Yuya Shino / Reuters
Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto leaves a news conference Monday.
TOKYO -- Outspoken Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto denied on Monday that he had ever meant to excuse Japan's wartime military brothels and said Japan should apologize to the women forced to work in them.
Still, in comments likely to keep the controversy alive, Hashimoto said historical research was needed to determine whether Japan "as a state" was directly involved in human trafficking of the "comfort women," as those who worked in the brothels are euphemistically known in Japan.
He also urged other countries to face up to the possibility of similar offenses regarding "sex and the battlefield."
Hashimoto, the populist co-leader of a small right-wing party, sparked a storm of criticism at home and abroad when he said earlier this month that the military brothels had been "necessary" at the time and that Japan had been unfairly singled out for practices common among other militaries during wartime.
Those remarks have further eroded dwindling voter support for his once-rising Japan Restoration Party, making it a less attractive potential ally for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he eyes sensitive revisions to the country's pacifist postwar constitution.
Hashimoto did not withdraw his remarks but said they had been reported only in part and had been misunderstood.
"I am totally in agreement that the use of 'comfort women' by Japanese soldiers before and during the World War II was an inexcusable act that violated the dignity and human rights of the women in which large numbers of Korean and Japanese were included," Hashimoto said at the start of a nearly three-hour news conference before foreign and domestic media.
"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 the wartime atrocities as comfort women," he said in an English version of the statement. "I have never condoned the use of comfort women."
Hashimoto's popularity has waned, with only 3 percent of voters planning to cast their ballots for his party in a July upper house election, down 6 percentage points from an April questionnaire, a survey by the Nikkei business daily showed.
The issue of the "comfort women" -- most of whom were Asian, many of them Korean -- has long been a point of contention between Tokyo and Seoul. Japan says the matter of compensation for the women was settled under a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties with South Korea.
In 1995 Japan set up at fund to make payments to the women from private donations, but Seoul says that was unofficial and therefore insufficient.
Hashimoto said that given the dispute over compensation, Seoul should take the issue to the International Court of Justice, a suggestion that brought a sharp rebuke from South Korea.
"I think Japan's recent ... remarks are throwing cold water onto our government's will to strengthen friendship between Korea and Japan more than ever," Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told reporters.
"If such circumstances do not improve, not only summit-level but other high-ranking exchanges won't be that easy," Yun added.
Hashimoto recently also apologized for and retracted his remark that U.S. soldiers currently stationed on Japan's Okinawa island should use the local sex industry more to "control their sexual energiesk." Okinawa is host to the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan, and many residents object to their presence, which they associate with sexual and other crimes as well as pollution and accidents.
A Pentagon spokesman told the Asahi newspaper that Hashimoto's original remarks went against the policies and values of the U.S. forces.
Hashimoto said his comment reflected his wish that the United States take measures to alleviate suffering caused in Okinawa by crimes committed by U.S. military personnel.
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This story was originally published on Mon May 27, 2013 6:50 AM EDT