All manner of discussion has arisen as a result of the recent special coverage by The Asahi Shimbun with regard to the comfort women issue.

One argument that has been raised by some in relation to the retraction by the Asahi of its articles on testimony provided by Seiji Yoshida claiming to have forcibly taken away comfort women is to the effect that the retraction has shaken the foundation for the statement issued under the name of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono (the Kono statement), which expressed an apology and remorse over the comfort women issue.

For such reasons, the Asahi would like to once again go over the major points by introducing the statements of those who were involved in the compilation of the Kono statement at that time as well as reflecting on how the comfort women issue was perceived in South Korean society.

Kono statement does not rely on Yoshida testimony

With regard to past articles on testimony provided by Yoshida that he had violently and forcibly taken away women from Jeju island, South Korea, to make them comfort women, The Asahi Shimbun retracted the articles after judging the testimony to be a fabrication as a result of additional information-gathering on Jeju and interviews with researchers.

In response, the argument has been made that if Yoshida's testimony was not factual, the "foundation" of the Kono statement would collapse.

Similar statements have been made by those belonging to the Liberal Democratic Party. That led Sanae Takaichi, chairwoman of the LDP's Policy Research Council, to submit to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Aug. 26 a document asking that a new statement be issued next year under the name of the chief Cabinet secretary to replace the Kono statement to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

However, while the Japanese government did make Yoshida a subject for interviews during the course of compiling the Kono statement, it did not reflect the contents of his testimony in the statement.

In response to questions from the Asahi, a government official who was involved at that time in the compilation of the statement acknowledged that staff of the Cabinet Councilors' Office on External Affairs did make contact with Yoshida on a number of occasions. However, the official said "because there were parts that were inconsistent, we did not incorporate his testimony into the statement."

At his morning Aug. 27 news conference, Suga said, "The study into the process behind the compilation of the Kono statement has made clear that negotiations (with South Korea) were conducted on the understanding that confirmation could not be made of the forcible taking away (of comfort women)." He thus expressed his understanding that Yoshida's testimony was not taken into consideration at the time the Kono statement was compiled.

The basis for compiling the statement consisted of testimony provided by those with ties to the military, the Korea Government-General and management of the comfort stations, as well as a large volume of documents collected from various Japanese government ministries and agencies in addition to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and others.

About four months before the Kono statement was released, Sakutaro Tanino, who then headed the Cabinet Councilors' Office on External Affairs, responded at a session of the Upper House Budget Committee and said, "Coercion does not only mean the use of physical means but also includes a wider range of situations that go against the free will of the individual by threatening or invoking a sense of awe."

The Kono statement reached one conclusion related to the comfort women: that their "recruitment, transfer, control, etc., were conducted generally against their will, through coaxing, coercion, etc." It raised the issue of the "coercion" that deprived the women of their free will, instead of the "forcible taking away" that Yoshida talked about.

The results of the study into the compilation of the Kono statement released by the Abe administration in June 2014 does not mention the background surrounding the testimony by Yoshida probably because the statement had not incorporated his testimony.

On Aug. 27, Suga followed the line taken by past administrations with regard to the Kono statement when he said, "I have repeatedly said there will be no revision."

South Korea places high value on testimony by former comfort women

With regard to the comfort women issue, the South Korean government places the greatest value on the large volume of testimony provided by the former comfort women themselves. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has repeatedly emphasized: "Historical truth is in the testimony of those still living. Not acknowledging that due to political interests will only lead to isolation."

The spotlight began to be focused in South Korea on the comfort women issue from the 1990s after democratization moved forward in society following many years of military dictatorship.

A major turning point was the series of articles which appeared in January 1990 in The Hankyoreh newspaper in South Korea titled "A Report of Coverage of Footprints of Grudge of The Volunteer Corps" written by Yun Chung-ok, then a professor at Ewha Womans University, after she visited Japan and Southeast Asia.

In June 1990, a then member of the Japan Socialist Party asked the government in the Upper House Budget Committee to investigate the comfort women issue. A director-general of a bureau in the former Labor Ministry responded, "Although it appears there existed the situation of private-sector businesses working together with the military to move (comfort women) around, we are unable to investigate what actually happened." The comment triggered outrage in South Korea.

In reaction to that comment, Kim Hak-sun in August 1991 became the first to reveal her real name and said "I was a comfort woman." Thereafter, a number of former comfort women also came forward with their real names.

That led the South Korean government in February 1992 to begin accepting reports by former comfort women. It also initiated its own interviews to look into the matter.

In February 1993, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a support group for the comfort women, published a volume that contained what was regarded as highly reliable testimony by 19 former comfort women chosen from about 40 in total.

Despite differences in how the women were gathered, they spoke of the suffering they experienced: being deprived of their freedom and forced to provide sex for the military in the front lines of combat. They also spoke about the fear they felt from the violence and bombing as well as such after-effects as sexually transmitted diseases and sterility.

According to a current South Korean government source, the testimony by Yoshida is not generally known in South Korea given such facts as that the special coverage was released by the Asahi and inquiries were made by South Korean reporters asking about what Yoshida said.

A former South Korean diplomat who was involved in relations with Japan from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s says: "The South Korean government had always said the largest basis for coercion in the comfort women issue lay in the live testimony by the former comfort women and that position remains the same today. It is inconceivable to have the essence of the issue lie in Yoshida's testimony."

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[Kono statement] After former comfort women and others from South Korea began filing lawsuits from 1991 seeking compensation from Japan, the Japanese government began its own investigation into the issue. In July 1992, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Kato put together and announced the results of that investigation, but some people said the contents were insufficient. That led the government to expand its investigation to also include other countries. The Miyazawa administration's chief Cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, announced the statement in August 1993. The statement said comfort stations "were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day" and acknowledged that "the then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved" in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.

[Study into process behind compilation of Kono statement] At a Lower House Budget Committee session in February 2014, Nobuo Ishihara, the former deputy chief Cabinet secretary who was involved in the compilation of the Kono statement, indicated that there was coordination with South Korea before the statement was released. That led to the establishment of a government study team to look into the process behind the statement's compilation. Before the results of the study were released, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, "I am not thinking about revising (the Kono statement)." On June 20, the study team released the results of its study that included the frequent exchanges between the Japanese and South Korean governments over the compilation of the Kono statement as well as projects related to the Asian Women's Fund.

[Testimony by Seiji Yoshida] The late Seiji Yoshida, who claimed to have headed the mobilization section at the Shimonoseki branch of the Yamaguchi Prefectural Romu Hokokukai labor organization during the war, provided testimony in the form of speeches and written accounts in which he said he violently and forcibly took away women from Jeju Island, which as a part of Korea was a Japanese colony, to make them comfort women. Since 1982, The Asahi Shimbun wrote about Yoshida's testimony in its articles and columns. Doubts were raised about his testimony in 1992. In special coverage in 1997, the Asahi published an article that said "no confirmation has been made about the authenticity." It has not run stories about his testimony since then. In 2014, Asahi reporters went to Jeju to gather additional information to corroborate his testimony, and in the latest special coverage the Asahi published an article that said "we have made the judgment that the testimony … was a fabrication. We retract our articles on him."