SEOUL/TOKYO: The Japanese government reacted angrily on Tuesday (Jul 28) to a statue in South Korea that appears to depict Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kneeling and bowing to a "comfort woman", a euphemism for women forced to work in Japan's wartime brothels.
Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said if reports of the statue on display at a rural botanic garden were true, it would be an "unforgivable" breach of international protocol.
"If the reports are accurate, then there would be a decisive impact on Japan-Korea relations," Suga told a news conference in Tokyo.
The issue of comfort women, mostly Koreans forced to work in Japan's brothels before and during World War II, and whether the surviving victims were adequately compensated, have long been a thorn in the two countries' ties.
Japan regards the matter as "finally and irreversibly resolved" by a 2015 agreement reached by Abe and then South Korean President Park Geun-hye under which Abe apologised and pledged a fund to support the survivors.
However, the current South Korean government of President Moon Jae-in has declared the 2015 deal flawed, effectively voiding it.
South Korean news reports said the statue was commissioned by a privately-run botanic garden, located in the rural county of Pyeongchang, and depicted a male figure resembling Abe kneeling and bowing to a figure of a seated young girl.
Similar statues of girls alone have been set up in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and at other places to honour the women.
The website of the garden, which displays Korean indigenous wild flowers, names the statue "Eternal Atonement".
South Korean activists say there may have been as many as 200,000 Korean victims, only a few of whom have ever told of the abuse they endured at the hands of Japanese forces.
Ties were strained last year when Japan imposed restrictions on exports of key high-tech materials to South Korea following a ruling by South Korea's top court ordering Japanese firms to pay compensation to Koreans forced to work for them during the war.