South Korean Lee Soon-deok, a so-called comfort woman for Japanese troops during World War II, weeps at a protest, August 8, 2007.
Lee Jae-Won / Courtesy Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent electoral victory gave him some degree of a mandate for his economic policies, known as Abenomics. Much less certain is the degree of support for his plans to restart Japan’s nuclear power plants, negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and push through legislation to enable Japan’s military to exercise the right to collective self-defense. Although progress in these areas could strengthen Japan and help rebuild its standing on the world stage, Abe should not neglect the issue of “comfort women,” which plagues Japan’s relations with South Korea.

The two countries have a complicated history. Japan officially colonized Korea in 1910, but the process that led to it began in the late nineteenth century. In Korea, this period is remembered for its brutality, including Japan’s forced cultural assimilation, conscription of laborers, land seizures, removal of historical artifacts, and recruitment and conscription of women to serve as comfort women for the Japanese military. Japanese politicians and scholars have since done everything from acknowledging the wrongs that Imperial Japan committed—complete with official apologies and atonement—to questioning or countering the Korean narrative. Popular among those who are critical are arguments highlighting economic development during colonization and the large number of pro-Japanese Korean elites who assisted Japan. There are also people who question the true number of comfort women, how they were obtained, the extent to which the military was involved, and whether many of them were willing prostitutes.

Japanese critics may firmly believe their own arguments, but Abe needs to realize that this is a lose-lose issue for Japan. Arguments that counter the Korean version of the story only support the Korean narrative that the Japanese are denying history. For that reason, international public opinion will never support the Japanese side. Still, although Japan may no longer control the narrative, Abe’s electoral victory did give him a strengthened base from which to restart bilateral relations and resolve the comfort women issue. The path toward resolution, however, is not easy.

Abe should first reaffirm his strong commitment to the 1993 Kono statement by reissuing it as a prime minister’s statement. The Kono statement, which was made by Yohei Kono, who was then the chief cabinet secretary, offered Japan’s “sincere apology and remorse” for those “who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds” when Korea was under Japanese rule. Abe recently reiterated his commitment to it. Now he should reaffirm it as official government policy by putting it out in his capacity as prime minister: an Abe statement.

Second, Abe should reopen the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF), which was established in June 1995 by the Japanese government. The AWF had three major functions: provide "atonement money" to comfort women from Japanese public donations; provide Japanese government money for medical care and welfare; and provide a letter from the sitting premier to the victim that acknowledges moral responsibility and expresses heartfelt feelings of apology and remorse. The fund was dissolved in 2007 after victims stopped coming forward. This did not mean, however, that all victims were compensated. Because the AWF was not funded completely by the government, comfort women support groups in Korea pressured victims to refuse the AWF efforts. Even so, the AWF was important because it represented Japan’s effort at immediate redress and demonstrated contrition by both the government and ordinary Japanese citizens. Abe can send a clear message of his desire for continued redress by reopening it and encouraging the remaining victims to apply.

Finally, and perhaps most difficult, Abe should embrace the comfort women statues that have been erected in the United States and by Korean civic groups. A Korean civic group even erected one outside Japan’s embassy in Seoul. Japanese officials have protested these statues as misrepresentations of Japan’s efforts to apologize and compensate. Many Koreans lament that Japan needs to be more like Germany and show sincere repentance for its wartime actions, something like West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s falling to his knees at a memorial for the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. Brandt’s action was powerful because, though he was not personally responsible for the crimes of Nazi Germany, by kneeling before victims’ memorial he personified the state’s repentance. Abe needs a similarly bold, meaningful act. He should place a rose on the empty chair at the statue in front of Japan’s embassy in Seoul. Such an act would be powerfully symbolic, demonstrating to the world his country’s embrace of the issue, his remorse, and a reminder to the world of Japan’s commitment to peace for the past 70 years.

All of these steps will be difficult, especially for Abe. They would be major concessions, both personal and political, on an emotional historical issue. Many Japanese, including people in Abe’s own party, would criticize him for “giving in” to Seoul. Yet Abe should realize that the key to regaining Japan’s strength and revitalizing its future means settling its past once and for all. Here, he can take comfort from an unlikely source: U.S. President Richard Nixon. His staunch anticommunist views made it easier for him to open the United States to China; likewise, it will be difficult for critics to question Abe’s conservative credentials.

South Korea must play its part too. If Japan is to act more like Germany, South Korea needs to act more like France by accepting reconciliation efforts. Understanding that the election gave Abe a historical chance to pursue reconciliation, South Korea should refrain from playing politics with Abe’s outreach, as it has in the past, and acknowledge Japan’s past apologies, reparations paid, and postwar record of peace. It should welcome Abe’s efforts, including support for the AWF. South Korean reciprocation would make it difficult for reconciliation critics to attack Abe.

Resolving the comfort women issue is not a panacea for all of the lingering historical issues between the two countries, but it does address the most emotional point of contention. Neither Tokyo nor Seoul benefits from the status quo. It is in both countries’ interest to settle the matter. The bilateral freeze has even spilled over into U.S. foreign policy as Washington has become increasingly frustrated by the inability of its two Asian allies to cooperate. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 50th anniversary of the normalization of relations between Tokyo and Seoul. The time is right for Abe to do something bold that would carve out a larger role for Japan in global affairs as a trusted partner and cement his legacy as Japan’s most transformative premier. 

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  • JEFFREY W. HORNUNG is Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) and an Adjunct Fellow with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
  • The views expressed here are the author's own.
  • More By Jeffrey W. Hornung