Japan's PM on Iraq and 'Comfort Women'

This week, President Bush will welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Washington. Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, had a close relationship with Bush, who admired his courage in tackling Japan's economic problems. Abe, a staunch nationalist, recently aroused controversy in the United States and elsewhere by seeming to dismiss the complaints of Chinese and Korean women who were forced to serve the Japanese Army as prostitutes during World War II. NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth interviewed Abe in Tokyo last week, where he discussed many issues, from changing Japan's Constitution to forging a new relationship with China. Excerpts:

WEYMOUTH: What do you hope to accomplish in Washington?
ABE: I believe the Japan-U.S. alliance is the only indispensable alliance, and I'd like to use my visit to further strengthen this relationship.

How do you feel about the recent agreement on the North Korean nuclear program?
I welcome this agreement but what is important is that North Korea act in a concrete manner to abandon nuclear weapons.

Do you feel sidelined because the Japanese government has said it will not participate in the U.S.-led deal until the issue of 17 Japanese kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s is resolved?
On this question, Japan and the U.S. are fully coordinated. To the extent the issue remains unresolved, there will be no attainment of the objectives of the Six-Party Talks. All the participating countries understand that if there is no progress on the abduction issue, Japan will not participate in [providing] energy assistance for North Korea. If there is progress on that issue then Japan shall be able to make a greater contribution.

What do you define as progress?
With regard to that question of progress, at this moment North Korea is not responding in good faith. I believe that unless there is normalization of relations between Japan and North Korea by resolving the issue, North Korea will not be able to create their own future.

You've had success so far improving relations with China. Last week the Chinese prime minister came to Tokyo—the first visit of a senior Chinese official in seven years.
On my visit to China last year, I agreed with the Chinese leadership that we together shall build a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests. And there are numerous issues that can be covered, like the environment, energy, North Korea, East Asian development, U.N. reform, and others. I believe that our cooperation on these fronts will benefit not just Japan and China, but Asia and the entire world.

People say that you would like to have a more robust military. Does that mean you want to amend Article 9 [which restricts Japan to self-defense]?
It's been over 60 years since the Constitution was put in place. There are provisions in the Constitution that no longer suit the times. And as you know, this Constitution was drafted while Japan was under occupation. I believe it is important that we Japanese write a constitution for ourselves that would reflect the shape of the country which we would consider desirable in the 21st century.

As you know, your comments on "comfort women" caused an outcry in the United States. Do you really believe the Imperial Army had no program to force Korean, Chinese and other women to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers?
I have to express sympathy from the bottom of my heart to those people who were taken as wartime comfort women. As a human being I would like to express my sympathies, and also as prime minister of Japan I need to apologize to them. The 20th century was a century in which human rights were infringed upon in numerous parts of the world, and Japan also bears responsibility in that regard. I believe that we have to look at our own history with humility, and we always have to think about our responsibility.

Do you now believe that the Imperial Army forced these women into this situation?
With regards to the wartime comfort-women issue, my administration has been saying all along that we continue to stand by the Kono Statement [a 1993 acknowledgment of Japan's partial responsibility for the brothels]. We feel responsible for having forced these women to go through that hardship and pain as comfort women under the circumstances at the time.

I understand that you're going to the Middle East after Washington. How do you see the danger of nuclear proliferation in Iran?
During my visit to the Middle East I would like to discuss with the leaders of the countries there how we can best secure peace and stability—especially with regards to Iran. Japan today enjoys good relations with Iran and would like to exercise whatever influence it has on the Iranians to try and work towards a peaceful resolution of the issue.

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