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Japanese politician calls wartime sex slaves 'necessary'

By Paul Armstrong, CNN
May 15, 2013 -- Updated 0851 GMT (1651 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Toru Hashimoto: "Anyone would understand" the role of "comfort women"
  • Around 200,000 women forced to be sex slaves for Japanese army in WWII
  • Many victims remain angry despite apologies from Japan
  • Japan's wartime conduct remains sensitive issue among its Asian neighbors

(CNN) -- Japanese officials have distanced themselves from comments made by a prominent nationalist politician that suggested women forced to become prostitutes to entertain Japanese troops during World War II were "necessary."

Toru Hashimoto, who serves as the Mayor of Osaka, told reporters at his weekly press conference Monday that "anyone would understand" the role of "comfort women" when soldiers were risking their lives and you wanted to give them "a rest."

Though he acknowledged the issue was a "tragic result of war," Hashimoto, who is co-leader of the nationalist Japan Restoration Party, insisted the use of prostitutes by soldiers was not unique to Japan.

READ: Forgotten faces -- Japan's 'comfort women'

Bizarrely, Hashimoto also revealed that he told a U.S. military commander during a trip to a base on the island of Okinawa that the adult entertainment business in Japan should be "utilized more" by U.S. personnel.

Korean 'Comfort women' demand justice
Ignoring Japan's comfort women

"I told him there are places that operate within the boundaries of the law which can be used for releasing sexual frustration, so they [the U.S. military] should fully utilize it or the marines won't be able to control their aggressive sexual desires."

READ: U.S. troops in Okinawa put on curfew

He said the officer refused to discuss the suggestion.

Reaction at home

Hashimoto's comments also found little support among political colleagues at home.

"A series of remarks by Japanese politicians related to our interpretation of [wartime] history have been misunderstood," Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura told reporters at his weekly press conference Tuesday. "In that sense Mr. Hashimoto's remarks came at a bad time. [But] I wonder if there is any positive meaning to intentionally make such remarks at this particular moment? As for the remarks about adult entertainment, I could not believe that it came from a man representing a political party."

Fellow minister Tomomi Inada asked: "I wonder is this something the representative of a political party should say? I myself think the comfort women [issue] infringed the human rights of the women."

Chief Cabinet Spokesman Yoshihide Suga did not respond directly to Hashimoto's comments but instead told reporters "the stance of the Japanese government on the comfort women issue is, as it has been stated repeatedly in the past, that they suffered unspeakably painful experiences and we keenly feel the pain when we think about them."

Sex slaves

Many of the 200,000 women whom historians estimate were forced to become sex slaves for Japan's former Imperial Army were from the Philippines, China and the Korean peninsula -- all occupied territories at the time. While many have now died, a group of Korean survivors has spent years protesting outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. They demand greater recognition of their suffering, as well as individual compensation.

They suffered unspeakably painful experiences and we keenly feel the pain when we think about them.
Chief Cabinet Spokesman Yoshihide Suga

Tokyo maintains its legal liability for wrongdoing was cleared by a bilateral treaty signed in 1965 with South Korea. For its part, the Seoul government expressed "deep disappointment" over Hashimoto's comments.

"There is worldwide recognition... that the issue of comfort women amounts to a wartime rape committed by Japan during its past imperial period in a serious breach of human rights," a foreign ministry spokesman told Agence France-Presse Tuesday.

"Our government again urges Japan's prominent officials to show regret for atrocities committed during Japan's imperial period and to correct their anachronistic way of thinking and comments."

In 1993, the Japanese government released a statement acknowledging the "immeasurable pain and suffering" endured by thousands of women forced to have sex during World War II. It even vowed to include the comfort women issue in new junior high school textbooks for the first time.

But Japan's wartime past continues to loom over its relations with key Asian neighbors such as South Korea and China, which are currently strained by territorial disputes in the region.

Diana Magnay, Yoko Wakatsuki and Junko Ogura in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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