Senior Japanese politicians today attempted to prevent controversial comments about the country's military's use of sex slaves during World War II from souring its relations with South Korea and China.
The latest furor over Japan's conduct in Asia before and during the war began on Monday, when the right-wing mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, said the forced recruitment of Asian women to work in military brothels had been necessary to maintain discipline among soldiers. Mr. Hashimoto was responding to questions from reporters, days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would not revise previous official apologies for the use of sex slaves.
"For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest, a comfort women system was necessary," he told reporters. "That's clear to anyone."
Historians believe that Japan forced as many as 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, China, and the Philippines, and euphemistically referred to as comfort women, to have sex with soldiers during its occupations of China and the Korean Peninsula.
The comments would have ruffled feathers in Seoul and Beijing had they come from any Japanese politician, but the reaction was particularly fierce given Hashimoto's dual role as co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), now a serious third force in politics, with 54 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament.
The lawyer-turned-politician has used his criticism of mainstream political parties to win over disenchanted voters in local elections, and has been talked about as a future prime minister. He has proved less adept when confronted with tricky questions about foreign affairs, however.
How neighbors view it
Among Japan's neighbors, his remarks were taken as another sign that Japan has yet to atone for the past.
"We are appalled and indignant about the Japanese politician's comments boldly challenging humanity and historical justice," Hong Lei, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters. "The way they treat the past will determine the way Japan walks toward the future. On what choice Japan will make, its Asian neighbors and the international community will wait and see."
A spokeswoman for the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, told the Monitor that Hashimoto's remarks "only weaken any possibility for better Korea-Japan relations."
She added: "Japan needs to look back upon itself, and try to understand the feelings of others first, before trying to find a solution on its own terms."
Prime Minister Abe was among several senior politicians who distanced themselves from Hashimoto's remarks. …