As the Japanese and South Korean governments work to settle issues about history by the end of the year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a more flexible approach to handling the wartime "comfort women" issue following his return to office in 2012 compared to his one-year term in 2006-2007.
Prime Minister Abe pushed for the slogan "breakaway from postwar regime" during his first term in office, but faced criticism for being an ideologically driven revisionist. Following his return to office in 2012, Abe has been careful about addressing issues regarding history. He has been especially flexible about historical issues this year as 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea.
In January 2005, when Abe was the acting secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), it was revealed that in 2001 then deputy chief Cabinet secretary Abe contacted senior officials of public broadcaster NHK over a special program about comfort women. Abe was grilled on the matter by opposition parties in the Diet.
Right after Abe assumed office for the first time in September 2006, he announced that his Cabinet intends to uphold the 1993 "Kono Statement," issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that admitted the Imperial Japanese Army's involvement in the wartime comfort women system.
However, the then Abe government changed its course drastically after a draft resolution was submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2007, which demanded an apology from the Japanese government over the comfort women issue.
Two months later, Abe made a comment that there was "no evidence to support the forced recruitment of comfort women by the Imperial Japanese Army." He separated the degree of enforcement into "broad sense" and "narrow sense" and denied the "narrow sense of enforcement" which referred to the Japanese army's act of forcing women into wartime brothels.
Abe's logic did not win understanding and the South Korean government expressed strong opposition against it. The U.S. also criticized Abe for being out of touch over human rights and its lower house adopted the resolution over the comfort women issue in July 2007. Unable to defy criticism for being a revisionist, Abe resigned in September that same year.
After the LDP lost power in the 2009 general election, Abe started sending out messages including that he intended to review the Kono Statement in anticipation of his return to power. He was bearing in his mind that conservatives -- his support base -- had been demanding reviews of the statement. When he announced his candidacy for the LDP presidency in September 2012, Abe declared his intention to release a new statement over the comfort women issue, saying, "We cannot force generations of our children and grandchildren to shoulder the burden of dishonor."
When Prime Minister Abe assumed office for the second time in December 2012, he adopted a cautious government stance on the Kono Statement review. He announced a policy to examine the process of preparing the statement in February 2014 and established a study group within the government.
The study findings were released four months later, but Abe declared in the Diet in March that the Abe Cabinet would not change the Kono Statement. When the Asahi Shimbun national daily retracted parts of its published articles about the "forced recruitment of comfort women" in August, Abe slammed the newspaper saying that its articles disgraced Japan in the international community, but announced again that his government would not revise the Kono Statement.
Prime Minister Abe indirectly touched on the comfort women issue in his statement released in August this year for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, showing Japan's consideration for South Korea to some extent.
A former Cabinet minister says Prime Minister Abe has changed his stance from his first term, pointing out that it may be because his support base has expanded from radical conservatives to the broader population of voters.