Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto has been haunted by his choice of words ever since igniting furious public debate a few weeks ago when we suggested that Japan’s use of some 200,000 comfort women during WWII was “necessary”. Yesterday he narrowly avoided being censured for his remarks, made on May 13, which were as follows:
“To maintain discipline in the military, it must have been necessary at that time. For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest, a comfort women system was necessary. That’s clear to anyone.”
People shocked by Hashimoto’s views were quick to condemn his remarks in no uncertain terms. Citizens protested outside Osaka city hall on May 24, demanding an apology. Protestor Nobuko Kamenaga said: “I cannot stand thinking that women were taken against their will, held captive for 24 hours a day, and forced into sex slavery for the Japanese military.”
Governments were also outspoken on the matter. “Mayor Hashimoto’s comments were outrageous and offensive,” said U.S. state department spokesperson Jen Psaki. “What happened in that era to these women who were trafficked for sexual purposes is deplorable and clearly a grave human rights violation of enormous proportions.”
The Japanese government, which formally apologized in 1993 for the use of comfort women, has also distanced itself from Hashimoto’s comments.
Making matters worse, Hashimoto also recently suggested that U.S. soldiers in Okinawa should visit legal brothels as a means of decreasing sexual crimes committed on the island. In response to the groundswell of disapproval, Hashimoto formally apologized to the U.S. military and public for his remarks.
The backlash from his series of incendiary remarks culminated yesterday in the Osaka city assembly’s vote on a possible censure of Hashimoto – a measure that did not pass.
“We do not seek Hashimoto’s resignation,” a New Komeito party executive said. “But it is necessary to urge him to reflect on the stalled situation of the city administration.”
“I think what I said was right,” Hashimoto said in response to the censure motion, adding that does not intend to take back his remarks. He added, “I made remarks that could be misunderstood. I feel sorry for the citizens.”
There was strong support behind the push for his censure, which was jointly submitted by 17 members of the Liberal Democratic Party, the nine members of Osaka Mirai, which has ties with the Democratic Party of Japan, and eight members of the Japanese Communist Party.
In the end, the motion was voted down by 33 members of Osaka Ishin no Kai, a regional wing of the Japan Restoration Party, which Hashimoto co-leads, as well as 19 New Komeito members. Ultimately, it was down to the fact that holding an election was deemed undesirable by New Komeito members.
The censure motion read: “The mayor has plunged the municipal administration into chaos. We strongly demand that the mayor reflect (on his remarks) seriously and take action that demonstrates awareness of his political responsibility.”
While Hashimoto has gotten off the hook for now, his remarks have made a lasting negative impression that will be very difficult indeed to live down. Some outlets have suggested that his political future hangs in the balance.
Shortly after realizing the extent of the backlash from his comments, Hashimoto was scheduled to meet on May 17 with two former Korean “comfort women”, Kim Bok-dong and Kil Won-ok. The women, however, canceled the appointment for fear that the meeting would be exploited for political purposes and that the mayor’s apology would ring hollow.
“We cannot compromise our painful past as victims and the reality that we still live today for Mayor Hashimoto’s apology performance,” the two women said in a statement. “We don’t need to be trampled on again.”