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Japanese leader questions military brothel apology as victims cry foul

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TOKYO — Yasuji Kaneko, 87, still remembers the screams of the countless women he raped in China as a soldier in the Japanese imperial army in World War II.
    Some were teenagers from Korea serving as sex slaves in military-run brothels. Others were women in villages he and his comrades pillaged in eastern China.
    ‘‘They cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died,’’ Kaneko said in an interview with The Associated Press at his Tokyo home. ‘‘We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’’
    Historians say some 200,000 women — mostly from Korea and China — served in the Japanese military brothels throughout Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. Many victims say they were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops, and the top government spokesman acknowledged the wrongdoing in 1993.
    Now some in Japan’s government are questioning whether the apology was needed.
    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday denied women were forced into military brothels across Asia, boosting renewed efforts by right-wing politicians to push for an official revision of the apology.
    ‘‘The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion,’’ Abe said.
    Abe’s remarks contradicted evidence in Japanese documents unearthed in 1992 that historians said showed military authorities had a direct role in working with contractors to forcibly procure women for the brothels.
    The comments were certain to rile South Korea and China, which accuse Tokyo of failing to fully atone for wartime atrocities. Abe’s government has been recently working to repair relations with Seoul and Beijing.
    The statement came just hours after South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun marked a national holiday honoring the anniversary of a 1919 uprising against Japanese colonial rule by urging Tokyo to come clean about its past.
    Roh also referred to hearings held by the U.S. House of Representatives last month on a resolution urging Japan to ‘‘apologize for and acknowledge’’ the imperial army’s use of sex slaves during the war.
    ‘‘The testimony reiterated a message that no matter how hard the Japanese try to cover the whole sky with their hand, there is no way that the international community would condone the atrocities committed during Japanese colonial rule,’’ Roh said.
    Dozens of people rallied outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to mark the anniversary, lining up dead dogs’ heads on the ground with pieces of paper in their mouths listing names of Koreans who allegedly collaborated with the Japanese during its 1910-45 colonial rule. Protest organizers said the animals were slaughtered at a restaurant; dogs are regularly consumed as food in Korea.
    Roh’s office said late Thursday it did not immediately have a direct response to the Japanese leader’s remarks. In Beijing, calls to the Chinese Foreign Ministry seeking comment on the remarks were not immediately returned.
    State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not comment on Abe’s statement. ‘‘I’ll let the Japanese political system deal with that,’’ he said.
    Abe’s comments were a reversal from the government’s previous stance. In 1993, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized to the victims of sex slavery, though the statement did not meet demands by former ‘‘comfort women’’ that it be approved by parliament.
    Two years later, the government set up a compensation fund for victims, but it was based on private donations — not government money — and has been criticized as a way for the government to avoid owning up to the abuse. The mandate is to expire March 31.
    The sex slave question has been a cause celebre for nationalist politicians and scholars in Japan who claim the women were professional prostitutes and were not coerced into servitude by the military.
    Before Abe spoke Thursday, a group of ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers discussed their plans for a proposal to urge the government to water down parts of the 1993 apology and deny direct military involvement.
    Nariaki Nakayama, chairman of the group of about 120 lawmakers, sought to play down the government’s involvement in the brothels by saying it was similar to a school that hires a company to run its cafeteria.
    ‘‘Some say it is useful to compare the brothels to college cafeterias run by private companies, who recruit their own staff, procure foodstuffs, and set prices,’’ he said.
    ‘‘Where there’s demand, businesses crop up ... but to say women were forced by the Japanese military into service is off the mark,’’ he said. ‘‘This issue must be reconsidered, based on truth ... for the sake of Japanese honor.’’
    Sex slave victims, however, say they still suffer wounds — physical and psychological — from the war.
    Lee Yong-soo, 78, a South Korean who was interviewed during a recent trip to Tokyo, said she was 14 when Japanese soldiers took her from her home in 1944 to work as a sex slave in Taiwan.
    ‘‘The Japanese government must not run from its responsibilities,’’ said Lee, who has long campaigned for Japanese compensation. ‘‘I want them to apologize. To admit that they took me away, when I was a little girl, to be a sex slave. To admit that history.’’
    ‘‘I was so young. I did not understand what had happened to me,’’ she said. ‘‘My cries then still ring in my years. Even now, I can’t sleep.’’
    AP writer Burt Herman contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.
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