Brothel Issue Looms over U.S.-Japan Summit

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As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes his first visit to the United States, an old issue is expected to emerge: Japan's World War II decision to force Korean women into brothels. Abe has been reluctant to apologize for the practice.


Well, Japan's prime minister is visiting Washington this week, just in time to encounter demands for his country to say it's sorry.

Congress considers resolution demanding an apology. That apology would go to those known as comfort women. They were sex slaves forced to serve the Japanese military in World War II.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: There will be no visits to Graceland. That was just for Japan's previous and more colorful prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who liked doing Elvis impersonations. White House officials say President Bush and the current Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, are likely to bond over baseball, but will mainly talk about more substantial issues - U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation, energy, Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Mr. MICHAEL GREEN (Senior Adviser, Center for Strategic and International Studies): For an administration that's sometimes accused of not having friends around the world, it's a good thing to show that the second largest economy of the world is very happy to be a very close friend.

KELEMEN: That's Michael Green, a former Bush adviser on Asia who's now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says Japan is also looking for something out of this summit - reassurances on North Korea.

Mr. GREEN: For five or six years, the U.S. and Japan were closer on this North Korea issue than in many ways the State Department and the Pentagon were. I mean, we really were looking at this in the same way.

KELEMEN: That was before the latest negotiations to try to end North Korea's nuclear program and concerns in Tokyo that the U.S. is going soft.

Mr. GREEN: I think the Japanese got very nervous because we, the U.S., agreed to return all of its money from Banco Delta Asia, which had been sanctioned for money laundering for the North Koreans. And the Japanese were surprised by that because we have been saying that we won't tolerate that North Korean behavior.

KELEMEN: Abe's visit comes two weeks after North Korea missed a deadline to shut down a nuclear facility, so Abe is likely to ask President Bush to ratchet up the pressure. Others in Washington want to hear the prime minister's views on history. An 80-year-old Korean woman, Lee Yong Su(ph), plans to be outside the White House today to demand an apology for the fact that she and many others were forced to become sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

Ms. LEE YONG SU: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman (Translator): She said she came all the way to America to tell her story because Japanese government has not come up to the apology issue in a straightforward manner.

KELEMEN: Japan has been lobbying against a U.S. congressional resolution on the subject. And Abe, back in March, questioned the evidence that Japan's military enslaved these so-called comfort women. He later backtracked.

Prime Minister SHINZO ABE (Japan): (Through translator) As I say here and now, I have always expressed my sympathy towards the comfort women and apologize for the situation they found themselves in.

KELEMEN: That still sounded too diplomatic to Lee, who spoke to us by phone as she prepared for today's protest.

Ms. LEE: (Through translator) Prime Minister Abe's apology is very evasive and cautiously worded, and it does not take direct responsibility as Japanese government.

KELEMEN: Michael Green, the former White House aide, says Abe has had to learn the hard way that what may play well at home politically doesn't play well abroad.

Mr. GREEN: It's coming from a generation of Japanese politicians who weren't even alive during the war but do not think that Japan should be held down forever by this. They sometimes trip over these issues and cause problems for themselves. I think on this one, Abe has been so clear in stepping back that for the administration it is not an issue.

KELEMEN: A current White House official also said that this won't be a major issue for the visit because president Bush and Prime Minister Abe have talked about it in the past. This trip will be more about building up personal ties, with a small, informal dinner tonight and a visit to Camp David tomorrow.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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