Embattled Japanese politician Toru Hashimoto apologized Monday for suggesting U.S. troops patronize adult entertainment businesses to help reduce rapes, but he refused to back away from another controversial comment regarding Japan's use of wartime sex slaves.
Speaking to reporters at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, the 43- year-old mayor of Osaka said his remarks regarding the U.S. military were inappropriate, but made in an attempt to act on his "strong commitment" to curbing sexual crimes committed by American soldiers in Okinawa, home to more than half the 50,000 troops based in Japan.
Speaking to a U.S. commander on a recent trip to Okinawa, Hashimoto suggested the military make "better use of the sex industry," adding "if you don't make use of those places you cannot properly control the sexual energy of those tough guys." The comments created a firestorm domestically, raising the ire of women's groups in Okinawa and politicians within his own party, who have demanded an apology.
"I understand that my remark could be construed as an insult to the U.S. Forces and to the American people, and therefore was inappropriate," Hashimoto said Monday. "My strong sense of crisis led to the use of this inappropriate expression."
Hashimoto offered no apology for his comments suggesting Japan's wartime practice of forced prostitution was necessary to "maintain discipline" and provide relief for soldiers who risked their lives in battle.
Instead, he offered to clarify his position, saying his comments had been taken out of context by the media.
"I have never condoned the use of comfort women," Hashimoto said, referring to the Japanese euphemism for prostitutes. "It is extremely regrettable that only the cut-off parts of my remarks have been reported worldwide and that these reports have been resulted in misunderstood meanings of the remarks, which are utterly contrary to what I actually intended."
Hashimoto went on to say that the use of sex slaves was an "inexcusable act that violated the dignity and human rights" of women, but said it was unfair to single out Japan, as the only country guilty of committing such wartime aggressions. He said armed forces in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Korea, and the former Soviet Union also allowed wartime brothels.
"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' and 'sex slavery," he said.
Historians say up to 200,000 women, mainly from the Korean Peninsula and China, were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers in military brothels, according to The Associated Press. While some other World War II armies had military brothels, Japan is the only country accused of widespread, organized sexual slavery.
The Japanese government issued a formal apology to those women in 1993, in a resolution that acknowledged its military helped facilitate the brothels. Citing a government study, the Kono Statement said the women were recruited against their will. But Tokyo denied systematically abducting and trafficking sex slaves, maintaining that work was carried out by private recruiters. The contention has led to decades of friction with neighbors China and South Korea.
Hashimoto's comments come amid growing fears that Japan's political leaders are increasingly shifting to the right. Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while acknowledging the existence of comfort women, has also denied they were forced into prostitution, and advocated revising the 1993 statement, prior to taking office in December.
In a move aimed at quieting growing outrage in the region, Abe's cabinet on Friday passed a resolution reaffirming their support for that resolution.
Responding to Hashimoto's comments Monday, South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said summit level talks and high-ranking exchanges would be difficult, if the current atmosphere did not improve.
"Lately, Japan has continued with words that reverse course of history," he said. "[Those words] pour cold water on efforts to strengthen ties [between Japan and Korea]."
Hashimoto has become one of Japan's most prominent politicians since establishing the Japan Restoration Party last year, with former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. With 54 seats in the 480 seat lower house of parliament, the JRP is the second-largest opposition party, but the party's approval ratings have taken a hit, amid the controversy surrounding Hashimoto.
In a poll published by the Nikkei newspaper Monday, just 3 percent said they planned to vote for the party in July's upper house election, down from 6 percent from last month.
Asked whether he intended step down from party leadership to take responsibility for his comments, Hashimoto said he would leave that decision up to voters.
"If the voters do not support my comments, the result will be apparent in the upper house elections," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.