Denying 'comfort women' stains Japan honour: ex-deputy PM

Former vice prime minister Yohei Kono (L) answers questions next to former Japanese prime minister Tomiichi Murayama (R) during their joint press conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo on June 9, 2015.

TOKYO - Japan must face up to the truth over its wartime system of sex slavery if it is to purge the stain of its past wrongs, the man who issued a landmark apology said Tuesday.

Yohei Kono, who as chief Cabinet secretary in 1993 offered Japan's fullest mea culpa for its wartime enslavement of up to 200,000 mainly Asian women, said Tokyo must not shy away from its responsibility.

"In relations with South Korea and China, we have to start with facing up to the truth, facts," Kono, who later served as deputy prime minister, told journalists in Tokyo.

"Not accepting facts, denying what has undoubtedly happened... or saying it was all right to do it because others did it... this kind of (behaviour) is a stain on the honour of Japan and its people." Kono was speaking as nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares to make what he says will be a "forward-looking" statement on the 70th anniversary of Japan's WWII defeat this summer.

Abe has said he agrees with previous government pronouncements on the conflict, but does not think it appropriate to continually apologise for events more than seven decades ago.

Kono's intervention came as a poll of the public in Japan and South Korea showed sky-high levels of distrust between them, and dim views of the state of relations.

A record 73 percent of Japanese say their neighbour is untrustworthy, while 85 percent of South Koreans do not trust Tokyo, a joint survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun and Hankook Ilbo dailies said.

The poll showed 61 percent of Japanese and 74 percent of South Koreans believe their countries' current "bad relationship" is "inevitable as long as the other side continues to make unacceptable claims".

Genuine contrition

Mainstream historians agree that around 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also from other Asian nations, were systematically raped by Japan's imperial forces in military brothels during World War II.

The "Kono Statement" acknowledged this explicitly and was seen as a huge step forward in helping to soothe the open wounds of history that score East Asia's body politic.

Japanese conservatives - many of whom support Abe - tend to accept the existence of the brothels, but say either that they were staffed by ordinary prostitutes or that the Japanese state and its military were not formally involved in their running.

Apparent equivocation on the issue by senior Japanese politicians, including the prime minister, has caused anger in Korea and in China, which also suffered under Japan's wartime yoke.

Seoul insists the window for genuine contrition is closing as the few dozen surviving former "comfort women" become increasingly old and frail.

But commentators suggest Japanese people are suffering from what they call "Korea-fatigue," and are tired of Seoul's demands for repeated apologies for wrongs committed by earlier generations.

At the same press conference Tuesday, former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who issued a touchstone apology in 1995 for imperial Japan's warring, also called on Abe to take a more conciliatory approach.

Diplomatic ties with South Korea - established 50 years ago this month - were "improving in various ways" after the two mid-90s statements, he said.

But that improvement has faltered in recent years. "I am genuinely disappointed at this," he said.

"As (Abe) has said he agrees with previous statements, he should (repeat them) and erase international questions and misunderstandings" about his position, Murayama said.