- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

TOKYO — Women’s rights activists in the Philippines and leading South Korean officials and lawmakers yesterday denounced comments by Japan’s nationalistic prime minister that there was no evidence Japanese soldiers forced women into sexual slavery during World War II.

In remarks that have already sparked a regional furor, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said there is no proof the women were forced into prostitution: “The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion.”

Historians say some 200,000 women — mostly from Korea and China — were used in the Japanese military brothels throughout Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. Many victims say they were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops.

“We will not allow them to deny it just like that,” said Rechilda Extremadura, executive director of Lila Pilipina, an organization of activists and former Philippines wartime sex slaves. “For us, good or bad, it is your history. If you are a responsible government, you are responsible enough to accept, acknowledge and be accountable.”

Mr. Abe’s statement contradicted evidence in Japanese documents unearthed in 1992 that historians said showed military authorities had a direct role in working with contractors to forcibly procure women for the brothels, known in Japan as “comfort stations.” The remark also cast doubt on a 1993 Japanese government apology to the sex slaves.

In Washington, South Korean Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Song Min-soon called Mr. Abe’s comments “not helpful to our joint efforts to have a healthier bilateral relationship.” Countries across the region have to “face the truth” about such incidents, Mr. Song said just before meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a scheduled visit.

In Seoul, a group of South Korean lawmakers called on the Japanese government to apologize.

Japan’s wartime record and the issue of “comfort women” have long been an irritant in Tokyo’s relations with South Korea, China and other countries in the region.

Witnesses, victims and even some former Japanese soldiers say many of the women were kidnapped or otherwise forced into sexual slavery at the brothels, where they could be raped by scores of soldiers a day.

Philippines Rep. Liza Maza of the left-wing Gabriela women’s party said Mr. Abe’s statement was “an affront to all women victims of Japanese military sexual slavery” during the war.

Mrs. Extremadura said 120 are still alive among 174 documented Philippines “comfort women.”

In China, Su Zhiliang, the director of the Chinese Comfort Women Research Center at Shanghai’s Normal University, said she was “very surprised” by Mr. Abe’s remarks.

“Suddenly to have Abe deny the fact that women were coerced into sexual slavery is both very regrettable and very enraging,” said Mrs. Su, who has compiled 100 case studies with testimonials from Chinese comfort women since she began research on the issue in 1993.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, on a visit to Tokyo, declined to comment directly on Mr. Abe’s statement.

“Our view is that what happened during the war was most deplorable,” he said when asked about the sex slave issue. “But … as far as some kind of resolution of this issue, this is something that must be dealt with between Japan and the countries that were affected.”

Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington.

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