With time running out for the aging sex slavery victims, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should sincerely atone for the so-called comfort women during World War II on the occasion of his scheduled high-profile speeches, a renowned Japanese scholar said.
Haruki Wada, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, urged the ultraconservative premier to clearly display his commitment to the Japanese government's watershed apologies for the atrocities ― the Kono Statement in 1993 and the Murayama Statement in 1995.
Wada added to growing calls at home and abroad for Abe to adopt a more repentant attitude toward history as he is slated to deliver an address later this month at an Asia-Africa summit in Indonesia and the joint session of US Congress in Washington, as well as in August to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
"While upholding the two statements is essential, the real focal point is how seriously Abe would take the issue, feel it deep down in the heart and reflect it in the anniversary statement," the academic said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Saturday.
"What matters is not only the words he picks but also the actions he would take to tackle the comfort women issue, which will be a litmus test of his sincerity."
Wada is one of the leading voices in Japan supporting the Korean and other women who were forcibly rounded up for sexual servitude for the Japanese Imperial Army during the conflict.
He was visiting Seoul to give a speech on Korea-Japan relations at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul upon a request by the Pacific Era Committee.
For 12 years, the professor served as executive director for the Asian Women's Fund set up under former premier Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 to provide some 360 sex slavery victims in Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and the Netherlands with a publicly raised indemnity valued at 565 million yen (S$6.3 million) and state-backed medical support worth 750 million yen.
But the fund triggered a backlash here as a majority of the survivors refused to accept the private donation which they accused of being a deviation from taking on official legal responsibility.
Wada has nonetheless continued to make efforts to bring about change, providing crucial scholarly work, public lectures and criticism against the Abe administration's attempts to whitewash the country's militarist past.
"It was regrettable that the fund did not work out well, though it made some good points," he said.
"We should and could have looked into its legal dimension and taken better care of domestic sentiment in both countries especially in light of the concept of atonement, for instance."
Calling the sex slavery dispute a "cancer in the body" for the bilateral ties, he stressed the significance of a statement jointly issued last June by civic organisations including the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a coalition of 37 women's rights groups, in drawing a compromise between the two governments.
The text calls on Tokyo to admit that the comfort women and station scheme was created directly by the military, and that the women were mobilized against their own will.
After Abe portrayed the women as victims of "human trafficking" in a recent media interview, some officials and experts struck an upbeat tone, saying the premier virtually recognised the system's forceful nature.
Yet in Korea, it was deemed another attempt to undercut Tokyo's direct involvement in the conscription process that was lost in translation.
"At the end of the day, it will all hinge on how far would Abe go to shift his existing position on the comfort women issue and acknowledge the government's responsibility, where the issue of forcibility is key," Wada said.
As the protracted strain threatens to chip away at practical gains and augments diplomatic burden, Seoul has recently formulated a two-track approach under which it plans to strictly respond to Tokyo's historical and territorial provocations while maintaining co-operation on North Korea, the economy and other mutually beneficial areas.
Wada acknowledged the Park Geun-hye government's pursuit of reconciliation with Japan yet emphasised that the new strategy should entail greater efforts and pressure to resolve the sex slavery row.
"It is good that Korea is trying to change Japan's attitude through the two-track approach but they should not sit idle or concede to it if Japan continues to refuse to budge," he said.
"The issue must come to an end right now. Time is running out for the aging victims."