The outspoken Mayor of Osaka and possible future Japanese prime minister has been criticised for controversial comments suggesting that the role of “comfort women” during World War II was necessary for the morale of troops living with the daily threat of death.
Toru Hashimoto was quoted by Japanese media as saying: “When soldiers risk their lives under a hail of bullets and you want to give them a rest somewhere, it is clear that you need a comfort woman system”. According to many mainstream historians, up to 200,000 women from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere were forcibly drafted into brothels catering to the Japanese military in territories occupied by Japan.
The Japanese government has distanced itself from Hashimoto’s comments. In the meantime, South Korea has voiced its “deep disappointment” over the comments, warning they risk inflaming Japan’s relationship with its neighbours, who were victims of brutal Japanese expansionism during WWII.
“Our government again urges Japan’s prominent officials to show regret for atrocities committed during Japan’s imperial period and to correct their anachronistic way of thinking and comments,” said one South Korean foreign ministry official.
Hashimoto, co-leader of the national Japan Restoration Party, acknowledged that some women providing sexual services to Japan’s soldiers did so “against their will”, which is “the tragedy of war”. But he said there was no evidence this had been officially sanctioned by the state and that the use of prostitutes by servicemen was not unique to Japan. Shintaro Ishihara, former Tokyo governor and the other co-leader of the Restoration Party, came to Hashimoto’s defence, saying: “even if his comments are unpleasant to hear, he is not saying anything wrong”.
Japan’s top government spokesman and Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, refused to comment directly on Hashimoto’s remarks. “The government’s position on the comfort women issue is that, as I repeatedly said here, we feel pain towards people who experienced hardships that are beyond description and (this) administration shares the view held by past governments.”
Japan’s shared history with its Asian neighbours looms over present-day relations, which are also strained by separate territorial disputes with Seoul and Beijing.