The embattled head of Japan’s public broadcaster NHK insisted on Wednesday it would remain impartial, after his controversial remarks about wartime sex slavery reportedly jeopardised an interview with US ambassador Caroline Kennedy.
Katsuto Momii has been under fire after saying last month that the Japanese Imperial Army’s system of forcing of women into military brothels during the second world war was “common in any country at war”.
The issue is a particularly sensitive one for China and South Korea, which both suffered from Tokyo’s brutal expansionism.
“The most important thing is that all NHK staff strictly adhere to the principles of freedom of expression, political neutrality and fairness,” Momii told lawmakers who were mulling NHK’s annual budget.
“That I offered personal views at my inaugural press conference was inappropriate, and I will be more cautious in the future.”
Momii has apologised for his statement.
But he has refused to quit or retract his remarks, stoking questions over the integrity of the organisation – amid wider concerns about the political views of Japan’s conservative government.
A national Japanese journalists’ association and rights groups, as well as thousands of NHK viewers, have demanded Momii’s resignation, as Tokyo distances itself from the remarks, saying they were “comments made as individual”.
Reports this week said the controversy had made the US embassy in Tokyo wary of granting the broadcaster an interview with its ambassador, the only living child of late US president John F Kennedy, who took up the role late last year.
US embassy officials declined to confirm the reports when contacted.
The storm swirling around NHK was further exacerbated when a senior manager this month denied any massacre in the city of Nanjing during the 1930s, despite well-documented historical accounts of an orgy of murder and rape by Japanese troops as they rampaged through China.
Those comments, along with the resignation of a noted academic who had been told to avoid criticising nuclear power until after the Tokyo governor’s election, have fuelled fears that NHK’s editorial independence had been compromised.
Up to 200,000 women from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere were forced into brothels catering to the Japanese military in territories occupied by Japan during the second world war, according to many mainstream historians.
The politically-charged issue has stoked wider regional tensions, with South Korea and China insisting that Japan must face up to its war-era sexual enslavement of women.
The “Rape of Nanking” is another sensitive issue in Japan’s often-fraught relations with China, which says Tokyo has failed to atone for one of the most brutal episodes of its occupation.
There are varying accounts on the number of victims from the destruction that ensued as the Japanese military entered China’s then-capital on December 13, 1937, ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands dead.
But no mainstream respected historians – including Japanese – dispute the massacre.