Japan Conservative Backs Off Sex Advice for Marines

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Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto listens to a question during a press conference in Tokyo Monday.

TOKYO – Well, I guess it’s back to cold showers for the Marines on Okinawa.

Conservative leader Toru Hashimoto apologized Monday and retracted his earlier suggestion that Marines use the “legally accepted adult entertainment industry” on Okinawa to prevent troops from committing sex crimes there. He called for better discipline, instead.

Hashimoto’s proposal irritated the Americans and infuriated Okinawans — as if the former would consider paid-for sex a fine alternative to crime, or that the latter would happily engage in that kind of commerce.

Still, it was only one of several gaffes in recent weeks that revealed the distance between Japan’s conservative leaders and darned near everyone else over issues related to Japan’s war legacy.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was forced to concede last week that Japan had committed “aggression” during its wartime and colonial period, after waffling on the issue during a Diet session.

Nor is it clear that Hashimoto’s appearance Monday will bridge the gap.

Hashimoto angered Japan’s neighbors by seeming to suggest earlier this month that the wartime “comfort women” system was a necessary measure to ensure good order and discipline among Japanese imperial troops. By some estimates, as many as 200,000 women, mostly Korean and Chinese, were coerced into providing sexual services for occupying forces.

Hashimoto, 43, is leader of the Restoration Party and mayor of Osaka, one of Japan’s largest cities. Until recently he was considered a rising star of Japanese politics. But his comments were denounced by the U.S. State Department last week. And two former comfort women who had traveled from South Korea to meet with him abruptly cancelled the meeting this weekend; they voiced concern that Hashimoto would use the meeting for his own ends.

At a jam-packed press conference Monday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, a confident-appearing Hashimoto said his comments had been improperly translated and that he had never meant to justify or condone the comfort women system or other abuses.

“I am totally in agreement that the use of comfort women by Japanese soldiers before and during World War II was an inexcusable act that violated the dignity and human rights of the women,” he said before some 30 television cameras, dozens of photographers and scores of reporters.

“I also strongly believe that Japan must reflect upon its past offenses with humility and express a heartfelt apology and regret to those women who suffered from wartime atrocities as comfort women,” he said.

This was one of the clearest statements of regret issued by a Japanese politician, and it might have eased the controversy somewhat had Hashimoto, a lawyer and former TV commentator, ended right there.  But he added that while nothing could justify the use of comfort women by Japanese troops, other nations had engaged in similar activity – a common theme among conservatives and war-deniers that exasperates Japan’s supporters and detractors alike.

“Sexual violation in wartime was not an issue unique to the former Japanese army,” Hashimoto said. “The issue existed in the armed forces of the USA, the U.K., France, Germany and the former Soviet Union, among others, during World War II. It also existed in the armed forces of the Republic of Korea during the Korean War and the Vietnam War.”

Hashimoto offered no evidence to support the claim.

A statement issued in 1993 by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono – and endorsed anew by the Abe administration last week – acknowledges that “the then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.” The Kono statement is considered an official government apology.

Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Daito Bunka University and a former British Army officer, says Hashimoto does not know what he’s talking about it.

“He seems to view members of the armed forces as intrinsically violent and aggressive beings, and therefore requiring the regular services of sex workers,” says Mulloy, who has done research on the current Japan Self Defense Force. “It requires a view of all soldiers today as those of the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1930s and 1940s, raping and pillaging as a normal part of soldierly life. It goes against all evidence of the last half-century.”

To be sure, U.S. forces on Okinawa have been involved in several highly publicized sex crimes in recent years. Opposition to U.S. bases was galvanized with the 1995 kidnap and rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen. And two Navy reservists who were passing through Okinawa last year were given long prison sentences by a Japanese court for stalking and raping a Japanese woman they met at a bar.

U.S. forces have responded by putting a series of curfews into effect and increasing ethics training for troops.  The Uniform Code of Military Justice, by the way, forbids U.S. troops from soliciting prostitutes or frequenting establishments where illegal activities are taking place.

While prostitution is illegal in Japan, it is defined as applying only to sexual intercourse. Other types of sexual activity fall under the “legally accepted adult entertainment industry” definition recommended by Hashimoto in a meeting with Marines last month.

Hashimoto’s view on cold showers remains unclear.