Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government distanced itself on Monday from comments by the new president of public broadcaster NHK that appeared to defend Japan’s use of sex slaves before and during World War II.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Katsuto Momii had made the comments as an individual and told reporters that the government upheld the stance of previous Japanese administrations on the issue. Abe’s “heart aches at the indescribably painful experiences” suffered by the so-called comfort women, Suga said today in Tokyo.
Momii’s remarks sparked calls for his resignation from South Korean politicians, the Yonhap news agency said, amid ties chilled by a territorial dispute. While Abe has repeatedly said his door is open to dialogue, relations worsened with his visit last month to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, seen by countries such as South Korea and China as a symbol of Japan’s past military aggression. No leaders’ summit has been held since Abe took office late in 2012.
Momii told reporters on Saturday that similar facilities to Japan’s wartime brothels had existed in every country at war and that they were only considered wrong under “today’s morality,”the Asahi Shimbun reported. He also said the broadcaster should disseminate the government’s views on a dispute with China over ownership of a chain of islands in the East China Sea.
“It will only be natural to clearly present Japan’s position,” the Asahi quoted him as saying about the territorial row. “It would not do for us to say ‘‘left’’ when the government is saying ‘‘right.’’
Momii told Kyodo News and other Japanese media today his remarks had been ‘‘extremely inappropriate,’’ even though he had been speaking as an individual. He said it was his first time giving a major briefing to reporters and he hadn’t taken the rules of such events on board, media quoted him as saying. Historians say Japan rounded up anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women, many of them from the Korean peninsula, to serve in its military brothels as it invaded large parts of Asia during the first half of the 20th century. Japan apologized in 1993 and set up a compensation fund that was rejected by some victims because it was financed with private donations.
‘‘The comments made by the Japanese side show that there is an obvious attempt to beautify and even deny the Japanese militarism and aggression against other countries,’’ Qin Gang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry told journalists in Beijing. ‘‘It coincides with the Japanese leader’s backsliding on historical issues.”
The U.S. has repeatedly urged Abe’s government to improve its relationship with South Korea to enable trilateral cooperation at a time of China’s expanded influence in the region, and expressed disappointment after his war shrine visit last month.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. was ordered last July by a South Korean court to pay compensation for forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula. It was instructed to pay the families of five former Korean workers 80 million won ($74,000) each, Yonhap reported at the time.
Suga said he expected Momii to bear in mind the broadcasting law and his position in society when carrying out his duties in future.