May 16, 2013
File photo of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto (R). (AFP/FILES/Yoshikazu) TSUNO
TOKYO: The maverick mayor of Osaka on Thursday offered to meet former "comfort women" to apologise for their suffering after causing an international storm when he said they served a "necessary" role in wartime.
"I think I have to apologise firmly for what Japan did as I talk to former comfort women," Toru Hashimoto, who is co-leader of the national Japan Restoration Party, told a television interview.
"I will tell the comfort women that I'm sorry for having had such a system no matter whether it was forcible or not," Hashimoto said. "It was a disgraceful act and should never be repeated."
However, Hashimoto, who jointly heads a national political party and has been mentioned as a possible future prime minister, insisted the system was not unique to Japan.
"Japan was not the only one doing so," he said. "Everybody was doing bad things. I think Japanese people... should offer objections if there is a misunderstanding of facts in the world."
Hashimoto prompted outrage at home and abroad by saying on Monday that soldiers living with the daily threat of death needed some way to let off steam which was provided by the comfort women system.
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 during WWII, according to many mainstream historians.
Hashimoto's comments reflect an opinion not uncommon among those on the right of Japanese politics that there was no direct involvement in the system by either the state or the imperial army.
The position holds that while there may have been coercion, it was carried out by individuals, gangs or businesses, some of which were non-Japanese.
In Washington, two US lawmakers on Wednesday condemned his remarks and urged Japan's central government to distance itself clearly from him.
Mike Honda called Hashimoto's remarks "repulsive" while fellow congressman Steve Israel said Japanese officials should offer apologies to ageing former comfort women instead of "abhorrent" explanations.
Japan's government has made no direct comment on the remarks, but has said it stands by pronouncements issued by earlier administrations.
In a landmark 1993 statement, the Japanese government offered "sincere apologies" for the "immeasurable pain and suffering" inflicted on comfort women.
Despite a robust stance, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicated last week he does not intend to backtrack on this apology.
Attitudes to Asia's fraught history colour present day relations, especially between South Korea, China and Japan, where territorial disputes further complicate matters.
Beijing and Seoul maintain Japan has never faced up to its guilt or expressed sufficient remorse for its brutal warmongering.
Yet, many in Japan feel events that took place seven decades earlier are used by nationalists abroad as a stick to beat it for their own domestic ends.