On May 8, the Japanese government announced it would honor the 1995 war apology, a decision widely interpreted as a diplomatic gesture aimed at smoothing ties with China. Tensions between the two countries have recently escalated due to events such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's suggesting a possible revision of the 1995 apology, key cabinet members visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, and Abe questioning the validity of describing Imperial Japan's wartime acts as "aggression."
Despite such efforts, war-related issues have once again returned to haunt the Japanese foreign ministry.
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"In the circumstances in which bullets are flying like rain and wind, the soldiers are running around at the risk of losing their lives ... if you want them to have a rest in such a situation, a comfort women system is necessary. Anyone can understand that," Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka and co-founder of the right wing Japan Restoration Party, stated on Monday, according to the BBC.
The term "comfort women" is a euphemism for women who were forced into prostitution to serve Japanese soldiers during World War Two. Most of them were from China, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines, but some were also from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
The Chinese and South Korean foreign ministries immediately issued statements rebuking Japan over Hashimoto's remarks, which seemingly contradict Japan's formal apology toward comfort women issued in 1993.
"There is worldwide recognition ... that the issue of comfort women amounts to a wartime rape committed by Japan during its past imperial period in a serious breach of human rights," said a South Korean foreign ministry spokesman. "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."
"The conscription of sex slaves was a grave crime committed by the Japanese military ... We are shocked and indignant at the Japanese politician's remarks, as they flagrantly challenge historical justice," stated Hong Lei, spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry.
Hashimoto's comment triggered outrage among Chinese citizens as well.
"To turn an act of sexual perversion into a political tool and to use it as a way of flaunting Japan's greatness -- this is a disgrace for the Japanese people," commented user @ 阿SU_不加V on Sina Weibo. "We should make [Hashimoto's] wife be a comfort woman," wrote user @gbinhe.
Some see Hashimoto's statement not as an isolated incident but as yet another proof of Japan's return to militarization and imperialism. Liu Yang, a social critic and writer widely followed on Weibo, warned:
Little Japanese Osaka Mayor argues in favor of 'comfort women.' Little Japanese Prime Minister Abe, dressed in army camouflage, poses in a jet numbered '731' and shouts 'Long Live Japan!' All these incidents show that the Japanese people have practically gone mad -- the world must be on the alert and look out for little Japan coming out to bite us again.
Various Japanese ministers quickly stated that Hashimoto's views do not reflect those of the government, attempting to minimize the diplomatic damage. "The Abe cabinet has the same sentiments as past cabinets," announced chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, reiterating the government's commitment to the 1993 apology toward comfort women.
Japanese online reactions to Hashimoto's remarks, however, range from supportive to denunciatory. Their comments often contradict each other -- some assert that the comfort women were coerced into prostitution, while others maintain that they volunteered -- thus demonstrating the lack of consensus over the issue.
Some users on Ni Channeru, a Japanese online discussion forum with over 11 million users, nodded in agreement with Hashimoto's assertion. "Of course comfort women were 'necessary' -- that's why they existed in the first place. Plus, it's not like the Japanese army forcefully dragged them into Japan," wrote one user.
Others took a defensive stance, arguing that one cannot pass judgement on past incidents based on current standards. "At that time, prostitution was not illegal. Therefore, we cannot call it an illegal act now," one user contended. "That would be ex post facto law (retroactive law; judging an act based on a law that was adopted 'after the fact')," another chimed in agreement.
"Besides, the same thing happened during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, too. That shows that comfort women were probably truly necessary," wrote another.
Many Japanese users, however, sharply criticized Hashimoto. "Shut your mouth -- how dare you say such things and pretend to know what it was like [to be a comfort woman]," wrote one user. "It doesn't matter what the laws said then. Prostitution is prostitution -- it should be denounced. An army involved in it of course deserves to be shunned," insisted another.
One Japanese citizen questioned Hashimoto's moral integrity in a Yahoo! Japan blog post:
No matter how you defend [the comfort women system], evil is evil. Mr. Hashimoto cannot hide his lack of respect for human rights. He is a lawyer as well as politician ... His comment that 'comfort women were necessary' is an affront to women and it is unbelievable that someone who has studied law should utter such words. Does the thought, 'what if my daughter were to be used as a comfort woman,' not occur to him at all?
Although rightwing extremists tend to attract more attention in international media, their views do not necessarily represent those of the government or the country at large. The issue of comfort women -- and war atrocities in general -- is one that has yet to be resolved, both in and outside of Japan.
This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.