By NOBUYUKI SUGIURA
Japan-South Korea relations have cooled in a manner unseen in the past. One reason for the increasingly troubled relations is the large gap that exists between the two nations over the "comfort women" issue.
The issue first came under the spotlight in the early 1990s. After a former comfort woman came forward to tell her story, debate and research on the topic progressed.
What was gradually brought to light were the conditions that led to women having their dignity and honor severely compromised during a time of war at comfort stations created in various parts of Asia, through the involvement of the military.
Now, after about 20 years, a move to review the Kono statement, which acknowledged Japanese military involvement and offered an apology, has provoked opposition from within South Korea.
South Korea has also maintained a rigid position, refusing to accept the feelings of apology and remorse expressed by the Japanese government.
With the comfort women issue becoming a political problem, the Abe administration conducted a study into the process behind the compilation of the Kono statement and released a report about that study in June.
Groundless criticism has arisen among some commentators as well as on certain Internet sites saying, "The comfort women issue is a fabrication of The Asahi Shimbun."
Moreover, a former Asahi reporter who wrote articles about former comfort women has been maligned by name. That has led to inquiries from our readers asking, "Are those allegations true?" and "Why don't you respond?"
We have put together special pages reflecting on our coverage of the comfort women issue because we believe that fulfilling our responsibility to our readers to explain ourselves will provide the first step toward the start of new discussions that are oriented to the future.
Although we ran special coverage on the comfort women issue in March 1997, we have once again gone over the points of contention while also relying on subsequent research.
In the early 1990s when the comfort women issue first came under the spotlight, research on the issue was not at an advanced stage. We continued to write articles based on the testimony given by former comfort women as well as the few documents that were available.
We have now learned that there were factual errors in some of those articles. While those errors occurred at a stage when the overall picture of the issue was not yet clear, we do reflect on the fact that there was insufficient information gathering to support those articles.
Similar errors also emerged at that time in articles carried by other Japanese media outlets as well as in articles by the South Korean media.
It has been pointed out that some of that inaccurate reporting has led to confusion in the understanding about the comfort women issue.
However, we absolutely cannot agree with the use of that as a reason for espousing "the comfort women issue was a fabrication" and arguing "there is no need to apologize to the former comfort women."
The reason we cannot agree is because some of the arguments being made to protect the honor of one's own nation by degrading the victims as "prostitutes" only incite nationalism in both Japan and South Korea and create factors to complicate the issue.
We are concerned about the spread of inward-looking discourse that avoids looking at the unpleasant past and incites emotional confrontation.
There is no way to erase the fact that during the war there were women who were forced to serve as sexual partners for Japanese military personnel.
The essence of the issue is that comfort women had their freedom taken away and their dignity as women trampled upon.
In the 1990s, during the fighting in Bosnia, the attention of the international community was concentrated on rapes by militia members. How a nation views sexual violence toward women during times of war is now viewed internationally as a human rights issue concerning women. The comfort women issue is also connected to such contemporary themes.
When the Asian Women's Fund, created through a combined effort of the public and private sectors, gave atonement money to the former comfort women, it also included a letter from the prime minister of the time that had the following wording:
"(Japan) should face up squarely to its past history and accurately convey it to future generations. Furthermore, Japan also should take an active part in dealing with violence and other forms of injustice to the honor and dignity of women."
The letter contains the resolve of political leaders to proceed along a path of reconciliation by overcoming confrontations revolving around historical recognition.
Next year will mark 70 years after the end of World War II and 50 years after the normalization of relations between Japan and South Korea. However, the national security environment in East Asia is increasingly unstable.
The comfort women issue is one topic that cannot be avoided in the building of a future-oriented and stable relationship with our neighbor.
We will continue to report on this issue without changing our basic stance.
In this special coverage, we will analyze what the comfort women issue is all about and respond to the questions that our readers have about our reporting in the 1990s. We will also take a look back at the wavering Japan-South Korea relationship over the past 25 years because of this issue and also have experts present their views on the comfort women issue.