TOKYO — An outspoken Japanese mayor who outraged many with remarks about Japan’s wartime and modern sexual services stood by his comments Thursday, but said he may have lacked “international sensitivity.”
Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto said his lack of sensitivity to America’s perception of prostitution might have caused outrage after his suggestion earlier this week that US troops based in southern Japan should patronize legal adult entertainment establishments to reduce sex crime there.
Hashimoto, co-leader of an emerging nationalist party, also has angered Japan’s neighbors by saying the Japanese military’s wartime practice of forcing Asian women into prostitution was necessary to maintain discipline and provide relaxation for soldiers.
He claimed Thursday that the practice was widely used by many other countries during World War II and that Japan was being unfairly singled out.
The US State Department called Hashimoto’s comments “outrageous and offensive.”
Historians say up to 200,000 women, mainly from the Korean Peninsula and China, were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers in military brothels. While some other World War II armies had military brothels, Japan is the only country accused of such widespread, organized sexual slavery.
Hashimoto’s comments added to recent anger in neighboring countries that suffered from Japan’s wartime aggression and have complained about the lack of atonement for atrocities committed during that time.
Hashimoto said Thursday that he had no intention of retracting any of his earlier comments. But he said his remarks might have seemed inappropriate to people outside Japan with different values.
“If there is one big mistake I made, that might have been my lack of understanding of culture behind the US sex industry—if you mention adult entertainment in the US, everyone thinks of prostitution,” Hashimoto said during a live TV talk show from Osaka, in western Japan. “I admit that my international sensitivity was quite poor when I had to operate beyond national borders.”
The ruckus started Monday when Hashimoto commented on the wartime “comfort women” who had to provide sex to Japan’s Imperial Army. Hashimoto said that on a recent visit to the southern island of Okinawa he suggested to the US commander there that the troops make use of the legal sex industry.
More than half of about 50,000 US troops based in Japan under a bilateral security pact are on Okinawa, where base-related crime has long triggered anti-US military sentiment.
US officials rejected his proposal. “That goes without saying,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Tuesday in Washington.
In a tweet Wednesday, Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat who has urged Japan to take responsibility for wartime sex slavery, called Hashimoto’s remarks that “comfort women” were necessary “contemptible and repulsive,” and demanded Japan’s government “apologize for this atrocity.”
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the trafficking of women for sexual purposes during that era was “a grave human rights violation of enormous proportions.”
“We hope that Japan will continue to work with its neighbors to address this and other issues arising from the past and cultivate relationships that allow them to move forward,” Psaki told reporters Thursday.
Hashimoto said Thursday that his comments were not intended to justify or whitewash Japan’s use of prostitution for its wartime military and that Japan should apologize to the women whether or not they were forced into it.
Hashimoto’s comments came amid continuing criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s earlier pledges to revise Japan’s past apologies for wartime atrocities. Before he took office in December, Abe had advocated revising a 1993 statement by then-Prime Minister Yohei Kono acknowledging and expressing remorse for the suffering caused to the sex slaves.
Abe has acknowledged “comfort women” existed but has denied they were coerced into prostitution, citing a lack of official evidence. He also said recently that the definition of “aggression” was still not established, inviting criticism from Japan’s neighbors.
On Monday, a photo published in Japanese newspapers showing Abe posing in a fighter jet with the number 731—the number of a notorious Japanese unit that performed chemical and biological experiments on Chinese in World War II—caught attention in Beijing, triggering criticism about a lack of sensitivity.
The series of remarks and actions by Japanese political leaders could affect the way the world views Japan, experts say.
“I think it’s really damaging. These are people who are noted and known. If this is the only way the Japanese news gets attention, instead of saying something groundbreaking or setting an example for humanity, that’s not good for the country,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
“Japan’s far-right politicians have lost their minds,” South Korea’s JoongAng Daily said in a Thursday editorial, saying Abe and Hashimoto “have unabashedly brought up the ghosts of Japan’s wartime past and irked neighbors that still bear bitter memories of its military aggression.”
“Their misbehavior resembles that of Nazi Germans who were swept up by militarist fervor under Adolf Hitler,” the paper said.
Hashimoto’s follow-up Thursday provided little help to relieve anger among women in Japan.
“[His comment] has violated women and our human rights, and tarnished Japan’s image and national interest,” said opposition lawmaker Makiko Kikuta, demanding Hashimoto retract what he said and apologize. “It’s extremely regrettable.”
Hashimoto, 43, is co-head of the newly formed Japan Restoration Party with former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is a strident nationalist. Hashimoto refused to step down as mayor or party executive.
His fellow party members were sympathetic to Hashimoto, but his remarks dealt a blow to the new party when it desperately needed public support ahead of this summer’s national elections.
Politicians from other parties were not so measured in their response.
“Now his lack of human rights awareness is world-famous. What an embarrassment to Osaka!” said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a liberal-leaning lawmaker representing the region.
Associated Press writers Malcolm Foster in Tokyo and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.