Japanese nationalists in war of words over 'comfort women'

No stranger to controversy, top nationalist Ishihara berates party rival for discussing war's sex slaves at a politically sensitive time

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 1:13am

Two of Japan's fiercest nationalist politicians are at loggerheads over the issue of comfort women, with Shintaro Ishihara emerging as an unlikely defender of the wartime sex slaves.

Ishihara, the former Tokyo governor who is joint leader of the nationalist Japan Restoration Party, strongly criticised party founder Toru Hashimoto for his comments on comfort women that have dented public support in the run-up to next month's election.

Ishihara said claims by Hashimoto last month that women who provided sex to Imperial Japan's military in the early decades of the last century were not forced into their profession were a "great nuisance" to the party.

Ishihara said: "There is no use in justifying himself at this time as he touched on a taboo subject and said something that should not have been said.

"My perception of history is basically different."

Go Ito, a professor of political science at Tokyo's Meiji University, believes Ishihara's outburst against his political ally is more than a little ironic.

"Ishihara is a deeply nationalistic person and at first said there was nothing wrong with what Hashimoto said, but he is changing his position now," he said.

"I think what happened is that when Hashimoto came under huge amounts of pressure, he began to revise what he was saying about the comfort women.

"That goes completely against Ishihara's way of carrying out politics. I think Hashimoto backtracking really irritated him."

And while Ishihara may not have publicly stated his feelings on the comfort women issue, he has a reputation for comments that have outraged other national and minority groups.

In an interview in 1990, he claimed the Rape of Nanking never happened. "People say that the Japanese made a holocaust but that is not true. It is a story made up by the Chinese. It has tarnished the image of Japan, but it is a lie," he said.

In 2000, he triggered fury in the gay community by declaring that homosexuality is "abnormal". The following year, he upset the elderly by telling the women's magazine
Shukan Josei that "old women who live after they have lost their reproductive function are useless and are committing a sin."

He dismissed criticism on the grounds that it was from "tyrannical .... old women".

Ishihara managed to annoy the entire French nation by claiming their language should not be considered an international language because counting in French was difficult.

Korea was next on his list of places he would be unwelcome in the future after he claimed Japan's rule of the peninsula was justified.

Closer to home, he described the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami - which killed nearly 20,000 people - as "punishment from heaven" because the Japanese people had become greedy.

Professor Ito said the force of Ishihara's charisma had carried him through Japan's political landscape until now and he had little time for politicians who "adjust their positions" on policies.

The disagreement between the two men, now out in the open, further jeopardises the party's fortunes ahead of the July 21 election for the Upper House.

There have already been suggestions that Hashimoto would step down in the aftermath of the furore over the comfort women comments, but he appears to have ridden out that storm.

If the Japan Restoration Party fares particularly badly in the vote, however, Hashimoto is likely to come under renewed pressure to step down from the leadership of the party.