A large majority of Japanese people disagree with a high-profile politician who said women forced to provide sex during the second world war were a military necessity, polls issued on Monday said.
Up to 200,000 “comfort women” from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere were forcibly drafted into brothels catering to the Japanese military during the second world war, mainstream historians say.
Outspoken Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto said last week these women served a “necessary” role keeping battle-stressed soldiers in line, sparking outrage in China and South Korea and inviting US criticism.
Two surveys carried out over the weekend indicated that Hashimoto’s opinion is not shared by many, despite regular foreign criticism that the Japanese public has still failed to come to terms with the country’s bellicose past.
In a poll of 1,550 Japanese households conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, 71 per cent of respondents said Hashimoto’s comments were “inappropriate” against 21 per cent who said the comments were “appropriate”.
In a separate survey among 3,600 households by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, 75 per cent of those who answered said the comments were “problematic”, while 20 per cent said they had little or no problem with them.
The United States on Thursday condemned Hashimoto’s opinion as “outrageous”. In response, he claimed that American troops abused Japanese women during their seven-year occupation after Japan’s 1945 surrender.
China, South Korea and the Philippines have all voiced their disapproval at Hashimoto’s comments, the latest episode in a decades-long controversy over interpretations of history in East Asia that colours present-day relations.
Unbowed, Hashimoto on Monday hit back at the polls, criticising their methodology.
“The way the Mainichi did the opinion poll is unfair,” he tweeted.
“Even though I have repeatedly said that I didn’t think the comfort women system was necessary, it is ... based on the premise that I believe the comfort women system was necessary.”
The embattled mayor has tried to distinguish between forcing women into sexual slavery, which he says was wrong, and allowing troops to have a sexual outlet, which he says was necessary.
Hashimoto, a lawyer by training, rose to prominence as an outspoken television talk-show guest. He rode the wave of his popularity into local politics and last year established a national party, becoming its joint leader.
He has a reputation for colourful pronouncements that frequently and unapologetically offend.
On Sunday he took to Twitter to demand that Tokyo do more to boost women’s rights at a Group of Eight summit taking place in Britain next month.
“Japan should play a leadership role in looking at how countries in the world have trampled women’s rights on the battlefield,” he said.
“Japan’s comfort women system was wrong. However, militaries in other countries used women. Nevertheless, the world only criticises Japan as it used ‘sex slaves’.”
“A sex slave is something completely different from a comfort woman,” he said without elaborating.
The phrase “comfort woman” is not used in contemporary Japanese as a synonym for prostitute, and there is no mainstream evidence that any other country’s military employed a similar system.