OSAKA, Japan » Two Korean former sex slaves demanded the resignation of an outspoken Japanese mayor and canceled a meeting with him Friday (Thursday in Hawaii) for justifying Japan’s wartime practice of forcing tens of thousands of Asian women into prostitution for its military.
Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, also co-leader of a nationalist party, enraged Japanese neighbors last week by saying the use of so-called comfort women, mainly from South Korea, China and the Philippines, in frontline brothels before and during World War II was considered necessary then to maintain military discipline and give soldiers relief.
Hashimoto told reporters later Friday that the cancellation was "very unfortunate" but that he respects their feelings. He said he had hoped to show his sympathy over their wartime sufferings as sex slaves, and would have apologized for hurting their feelings because of his remarks that he said were misrepresented by the media.
Supporters of the two women in their 80s, Kim Bok-dong and Kil Won-ok, said there would be nothing to talk about because Hashimoto has showed no remorse over his remarks. They suspected he may have wanted to use the meeting — to be broadcast live on TV — to appear friendly with them and calm public criticism, the supporters told journalists.
The women, who did not appear in public, said in a statement they were heartbroken by Hashimoto’s "outrageous comments" and didn’t want to be seen contributing to a less-than-sincere apology.
Instead, they demanded that Hashimoto, 43, apologize and resign as mayor of Japan’s second-biggest city.
"We cannot compromise our painful past as victims and the reality that we still live today for Mayor Hashimoto’s apology performance," the women said in a statement. "We don’t need to be trampled on again."
Hashimoto also angered the U.S. by suggesting American troops based in southern Japan should patronize legal adult entertainment establishments as a way to reduce sex crimes there. He said he planned to apologize to the U.S. military and Americans for "making them feel uncomfortable because of my inappropriate remarks," but denied any prejudice against women.
The women, regulars at a weekly protest outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, and their supporters originally requested a meeting with Hashimoto last year, which was rejected. Hashimoto suddenly told them they could meet with him the day he made the inflammatory comments on May 13, Japanese supporters said. They said the timing seemed odd, and were skeptical about his motive.
Both women have said in past accounts of their ordeals that they were deceived into becoming sex slaves to Japanese soldiers.
Kim was recruited to work at a military uniform factory when she was 15, but ended up at a military-run brothel in Guangdong in southern China. She was dragged across Asia, from Hong Kong to Singapore and Indonesia until the end of war. She had to take an average of 15 soldiers per day during the week, and dozens over the weekend. She and other girls were closely watched by guards and could not escape.
Hoping to help her poor family, Kil took a factory job in 1940 when she was only 13. But she was sent to China, where she was repeatedly raped until the war’s end in 1945.
Historians say up to 200,000 women from across Asia were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers. While some other World War II armies had military brothels, Japan is the only country accused of such widespread, organized sexual slavery.
Hashimoto has largely shared Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s view that there is no official record to prove those women were forced into sex slavery because of a Japanese state order.
Hashimoto on Friday blamed the murkiness of Japan’s past apology and historical facts for having kept the issue unresolved for so long, hurting Japan’s relations with its neighbors.
His comments come amid concerns in China and South Korean over a series of nationalistic events and remarks coming from Abe’s government, which took power after winning elections in December. In April, several Japanese government ministers and nearly 170 lawmakers visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni war shrine, which memorializes 2.3 million war dead, including 14 wartime leaders convicted of war crimes.
Before taking office, Abe advocated revising a 1993 statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono expressing remorse for the suffering caused to sexual slaves of Japanese troops. But on Friday, the Abe administration formally adopted a Cabinet decision to "inherit" the apology in that statement, responding to a question submitted by opposition lawmaker Kiyomi Tsujimoto.
Abe, however, has suggested his Cabinet does not necessarily support all of a 1995 apology by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, which is seen as Japan’s main expression of remorse for its wartime and colonial past.
Tokyo in 1995 initiated a fund of private donations as a way for Japan to pay former sex slaves without providing official compensation. Many South Korean comfort women have rejected the fund, demanding a government apology approved by parliament, along with government.
Hashimoto attributed the backlash against his comments to a lack of sensitivity on his part. The U.S. State Department called his remarks "outrageous and offensive."
Hashimoto has lashed back at his critics through Twitter, insisting that organized sex services were needed to prevent sex crimes by American troops during the 1945-1952 U.S. occupation following Japan’s defeat in World War II.