Japan has reacted angrily to statues in South Korea that appear to depict the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, prostrating himself before a young woman who represents tens of thousands of wartime sex slaves.
The pair of bronze statues, set up in a privately run botanical garden in the eastern county of Pyeongchang, shows a male figure kneeling and bowing before a seated “comfort woman” – a euphemism for the tens of thousands of girls and women, mostly from the Korean peninsula, who were forced to work in frontline brothels run by the Japanese military before and during the second world war.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, warned that if reports that the male statue represented Abe were true, the installation would be an “unforgivable” breach of international protocol, adding that it could have a “decisive impact “ on Japan-South Korea relations.
The South Korean government has sought to distance itself from the controversy. Kim In-chul, a foreign ministry spokesperson, acknowledged that countries should show “comity” towards foreign heads of state, but dodged a question on whether that should extended to private citizens.
Kim Chang-ryeol, who owns the botanical garden, claimed any resemblance to Abe was unintentional. That contradicts South Korean media reports quoting the sculptor as saying that the statue, titled Eternal Atonement, was created with Abe in mind.
“The man could be Abe and also couldn’t be Abe,” Kim said. “The man represents anyone in a position of responsibility who could sincerely apologise to the victims of sexual slavery, now or in the future. It could even be the girl’s father … that’s why the statues were named Eternal Atonement.”
Kim said he had decided to cancel a formal unveiling ceremony on 10 August due to the controversy, but added that there were no plans to remove the work.
The comfort women controversy has soured ties between the two countries since the first survivor went public with her story in the early 1990s. In recent years Japan calling on the South Korean government to remove similar statues, including one installed outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
Japan insists that the issue was settled “finally and irreversibly” by a 2015 agreement reached by Abe and then South Korean president, Park Geun-hye.
Abe apologised and agreed to provide 1 billion yen [9 million USD] in “humanitarian” funds to a foundation set up to support the survivors, while Park agreed that South Korea would not raise the issue in international forums.
But the fund was effectively dissolved in 2018 after Park’s liberal successor, Moon Jae-in, said it did not take into account the feelings of survivors and the South Korean public.