world’s second largest economy. Singapore also looks forward to Japan’s presentation of a proposal for a region-wide FTA. The FTA with Singapore and its positive benefits is a powerful form of motivation for Japanese policy-makers to move forward with a region-wide version which has been moving slowly relative to China’s progress in such an arrangement. In the soft power realm, given that Japan is still an important contributor to regional development through its aid, leadership and technological contributions, Singapore hopes that Japan can realize its full potential by being more proactive, placing relations with Asia on the same footing as the US and accessing its national interests in having speedier FTA arrangements with the rest of East Asia. (19 March 2007)
Japan can play bigger role in Asia (Straits Times, 19 March 2007)
Singapore wants Japan to be big player in Asia (Straits Times, 18 March 2007)
'Comfort women' military rape victims: Schieffer (Japan Times, 18 March 2007)
State mum on Nakasone's war brothel (Japan Times, 17 March 2007)
PM Lee to sign update to S'pore-Japan FTA (Channelnewasia, 17 March 2007)
Japan signs landmark security pact with Australia (Japan Times, 14 March 2007)
China gives muted response to defence pact (Straits Times, 14 March 2007)