'Comfort women' comment raises concerns about Japanese nationalism
By Diana Magnay, CNN
May 29, 2013 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- The Japanese government was quick to distance itself from Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka, after his comments on the apparent necessity of "comfort women" caused an international storm.
Many of his political allies also did the same. The Your party, a center-right political party, which had proposed a tie-up with Hashimoto's Japan Restoration Party ahead of this July's Upper House elections decided against it. The public via opinion polls decried his comments as inappropriate.
Hashimoto's political star very suddenly lost its shine.
He claims his remarks were misconstrued by the media. But his attempt to clear his name at Tokyo's Foreign Press Club on Monday did little to allay his critics. Rather than apologize for the offense caused, he said in a pre-released statement: "It is not a fair attitude to blame only Japan, as if the violation of human rights of women by soldiers were a problem unique to the Japanese soldiers."
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In the question-and-answer session afterwards, Hashimoto gave another telling insight: "Most Japanese historians agree there were no historical facts that Japan as a nation committed abduction or trafficking of those women in a systematic manner."
This is a similar line to that taken in a 2007 Cabinet resolution which declared there was no evidence to prove women were coerced into prostitution by the military -- a resolution drawn up during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's first term in office.
The argument runs contrary to the testimonies of hundreds of former comfort women.
These days, the government has reverted back to the Kono statement of 1993, which offers a full apology on behalf of the Japanese nation to all former comfort women. Despite this, Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University says there is a smoke-and-mirrors element to the government's public relations campaign.
"Shinzo Abe's convictions are very nationalistic," Nakano said. "He wants to turn a new page, he wants to be proud of Japan and he also wants to put an end as he calls it to the post-war regime. He's basically a negationist -- that Japan did nothing particularly wrong. And he's been repeating that, backtracking each time he gets strong criticisms."
For now the prime minister's focus is on improving the Japanese economy. Here, he has the public behind him with over 60% approval ratings. In its latest front cover, The Economist depicts Abe as Superman. The blurb for the article reads: "Shinzo Abe has a vision of a prosperous and patriotic Japan. The economics looks better than the nationalism."
If he wins the support of the Upper House in July's elections, he could feel empowered to enact the more nationalist agenda, spelt out in his campaign platform including revising the constitution to give the country's self-defense forces the status of a regular army. Some political analysts in Japan say it could extend to reintroducing the notion of patriotism in school textbooks and revising the narrative of imperial Japanese aggression.
But Nakano says Abe will also face considerable pushback.
"I think there'll be a tug of war between those who want to reveal their true selves and get back to a revisionist nationalist agenda and those trying to bring Abe back from that direction and persuade him to stay focused on the economy and that would include the American government as well as some more moderate members of the conservative camp."
The United States is certainly watching. In a May report called "Japan-US relations: Issues for Congress," the Congressional Research Service wrote: "Comments and actions on controversial historical issues by Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet have raised concern that Tokyo could upset regional relations in ways that hurt U.S. interests."
In April, Cabinet members and a huge delegation of politicians visited the Yasukuni shrine, a controversial site, to pay their respects to Japan's war dead. A number of war criminals also have their names on its roster. Each visit by Japanese leaders serves to upset South Korea and China who see the shrine as a symbol of Japan's imperial aggression.
Abe did not go, though he did send an offering. In August, the opportunity will present itself again on the commemoration of the end of World War II. Abe has not responded to questions on whether he'll visit the shrine or not. There are many who in the interests of regional security hope that he does not.