TOKYO - An outspoken Japanese politician apologized Monday for saying U.S. troops should patronize adult entertainment businesses as a way to reduce sex crimes, but defended another inflammatory remark about Japan's use of sex slaves before and during World War II.
Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, co-leader of an emerging nationalist party, said his remarks two weeks ago rose from a "sense of crisis" about cases of sexual assaults by U.S. military personnel on Japanese civilians in Okinawa, where a large number of U.S. troops are based under a bilateral security treaty.
Hashimoto also said he had not tried to condone a system of so-called comfort women, but meant to say military authorities at the time, not only in Japan but in many other countries, considered it necessary.
He denied any intention to avoid Japan's responsibility over its wartime actions, adding he wanted to shed light on sex offences in the battlefield and encourage open debate on the problem today.
"I understand that my remark could be construed as an insult to the U.S. forces and to the American people" and was inappropriate, he told a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo. "I retract this remark and express an apology."
Hashimoto, a lawyer and former TV personality, created an uproar with comments to journalists two weeks ago about Japan's modern and wartime sexual services, which he said were misquoted. The comments added to recent anger in neighbouring countries that suffered from Japan's wartime aggression and have complained about a lack of atonement for the atrocities.
Hashimoto said then that the practice of using women from across Asia to work in front-line brothels before and during World War II was necessary to maintain discipline and provide relaxation for soldiers. He added that on a recent visit to the southern island of Okinawa, he suggested to the U.S. commander there that his troops "make better use" of the legal sex industry "to control the sexual energy of those tough guys."
On Monday, Hashimoto called the use of comfort women an "inexcusable act that violated the dignity and human rights of the women, in which large numbers of Korean and Japanese were included." He did not mention women from other countries, such as China, the Philippines and Indonesia, where many teenagers were forced into sex slavery.
He said Japan must express deep remorse and apologize to the women. He repeatedly denied any intention to whitewash Japan's wartime responsibility.
But he didn't apologize for those comments about Japan's wartime brothels, and insisted that the country's wartime government did not systematically force girls and women into prostitution.
Historians say up to 200,000 women, mainly from the Korean Peninsula and China, were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers in military brothels. While some other World War II armies had military brothels, Japan is the only country accused of such widespread, organized sexual slavery.
"If only Japan is blamed because of the widely held view that the state authority of Japan was intentionally involved in the abduction and trafficking of women, I will have to inform you that this view is incorrect," he said.
Hashimoto urged the government to clarify or revise Japan's landmark apology in a 1993 statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono to clearly state that Japan did not systematically force women into prostitution for its wartime military.
The Kono apology acknowledged the military's involvement, both direct and indirect, in the forced recruitment of the women.
Hashimoto said the apology does not say whether the operation was run under "state will" and that such murkiness has contributed to longstanding disputes between Japan and South Korea over the issue. He raised doubts of accounts by some of the women who have come forward as victims of Japan's sexual slavery as reliable evidence of coercion.
Before taking office in December, Abe advocated revising the Kono apology, but now says he stands by it.
Hashimoto said he was quoted out of context in saying he believed that the use the system was necessary. He said he was trying to say that armed forces around the world "seem to have needed women" in past wars and had violated women's human rights during wartime.
Singling out Japan was wrong, as this issue also existed in the armed forces of the United States, Britain, France, Germany and the former Soviet Union during World War II, he alleged, without elaborating.
"Based on the premise that Japan must remorsefully face its past offences and must never justify the offences, I intended to argue that other nations in the world must not attempt to conclude the matter by blaming only Japan and by associating Japan alone with the simple phrase of 'sex slaves' or 'sex slavery,'" Hashimoto said in a statement to journalists.
Hashimoto's suggestion to the U.S. troops brought sharp criticism from Washington. The State Department called Hashimoto's comments "outrageous and offensive."
Okinawa was invaded by U.S. forces in World War II and has had an American military presence since. The 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by two Marines and a sailor spread rage across the island, and more rapes and other crimes linked to U.S. servicemen over the years, along with military land use and aircraft noise, have caused longstanding anti-U.S. military sentiment there.
Hashimoto, 43, has become well known in recent years for his outspokenness. Last year, he formed the Japan Restoration Party with former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a strident nationalist. It is now an opposition party in parliament.