The Cable

White House: Japan should do more to address ‘comfort women’ issue

On the eve of Japan's new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Washington, a top White House official said that Japan should do more to address lingering regional and international anger over its handling of World War II atrocities, including the forced sexual enslavement of hundreds of thousands of "comfort women."

On a conference call Thursday, The Cable asked top White House officials whether President Barack Obama believes that the Japanese government has done enough to address the comfort-women issue and whether Obama would raise the issue when he meets Abe on Friday. The top White House official dealing with Asia, National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Danny Russel, said that the impetus was on Japan to do more.

"President Obama knows full well that there are very sensitive legacy issues from the last century and believes that it's important to take steps to promote healing. So our position has always been to encourage Japan to take steps that will foster better relations, that will foster closer relations will all of its neighbors," Russel said. "At the same time, we would hope and expect that others would reciprocate to constructive and positive steps the Japanese government might take."

Last July, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caused a diplomatic rift between the United States and Japan when it was reported that she corrected a State Department employee during a private briefing, insisting that the term "comfort women" was incorrect and that the victims of forced prostitution in wartime Japan should instead be called "enforced sex slaves."

Russel declined to say whether Obama would raise the issue directly with Abe Friday.

"Prime Minister Abe will be here and will be addressing the public as part of his own program," Russel said. "Let's hear what he has to say when he visits Washington."

White House officials did say that Abe and Obama are likely to talk about tensions in the East China Sea, tensions in the South China Sea, Iran, Afghanistan, North Africa, North Korea, the Trans Pacific Partnership, climate change, and cyber security.

Soon after Abe's Liberal Democratic Party took control back from the Democratic Party of Japan in parliamentary elections last December, Abe's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga shocked the region by suggesting that the Abe government wanted to review the 1993 Japanese government statement apologizing for the Japanese military's treatment of the "comfort women" and acknowledging the military's role in setting up "comfort" stations during the war.

In late January, Abe backed off of Suga's remarks and said that his government was shelving plans to review the 1993 statement, which had been issued by Suga's predecessor Yohei Kono. "The matter should not be turned into a political and diplomatic issue," Abe told Japan's Lower House on Jan. 31.

"There have been many wars throughout history, involving infringement on the human rights of women," Abe said. "When it comes to the issue of comfort women, my heart aches acutely when I think about those who had to go through painful experiences beyond description. I am no different from successive prime ministers on that point."

That promise wasn't enough for some U.S. lawmakers, who issued statements Thursday calling on the Japanese government to do more to make amends.

"Japan's government must fully acknowledge, apologize for and increase awareness of its history of ‘comfort women,'" Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) said in a statement. "These survivors of physical, sexual and psychological violence that was sanctioned by the Japanese government deserve this apology. But beyond that Japan must prove to the rest of the world that it is willing to express sincere regret for a systematic atrocity that was committed in its country's history in order to move forward as a democracy."

Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) said in a statement Thursday that as a former inhabitant of an American internment camp during World War II, he knew from personal experience that reconciliation related to the war was only achievable through direct government action.

"Indeed, nothing is more important right now than for a democratic country like Japan to formally acknowledge and unequivocally apologize for its systematic atrocity. Government is a living, breathing organism that is responsible for its past, present and future," Honda said. "In order to move toward a more peaceful, global world, Japan must accept responsibility and apologize. The grandmothers -- those survivors of physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetuated by Japan's Imperial Army -- are still waiting for an appropriate apology."

Israel and Honda wrote a letter Feb. 20 to Japan's ambassador to Washington Kenichiro Sasae urging the Japanese government not to revise the Kono statement, as the 1993 apology is known, and also calling on the Abe government to go further in apologizing and acknowledging wrongdoing.

In 2007, the House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution expressing the sense of the U.S. Congress that Japan should "formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Force's coercion of young women into sexual slavery."

Mindy Kotler, an expert on the comfort-women issue and the founder of Asia Policy Point, a non-profit organization that does research on Japan, told The Cable that the concern over the Abe government's handling of this issue goes much deeper than just the statements his aide made about revising the Kono statement.

