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Japan turns to K Street amid calls for apology on WWII-era ‘comfort women’

Lobbyists for the Japanese government are keeping tabs on calls from Washington for the country to apologize without equivocation to women who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II.

The treatment of the so-called “comfort women” is a sensitive subject for the Japanese government, which says it has repeatedly apologized for the treatment of women during the occupation of Asia and Pacific Islands in the 1930s and 40s.

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But some activists and lawmakers are unsatisfied and say the country has ignored a resolution passed by the House in 2007 that called on Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility” for what happened. “They [Japan] tried to stop it, but once it passed, they kept quiet. They tried to ignore the issue of comfort women,” said Chejin Park, a staff attorney for Korean American Civic Empowerment. “Every year, we have been asking them to do it … but they have never paid attention to the resolution.”

The issue is bubbling to the surface again, in part due to the efforts of Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.).

“There are those who believe the Japanese Government has apologized and sufficiently addressed this issue. I vehemently disagree,” Honda wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Honda cited recent remarks from several Japanese public figures, including the mayor of Osaka saying comfort women were “necessary.” Honda said the issue “remains unresolved.”

The renewed attention to the issue threatens to put a strain on relations between the United States and Japan.

Congress last month included language in the omnibus spending bill that urged Kerry to raise the issue of comfort women with Japan. Honda has been talking with State Department officials about the issue as well.

“The [State] Department shares Congressman Honda’s concern over the importance of treating surviving women with dignity and respect, and we will respond to his letter as soon as possible,” a State Department official said of Honda’s letter.

“We encourage the Japanese government to continue to address this issue in a manner that promotes healing and facilitates better relations with neighboring states,” the official said.

There were an estimated 200,000 comfort women from China, Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and the Netherlands who were used to boost soldier morale during Japan’s occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands. Many of the women suffered sexual violence, beatings and torture.

In 1993, the Japanese government issued what is known as the Kono Statement apologizing to the surviving comfort women. But past efforts in Japan to revise the statement, and remarks by some Japanese officials downplaying the issue, have inflamed activists and lawmakers.

“As long as there is gender-based violence, especially in times of conflict, and as long as the government of Japan continues to ignore House Resolution 121, this issue remains relevant,” a Honda aide said.

Honda has also spoken with Japanese government officials about the issue, according to his aide.

When contacted by The Hill, the Japanese Embassy shared a document that cites the Kono Statement, in which the Japanese government extended “its sincere apologies” to comfort women survivors.

Moreover, the document describes the Asian Women’s Fund, which was created in 1995 to provide assistance to the survivors. Survivors have also received a letter of apology, signed by the Japanese prime minister.

The document also includes a quote where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was “deeply pained” by the comfort women’s suffering, and a statement from Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, that he “never stated that we will consider revising it [the Kono Statement].”

Those actions by Japan, however, have not stopped the outcry for many who lobbied for the 2007 House resolution.

“The bottom line is that it’s not enough. They are playing around. They have not given an unequivocal, unconditional apology yet, and then they give contradictory statements,” said T. Kumar, director of international advocacy at Amnesty International USA.  

An April 2007 Congressional Research Service report, being used by Japan’s lobbyists, notes that, while the Japanese government provided about $35 million to the survivors’ fund from 1995-2000, it did not provide direct compensation to the victims for fear of more litigation from other groups. Critics say that shows Japan’s unwillingness to accept full responsibility.

Japan’s lobbyists have tracked statements on Capitol Hill about comfort women, documents show. K Street has compiled information on meetings between House members and Korean-American groups — many of which pushed for the original resolution. 

At least two lobby firms, Hogan Lovells and Hecht Spencer & Associates, have been following the issue for the Japanese government.

One document that Hogan Lovells filed with the Justice Department included notes on what Republican lawmakers said during a “meetup” with more than 400 Korean-American community leaders in July 2013.

The document noted that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) “made one mention” of comfort women, citing the Osaka mayor’s remarks, and that there was “no crowd reaction to [Royce’s] remarks.” In addition, the firm’s notes say that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) “made no mention” of comfort women, despite a press release from her office a day before saying Japan needed to resolve the issue.

 Hogan Lovells also tracked what Honda, Royce and Ros-Lehtinen said during an event honoring the sixth anniversary of passage of the comfort women resolution.

The firm has also compiled a list of memorials to comfort women across the United States, as well as advertisements and state legislation.

Hecht Spencer lobbyists also filed a copy of a May 2013 floor speech by Royce, during which he blasted the Osaka mayor’s remarks on comfort women.

“The mayor’s remarks are absolutely outrageous, and it adds insult to injury for survivors and their families,” Royce said.

The Japanese government paid Hogan Lovells more than $523,000 from September 2012 to August 2013, according to Justice records. Japan paid Hecht Spencer $195,000 during that same period.

Supporters of the 2007 resolution say they will continue to push Japan. Few of the survivors are still alive: 55 remain in Korea, 26 in the Philippines, 5 in Taiwan, along with a few others elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific, according to Honda’s letter to Kerry.

“There is true urgency. Time is running out for the survivors to receive justice. Patience is a commodity these women cannot afford,” Honda’s aide said.