‘Comfort women’ gaffe wounds Osaka mayor
May 27, 2013 2:46 pm
By Jonathan Soble in Tokyo
Six months ago Toru Hashimoto, the young, blunt mayor of Osaka, was threatening to upend Japan’s political establishment, the Restoration party he founded in the country’s second city rapidly becoming a national force.
Today, the man many thought would be a kingmaker after elections last December is fighting for his political life – part of a broader withering of Japanese opposition parties under the rule of Shinzo Abe, prime minister, who has led his own efforts to restore Japan as an economic and diplomatic power.
On Monday, Mr Hashimoto appeared before foreign journalists in Tokyo to explain comments he made about Japan’s wartime use of “comfort women” – the tens of thousands of women who worked in brutal conditions in Japanese military brothels, often after having been tricked or coerced into service.
Mr Hashimoto caused outrage this month when he appeared to defend the exploitation as a necessary and even justifiable outlet for soldiers in wartime. His statements were criticised by everyone from victims’ groups to Mr Abe – a man who has himself questioned the degree of official responsibility Japan bears for the abuse the women suffered.
Support for Restoration has fallen sharply: in one survey only 3 per cent of respondents said they would vote for the party in elections for the upper house of parliament this summer. It is a humiliating collapse for a party that came within a handful of seats of becoming the largest opposition group in December’s lower-house poll.
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.
Such numbers give Mr Abe hugely favourable odds of winning the upper house, where the LDP is in the minority, and consolidating his power.
Mr Hashimoto claimed on Monday that he had never endorsed the wartime brothels but had merely described the thinking of military commanders at the time. He called the use of comfort women, many of whom were recruited in Japanese-ruled Korea, “an inexcusable act that violated the dignity and human rights of the women”.
The explanation appeared to conflict with Japanese press transcripts of his original remarks, which quote him as saying that, given the stress and danger experienced by soldiers in battle, “anyone can understand that the comfort women system was necessary”.
Mr Hashimoto further undermined his credibility by saying that US soldiers on Okinawa should use the island’s “adult entertainment industry” in order to reduce incidences of sexual assault on local women.
He apologised for that remark on Monday but stood by a number of other contentious assertions, including that Japan had been unfairly singled out over the comfort women given that other countries’ armies were also guilty of sexual abuses.
A 1993 apology that Japan offered to former comfort women should be “clarified”, he said, to shield Japan from exaggerated claims of state responsibility for the system, which relied heavily on local middlemen, and suggested the International Court of Justice be asked to settle a dispute with South Korea over compensation.
Yun Byung-Se, South Korea’s foreign minister, called the latter suggestion “embarrassing and shameful” and called on Japan to engage in direct reparations talks.