"Abe and his supporters -- and you have to remember that 10 members of his cabinet including himself signed an ad last November that appeared in the New Jersey Star Ledger condemning the Comfort Women -- hold antiquated views of women, war, and just general human rights," she said. "Thus the problem is not about history but about a worldview that is out of touch with contemporary values and understanding. They do not engender trust, which is critical to any security situation in Asia."

TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Aid groups warn of human cost of sequester

Forty international humanitarian organizations are warning that the impending arbitrary budget cuts known as the "sequester" will have dire consequences for people in crisis situations in the world's most conflict-affected areas.

The across-the-board budget cuts set to go into effect March 2 would force the State Department to cut $200 million from humanitarian assistance accounts and $400 million from global health funding, Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in a letter to Congress this week.

"Such a reduction would hinder our ability to provide life saving food assistant to 2 million people and USAID would have to cease, reduce, or not initiate assistance to millions of disaster affected people," Kerry wrote.

He added that cuts in global health funding would hurt State and USAID's efforts to stamp out AIDS abroad and hamper efforts to prevent child deaths.

"Such cuts undermine our efforts to shape the broader international efforts to fight disease and hunger, invest in global health, and foster more stable societies," said Kerry.

A coalition of aid groups including CARE, Catholic Relief Services, InterAction, the International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, Refugees International, World Vision, and many others delivered a letter to the White House and Congress Wednesday pointing out that 2013 has already been a year where the resources devoted to humanitarian assistance have been strained to the breaking point.

"Humanitarian needs resulting from conflicts and natural disasters around the world have increased dramatically over the course of the last year," the groups wrote in their open letter. "We write to express deep concern that current resource levels for humanitarian assistance are not sufficient to meet these challenges, which will prove harmful to both U.S. interests and millions of vulnerable people requiring lifesaving assistance. Therefore we urge Congress to ensure that the levels approved for the remainder of Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 are commensurate with humanitarian need."

The crisis in Syria has worsened considerably since the Obama administration last submitted a budget request in February 2012, the groups said. Now, more than 770,000 refugees have poured into neighboring countries, and that number is expected to increase.

"This strain is compounded by urgent new needs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, evolving crises in Mali and Sudan and ongoing food insecurity in the Sahel. It is also cause for great concern regarding how a response would be mounted if another disaster were to strike during the 2013 fiscal year," the groups wrote. "This escalation of humanitarian needs comes as sequestration threatens to further curtail available humanitarian resources." 

The groups are asking that when Congress puts together the next continuing resolution, a temporary bill to fund the government, at the end of March, the changing needs for humanitarian assistance are taken into account. They are also asking that increased funding for humanitarian assistance not come from within the existing international affairs budget, which is already facing extreme tension due to sequestration.

"Without these alterations we fear that the U.S. agencies that oversee humanitarian response will be put in an impossible position, choosing between saving lives in one country over another," the letter states. 

If sequester goes into effect March 2, the administration and congressional appropriators are already planning to reorder the cuts by including a list of "anomalies" in the next continuing resolution, which will need to be passed by the end of March. Usually, continuing resolutions simply extend funding at the same levels, but this year is different. The "anomalies" are individual changes to certain accounts that will allow appropriators to reorder the cuts in the sequester and save or punish individual programs.

All federal agencies have already submitted a list of requested anomalies to the White House Office of Management and Budget. OMB passed back its edits of those lists to various agencies this week. At the end of some further intraadministration negotiations, the White House will send a formal list of anomaly requests to appropriators for their consideration as they prepare the new continuing resolution. 

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that "there's a great deal of activity in this White House with regards to the sequester, and there will continue to be."

The White House hasn't yet submitted a fiscal 2014 budget request, which is typically sent to Congress the first week of February. Carney said the impetus was on Congress, which he noted is out of town this week, to pass a measure to delay the sequester before March 2.

"I am entirely sure that we will continue to engage with Congress, including the leaders in Congress, on this issue at every level," Carney said. "But the issue here isn't, as I said yesterday, sitting around the table or sitting in some chairs here in the West Wing. It's Congress and congressional leaders, congressional Republicans making a choice between allowing the sequester to kick in with all of the negative effects that would come from that, or postponing the sequester in a reasonable way with a balanced package of spending cuts and revenue increases."