Monday, May 27, was one of those days when the FCCJ effortlessly lived up to its reputation as a place where the news is made.
Well before the main event was due to begin at noon, the conference room was teeming with writers, photographers and camera crews jostling for position. And all this for a locally elected politician who has never run for national office and, after the month he has had, possibly never will.
The hardworking members of the Club’s Professional Activities Committee had been trying for some time to secure an appearance by Toru Hashimoto, whose recent appraisal of Japan’s wartime history and advice on the sexual behavior of U.S. servicemen in Okinawa saw him eclipse even the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, as the country’s most talked about politician.
Having refused several requests to speak at the Club since last year, Hashimoto’s policy of remaining close to his political base in Osaka began to weaken in mid May, when he told local journalists that Japan’s use of tens of thousands of wartime sex slaves during conflicts in China and on the Korean peninsula had been “necessary” to maintain discipline among frontline troops. Around the same time, it emerged that he had told a U.S. commander during a visit to Okinawa that his troops should frequent the island’s commercial sex establishments more often; that way, he said, they would be less inclined to assault local women.
His “comfort women” remarks drew predictable criticism from South Korea and China, while a State Department official in Washington described his Okinawa advice as “outrageous and offensive.” The 43 year old mayor must have been startled by the strength of feeling his comments had generated overseas. For the first time since he and Shintaro Ishihara created the Japan Restoration Party last December, his brand of rightwing populism was again being dissected by the likes of the New York Times and the BBC.
WE WITNESSED THE UNLIKELY EMERGENCE OF HASHIMOTO THE TIRELESS CAMPAIGNER FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS.
He was left with little choice but to agree to talk directly to foreign journalists in Tokyo. Initially, he would do so only on his terms, with plans made for a live link between the FCCJ and Osaka, to be moderated by Eric Johnston, Osaka bureau chief of the Japan Times and a familiar face at the mayor’s press conferences at Osaka city hall.
Within 24 hours, Hashimoto’s handlers informed the Club that he would be making the arduous journey along the Tokaido after all. He was greeted by more than 400 people in a room buzzing with expectation of another headline making gaffe or, at the very least, a spot of mudslinging in the direction of the international media corps.
In the end, Hashimoto shed his politician persona and returned to his professional roots as a highly successful lawyer following, it should be noted, a strangely flattering introduction by the FCCJ president, Georges Baumgartner.
Perhaps we should have known that, as far as the sex slave and Okinawa issues were concerned, the most colorful copy had already been served up and digested. Hours before his appearance, Hashimoto, having been briefed by a “task force” comprising MPs from the JRP, attempted to strike a more conciliatory tone.
In a long statement designed, perhaps, to soften up journalists spoiling for a fight, he apologized for his advice to U.S. soldiers on how to rein in their sexual energy, describing his remarks as a kneejerk response borne of “a sense of crisis” over rapes and other crimes involving U.S. military personnel. “My real intention was to prevent a mere handful of U.S. soldiers from committing crimes and strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and the relations of trust between the two nations,” he said.
“I understand that my remark could be construed as an insult to the U.S. forces and to the American people” and was inappropriate. I retract this remark and express an apology.”
On comfort women, too, there was a change of tack, and a mild ticking off for journalists. In referring to military brothels as a necessity, he had been evoking the feeling among armies around the world during World War II. He had not, he insisted, ever meant the description to be interpreted as a personal endorsement of sexual slavery.
Over the course of almost three hours, we witnessed the unlikely emergence of Hashimoto the tireless campaigner for women’s rights. “I find it extremely deplorable that news reports have continued to assume the opposite interpretation of my remarks and to depict me as holding women in contempt,” he said. “What I intended to convey…was that other nations should also sincerely face the fact that their soldiers violated the human rights of women.
“I am totally in agreement that the use of comfort women by Japanese soldiers before and during the World War Two was an inexcusable act that violated the dignity and human rights of the women in which large numbers of Korean and Japanese were included.”
For a man who owes some of his electoral success to his disdain for the ambiguous language employed by his mainstream political foes, Hashimoto sent his audience into a stupor with a speech that was as vague as it was repetitious. Yet for all the earnest condemnations of the comfort women system, there were times when the watery form of a nationalist politician came into sharper focus.
Soon after reassuring the audience that the 1993 Kono statement should remain intact, he criticized it as ambiguous on the extent of direct state involvement in rounding up and trafficking girls and women as young as 13 to work in military brothels.
“The argument of many Japanese historians is that there is no evidence to show that the will of the state was used to systematically abduct or traffic the women. A 2007 government statement, approved by the Cabinet, also concluded there was no evidence to show the will of the state was used for the systematic abduction and trafficking of the women.”
Hashimoto resorted to the time honored tactic among historical revisionists of attempting to dilute Japan’s wartime guilt by sharing it around. “It is not a fair attitude to blame only Japan. Sexual violation in wartime was not an issue unique to the former Japanese army,” he said. “The issue existed in the armed forces of the U.S., the UK, France, Germany and the former Soviet Union, among others. It also existed in the armed forces of the Republic of Korea. The world is trying to put a lid on all of these facts.”
At one point, he came dangerously close to accusing surviving sex slaves who have claimed they were snatched from their homes by Japanese military police of lying. Instead, he noted, “from a historical point of view there is a debate over their veracity.”
The most uncomfortable moments came when he was twice asked about his former role as a legal adviser to an association of “restaurants” in the Tobita red light district of Osaka that, according to one questioner, “even junior high school students” knew doubled as brothels. Citing attorney client privilege, Hashimoto said only that his former clients “would have been investigated” by the authorities had they been involved in any illegal activities.
Whether or not the comfort women furor has irreparably harmed Hashimoto’s political ambitions remains to be seen. In any case, reporters in Osaka have speculated that he has grown disillusioned with politics and is looking for a way out.
Eric Johnston wrote in the Japan Times that some Hashimoto watchers believe “he is tired of being a politician, wants to end his political career and return to the more financially lucrative world of television punditry, and figured the quickest way to do that was to make himself unpopular.”
That could explain his apparent insouciance when asked about his party’s chances in July’s upper house elections, amid a new poll showing public support for the party at just three percent in May, compared with nine percent a month earlier. “If Japanese voters reject my recent comments then, yes, we will lose seats in the elections,” he said. “Then the party will have a discussion about whether I should continue to lead it.”