Loose-lipped politicians are a problem for any government. Japan seems particularly bedevilled by them. Rising political star Toru Hashimoto has been especially insensitive, his recent comments on comfort women heightening regional outrage and prompting criticism in Europe and North America. Coming on the heels of a string of incidents involving dozens of right-wing lawmakers, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe most prominent among them, it is not surprising that the nation is again being called on to apologise for its wartime atrocities.
"Comfort women", the girls and women, mostly from China, Korea and the Philippines enslaved by the Japanese imperial army to sexually serve its soldiers, is arguably the most emotive issue. It is also the easiest to resolve; an admission of forced sexual slavery, an apology, proper compensation, teaching the truth in schools and punishment for those behind the crimes is what is needed. Japan has gone part of the way towards meeting these goals since 1992, but its resolve has flip-flopped. What one prime minister has promised has been negated by the remarks of a successor, underlings or lesser figures. Some even continue to deny the system existed.
That is especially so in the present political climate, where nationalists are in the governing majority. Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka and co-leader of the second-largest opposition grouping, the right-wing Japan Restoration Party, last month said that the system had been "necessary". He said other countries had had similar mechanisms to "give some rest to groups [of soldiers] who are psychologically overwrought". His explanations, peppered with repeated observations that the system was wrong and that the victims deserved compassion and apologies, has failed to placate critics or calm the anger of foreign governments, China and South Korea the most vocal. Even the US, Japan's staunchest ally, has objected.
Japanese, no matter what their political leanings or beliefs, should not be surprised. What another country may have done does not justify Japan's actions. The nation is a party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Sexual slavery can never be condoned.
Abe, Hashimoto and other nationalists seem intent on rewriting history. But those who suffered at the hands of the Japanese military are not to be fooled. A lasting apology is the least they want. Doing what is right by the remaining "comfort women" is where the effort has to start.