Move by Korean former ‘comfort women’ comes as row erupts over column asserting atomic bombs as ‘divine punishment’
Two South Korean women who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during the second world war have abruptly cancelled a meeting with the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, whose controversial comments about wartime sex slaves have soured relations between Japan and its neighbours.
The cancellation came as Japan and South Korea became embroiled in another row over a column in a South Korean newspaper that said the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “divine punishment” for Japan’s wartime aggression.
Kim Bok-dong, 87, and Kil Won-ok, 84, had been scheduled to meet Hashimoto in Osaka on Friday to discuss his recent claim that Japan’s military brothels had been “necessary” to maintain discipline among frontline troops.
As many as 200,000 “comfort women”, mostly from the Korean peninsula and China, were forced to have sex with Japanese troops before and during the war.
Japan issued an apology to the surviving women in 1993, but its refusal to provide official compensation is a long-running source of tension between Tokyo and Seoul.
Hashimoto, who doubles as co-leader of the rightwing Japan Restoration party, whipped up a diplomatic storm earlier this month when he said Japan had been unfairly singled out for criticism, given that other countries operated similar brothels.
“To maintain discipline in the military it must have been necessary at that time,” said Hashimoto. “For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest, a comfort women system was necessary. That’s clear to anyone.”
Hashimoto caused further controversy when it emerged that, during a visit to Okinawa, he had told a US commander that American troops on the island should use the legal sex industry as a way of cutting the number of sexual assaults against local women.
US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called Hashimoto’s remarks “outrageous and offensive”.
“What happened in that era to these women who were trafficked for sexual purposes is deplorable and clearly a grave human rights violation of enormous proportions,” she said.
Kim and Kil said they were concerned that Hashimoto would attempt to use Friday’s meeting, due to be held in front of the media, to quell criticism, adding that he had yet to issue a formal apology for his comments.
“The indescribably heartwrenching reality and history of the victims cannot be traded with his apology performance and sweet talk,” the women said in a statement issued by an organisation representing former sex slaves.
“We do not want to kill ourselves twice. If he truly feels sorry to us and regretful, he must take back his criminal comments and make a formal apology. He should take responsibility for his wrongdoing and retire from politics.”
The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also questioned claims that the women were forced to work in the brothels – known at the time as comfort stations. Before he took office in December, Abe had advocated revising a 1993 statement by the then chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, acknowledging the military’s role in coercing the women, and apologising to them.
But Abe later said he would honour the statement, and distanced himself from Hashimoto.
Ties between Seoul and Tokyo have been strained by contrasting interpretations of Japan’s wartime conduct, and a feud over Takeshima, a group of islands claimed by both countries. The territory, known in Korea as Dokdo, is administered by Seoul.
Japan on Friday lodged a second complaint about the JoongAng Ilbo column, which appeared on Monday. The foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, said the Japanese embassy in Seoul had told the newspaper that Japan “can never accept this kind of view about the atomic bombs”.
Kishida said he hoped the newspaper was aware of the “surprise and fury” it had caused in Japan.
The column sought to justify the August 1945 attacks, in which more than 200,000 people died, saying: “”God often borrows the hand of a human to punish the evil deeds of men.”