It was a very calibrated apology, “to the US forces and to the American people“, but then the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto doubled down on his opinion about comfort women, effectively insulting those countries where comfort women were abducted – again.
On Monday, the former lawyer, until recently a rising star of Japanese politics , claimed his comments about US troops on Okinawa had been misreported.
“My real intention was to prevent a mere handful of US soldiers from committing crimes and strengthen the Japan-US alliance and the relations of trust between the two nations,” Hashimoto told a packed press conference in Tokyo.
He said he had suggested that troops use the “legally accepted adult entertainment industry” out of a “sense of crisis” over sexual assaults by US servicemen.
“I understand that my remark could be construed as an insult to the US forces and to the American people and was inappropriate. I retract this remark and express an apology.”
Hashimoto did not apologise, however, for his remarks about comfort women, the name given to as many as 200,000 mainly Korean and Chinese girls and women forced to have sex with Japanese troops.
Again, he blamed inaccurate reporting, saying that he did not personally believe military brothels were a wartime necessity, but that armies “around the world” had thought they were.
He said the US, Britain, France, Germany and Russia also needed to reflect on the sexual abuse of women during the war, but did not offer any evidence that those countries had operated “comfort stations” – brothels where girls as young as 13 were forced to have sex with as many as 20 soldiers a day – on a similar scale.
“Based on the premise that Japan must remorsefully face its past offences and must never justify the offences, I intended to argue that other nations in the world must not attempt to conclude the matter by blaming only Japan and by associating Japan alone with the simple phrase of ‘sex slaves’ or ‘sex slavery’,” Hashimoto said.
While he believes Japan should apologise to the surviving comfort women, many of whom are in their 80s and 90s, he said there was no evidence that the Japanese state had been directly involved in trafficking them. Instead, he claimed private brokers had recruited the women, some of whom were taken to the brothels in Japanese military vehicles and ships.
“I am not suggesting that Japan should evade responsibility … what I’m focusing on is historical fact,” he said. “The most important aspect is whether it was the will of the state to be involved in a systematic manner.”
Hopefully, this episode, as well as the prime minister’s remarks about the Murayama Apology and visits to Yasukuni Shrine by prominent Japanese politicians, is a trial balloon, that, if these comments are any indication, is failing with voters.
I think he’s trying to do too much, and should just focus on boosting business and tourism in Osaka. South Koreans and Chinese are the top tourists visiting Japan, and the Osaka economy really needs them, so his comments do not help us at all. He should leave such matters to the national government and think about promoting Osaka first whenever he speaks out.
But Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, might have benefited by coopting Hashimoto’s message.
Some in Japan see Mr Hashimoto’s provocations as a deliberate attempt to rekindle enthusiasm for his cause – an attempt that went too far and backfired. A lawyer who first gained public attention as a sharp-tongued television commentator, he has built his career on a rare and often bracing contrarianism and may have overestimated the public’s appetite for attacks on what he sees as suffocating political correctness.
Masatoshi Honda, an independent political scientist, noted that public support for Restoration was falling even before the comfort women controversy, as Mr Abe and his Liberal Democratic party pursued an aggressive economic growth agenda and co-opted Mr Hashimoto’s appeal to national pride by declaring that “Japan is back” on the global stage.
“Abe says his ultimate goal is to restore Japan,” Mr Honda said. “He is trying to do exactly what [the Restoration party] wanted to do.”
Other opposition parties are also suffering, with the Democratic party Mr Abe defeated in December in disarray and polling at about 6 per cent. The LDP is the preferred party of about half of voters, and 70 per cent say they approve of the job Mr Abe’s administration is doing.
At the least it’s a clear signal, that Japan’s conservatives value America’s alliance, and don’t think they need South Korea.