TOKYO — Anyone struggling to understand the Japanese government's position on the morality of kidnapping people, taking them to another country and forcing them to work against their will can be excused for being confused by the declarations coming out of Tokyo these days.
On one hand, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems prepared to risk his country's reputation by saying that the Japanese military did not coerce the tens of thousands of women from other Asian countries cast into sexual slavery during World War II.
Yet his government cannot contain its fury over North Korea's failure to "sincerely" face up to its role in kidnapping a handful of Japanese civilians during the Cold War and forcing them to teach Japanese customs and language to North Korean spies.
There is no hint here of any awareness of the irony.
There has been almost no outcry in Japan against Abe's assertion that there is no evidence to implicate the Japanese military in the well-documented system of organized brothels in areas under its control. Major media organizations support Abe's position and have encouraged him to stick by it.
In a sign that it feels no heat at home, the Abe Cabinet issued a statement Friday reiterating that government archives contain no evidence of official military involvement in recruiting what the Japanese euphemistically call "comfort women."
Contrast that with the national anguish over the 17 Japanese allegedly kidnapped by North Korea and who Tokyo says may still be alive. One of the abductees, Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped at age 13 three decades ago, has become an icon of Japanese victimhood, and Abe has never missed a chance to affix his career to her tragedy. Last week, his government launched a $1-million TV ad campaign extolling its determination to free her and the other abductees.
"The Japanese people have little awareness about human rights," says Yoshimi Yoshiaki, a Chuo University professor and co-chairman of the Center for Research and Documentation on Japan's War Responsibility. He has received many requests about the center's scholarship since the controversy broke -- all form abroad. "There was no interest in Japan," he says.
"The Japanese become very emotional about the abductees because the victims are Japanese, but they don't feel so close to other Asian women, whose suffering they see as something in the past," Yoshiaki says. "What Abe is demanding from North Korea, an apology and punishment for the people who did it, should be the same standard he applies on comfort women."
But Abe has opted to play the lawyer rather than the moralist on the so-called comfort women. Despite the testimony of women who were victims of the brothels, Abe says there is no paper trail showing coercion in the narrow sense of soldiers breaking into homes and abducting women into forced prostitution. Any such suggestion is a "complete fabrication," he told parliament.
How, critics ask, could a prime minister who came to office vowing to create a "beautiful Japan" that spoke with credibility on global affairs, end up squabbling over details with now-octogenarian women about the degree of coercion that was used to conscript them into a network of serial rape?
Some say it is rooted in his government's falling poll numbers, which has left him vulnerable to attack from the nationalist wing of his party. These conservatives once saw Abe as their champion but accuse him of going soft since becoming prime minister.
Others argue he was merely speaking his mind, noting his record of criticizing what he described as Japan's masochistic culture of endlessly apologizing for World War II and its related crimes.
It's unclear whether Abe knows, or worries, about the damage his obfuscation has done to Japan's image abroad. He has dismissed criticism as Japan-bashing spawned by a misrepresentation of his position by foreign media.
But the sex slavery issue comes at what was supposed to be a shining period of breakthroughs for Japanese diplomacy: a visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to repair Japan's shaky relations with its Asian rival, and a trip to Washington at the end of April to draw attention to the robust health of the alliance with Japan's one indispensable partner.
Eager to keep warming relations on track, the Chinese government has been muted in its criticism of Abe's statements about the wartime brothels. But the Washington visit seems certain to be dogged by protests by women's groups and to attract sharp questions about whether the United State's firmest ally in Asia is backsliding on a central moral question.