TOKYO — WITH its prestige in the region at stake, Japan seems set to address more firmly the tragedy of women in Asia who were sent to Japanese military brothels during World War II.
This emotional vestige of the past has dogged Japan ever since a group of elderly Korean women broke a half century of silence in 1991 to tell their horrid tales of being forced to serve as "comfort women," the euphemistic term used by Imperial Japan.
Officials in Tokyo promise a report "soon" on whether they can find proof that the government forcibly recruited an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 comfort women in the 1930s and early 1940s, as many of the surviving women claim and at least one Japanese war veteran, Seiji Yoshida, admits.
Also being considered is a plan for Japan to provide money for the care of former comfort women in South Korea. But any money would be channeled through the South Korean Red Cross to avoid the impression of official compensation. Japan fears a wave of claims from war victims in the many nations that it once ruled.
So far, South Korea remains the focus of Japan's attempt to deal with the issue, since most women who ended up in combat-zone brothels came from the Korean peninsula, colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945.
"Japan is ready to give some money to the Red Cross as strictly a humanitarian gesture," says a South Korean official. "But it won't really resolve the matter. We don't want the money. We want them to recognize the role of the Japanese government in coercing the women."
Japan and South Korea legally settled all war claims in 1965 when they normalized ties, but the emotional impact of the recent testimony by a few comfort women and the almost-weekly protests in Seoul against Japan have created a political problem beyond legalities.
One group of Korean women has filed a lawsuit in a Tokyo court seeking an apology and compensation, but the case could drag on for years. The issue has also been raised in the United Nations Commission for Human Rights in Geneva, causing concern in Tokyo. "These matters are forced prostitution and that itself is a serious violation of human rights," said Dutch academic Theo van Boven, who has worked for the UN commission.
A new president in South Korea, Kim Young Sam, who took office on Feb. 25 as the first civilian leader in 31 years, provides Japan with an opportunity to make amends and quell the issue. Mr. Kim has close ties to Tokyo and says he wants a "future-oriented" relationship and an "early" Japan-South Korea summit.
Comfort women provide "a very good issue for some Southeast Asians to use against Japan," says Seizaburo Sato, a professor at Tokyo's Keio University.
Other nations with former comfort women, such as China and the Philippines, have remained relatively discreet on the matter, careful not to offend Japan and lose out on sizable aid, trade, and investment. Political pressures outside Japan
Still, when Philippine President Fidel Ramos talks with top leaders in Tokyo this week, he is expected to at least bring up the issue to avoid being criticized back home. A group of former Filipina comfort women is planning a class action suit against Japan. And Taiwan, which has no formal ties with Japan, has asked to be included in any compensation offered to Asian women.
The issue might not have blown up against Japan if officials had not denied in 1991 that the Imperial government ran the brothels. When they were proven wrong by a Japanese academic sifting through military records, officials quickly backtracked and offered to start their own research.
"Our position is that we are undertaking serious inquiries into the archives of various institutions, and we are making our best efforts to ascertain the facts," says Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa. The research may extend to interviews with former comfort women.
Japan's delayed response, however, reveals deep misgivings among the country's leaders over admitting a past wrong at a time when Japan's economic might is bringing it nascent political leadership in Asia. Charges delayed
"This issue will inevitably create a negative reaction among Japanese, especially toward Koreans," Dr. Sato says. "Many Japanese ask why the Korean government is bringing this issue out now. Even as a small boy I knew about [the brothels.]"
But, says the Korean official, the former comfort women would still have been too young and ashamed to have dealt openly with the issue in 1965. More pointedly, he says, "We can't find any difference between Imperial Japan and today's Japan. If Japan wants to increase its influence in Asia, it must recognize its historical past."
In a speech to the South Korean parliament in January 1992, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa made an apology to the comfort women and vowed to nurture in the Japanese people, "especially the youth, the courage to face past facts squarely."