From time to time, conservative Japanese politicians
get into trouble by denying that Imperial Japan forced women of occupied
countries, known euphemistically as the “comfort women”, to work in military
brothels serving Japanese troops during World War II.
Nobody however has managed to get into as much hot water
over this issue as Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who doubles as the co-leader,
with former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, of the new Japan Restoration
Party, the third largest party in parliament.
Ever since he opined with Osaka reporters and on social
media that the comfort woman system was a necessary adjunct to the Japanese war
effort in early May, the Japanese press has maintained a steady drumbeat of
stories and opinions taking Hashimoto to task, and leading to speculation that
he might resign as party leader.
Hashimoto had compounded his problem by linking history to
the current situation of U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa where, during a
recent visit, he claimed to have felt a “strong sense of crisis” about behavior
of American forces stationed on the island.
Introduced to the commander of the Marine air station at
Futenba, he advised him to make better use of the “legally accepted adult
entertainment industry” to satisfy soldiers’ needs. It is not known how the
Americans reacted to this high level politician’s seeming to suggest that they
should institute a comfort system for their troops.
After all, prostitution is illegal in the U.S. and has been
illegal in Japan since the 1950s.
The meeting and his remarks there that took place May 1
might have stayed private except that Hashimoto himself later boasted of his
encounter with Osaka journalists and described it on his own Twitter account
that is read by about a million people. “Hashimoto ratted on Hashimoto” said
Michael Penn, editor of Shingetsu News Agency.
Hashimoto misjudged how his remarks would be received in an
audience wider than the more extreme nationalists or that it might harm
relations with the U.S., he said. While many Japanese conservatives dislike how
history has judged Japan’s wartime aggression (many deny the accuracy of that
term), they still value the alliance with the U.S.
The behavior of American military personnel in Japan and
especially on Okinawa is a touchy subject. The American high command is
intimately aware that any misbehavior can literally endanger the alliance.
Whenever one occurs, the military goes into overdrive: mass restrictions to
base, curfews, mandatory lectures on how to behave and, if needed, abject
apologies from generals, admirals and the ambassador.
The worst incident in recent memory was the gang-rape of a
young Japanese girl in 1995, which sparked massive demonstrations and led to an
agreement to move thousands of marines from Okinawa to Guam, an agreement that
has yet to be fulfilled because of impasse concerning moving the Marine air base
at Futenma to a new location.
Cases of rape on Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan are rare and
quickly punished. Two American sailors were convicted in 2012 and given 10-year
sentence in Japanese prisons. More common are simply the daily irritants that
come from living among large numbers of foreign servicemen: aircraft noise,
traffic jams, bar fights and petty crime.
Some harsh criticism of Hashimoto from the U.S. alarmed the
government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, already facing criticism of its own
from Washington, Seoul and Beijing over the April visits to the Yasukuni shrine
by several cabinet officers and numerous members of parliament. “The [comfort]
system cannot be pardoned”, he said.
Former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer (brother of the
well-known newscaster Bob Schieffer) said that nobody in the U.S. would accept
any attempt by Japanese officials to justify wartime brothels. Many American
newspapers used the term “sex slaves” rather than the euphemistic “comfort
women” to describe the system of wartime brothels.
In the wake of the controversy, Hashimoto cancelled a planned
trip to the United States, including San Francisco and New York, as there was
the real possibility that he would be snubbed by the mayors of the two cities.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, a Chinese-American, has also complained about
The governing Liberal Democratic Party allies with another
smaller party called New Komeito, but it is no secret that Abe is interested in
cooperating with Hashimoto’s party to pass amendments to the constitution
which, among other things, would alter or repeal the famous “no war” clause.
Hashimoto is on record favoring such a move.
The incident showed that Hashimoto, despite his conservative
and nationalistic leanings, had not assimilated the usual conservative talking
points about the comfort woman issue. They cannot deny that the brothels
existed; that’s documented. They cannot easily argue that no woman was forced
into prostitution. There are still many living today that can testify
No, they basically maintain that there is no proof of direct
involvement by the Imperial government in recruiting and managing the comfort
stations, and area where the facts are a little more obscure and subject to
sometime ambiguous arguments (did moving the women around on army trucks
constitute state involvement, for example?)
Meeting with the international press, Hashimoto demonstrated
that he has absorbed this point as he dismissed the idea that the Japanese government
was directly involved. He repeated this argumen in answer to practically every
question posed by the foreign press (Abe holds pretty much the same position
but is not, for the moment, interested in pushing it.)
The Japanese government’s official position on the matter
was laid out in 1993 in a much-massaged Kono Statement named after then chief
cabinet secretary Yohei Kono which apologized for at least indirect government
involvement. The ambiguity of the statement is a source of continuing
controversy with South Korea.
Shortly after assuming office in January, Abe told
parliament that his government will stand on the Kono statement and not seek to
revise it. During his first term in 2007, Abe did in fact raise questions about
direct state involvement in comfort stations, which among other things prompted
the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a resolution urging Japan to formally