Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, under a barrage of criticism for recently refusing to apologize about government involvement in forcing women to serve as sex slaves during World War II, said Monday he was "apologizing here and now as the prime minister".
Abe had said earlier this month that nothing proved that Japan's government or army had press-ganged women into military brothels as "comfort women", a common term for sex slaves in Japan.
Abe also noted he fully supported a 1993 apology known as the Kono Statement that acknowledged official involvement in the brothels. However, Abe's mixed feelings about the issue emerged when he refused to give any new apology, even if the US Congress passed a resolution seeking one.
"I am apologizing here and now as the prime minister, and it is as stated in the Kono Statement," Abe told a parliamentary committee when fielding a question from an opposition lawmaker.
"As I frequently say, I sympathize for the people who underwent hardships, and I apologize for the fact that they were placed in this situation at the time."
Abe first rose in politics by urging to end a feud with North Korea over Japanese kidnapped by Pyongyang decades ago to train North Korean spies. However, the hard-man of the Japanese right has had to moderate his temper as Prime Minister and has recently faced heavy US criticism for his seeming dismissal of the sex slave issue.
"If Mr. Abe seeks international support in learning the fate of Japan's kidnapped citizens, he should accept responsibility for Japan's own crimes and apologize to the victims he has slandered," said a weekend editorial in the Washington Post entitled Shinzo Abe's Double Talk.
Abe has dismissed this comparison, commenting to the press: "that is a completely different matter. The issue of the abductees is an ongoing violation of human rights."
"The 'comfort women' issue is not ongoing. As for the abductees issue, the situation is that Japanese people who were kidnapped by North Korea have not been released."
Analysts have attributed Abe's original comments as being needed to secure his conservative base at a time when his ratings are plummeting.
On Monday, a survey by the Mainichi newspaper showed his favorable ratings at 35 percent, down one point from February, while his unfavorables stood at 42 percent.
International ire has been sparked due to Abe's denial of official involvement in kidnapping women, with Seoul and Beijing angered and Washington turning on one of its staunchest allies.
(China Daily via agencies March 27, 2007)