U.S. Rejects Japanese Broadcaster’s Claim It Used ‘Comfort Women’ in World War II

In remarks he now says he regrets, Katsuto Momii, the head of Japan's main public broadcaster, said Japan was hardly the only nation whose soldiers forced women to work as prostitutes during World War II. It's a claim U.S. officials in Tokyo reject.

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The new chairman of public broadcaster Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) Katsuto Momii speaks during a press conference on Jan. 25, 2014 in Tokyo.

Correction appended, Jan. 30, 03:30 EST. It was the mayor of Osaka who said that comfort women served a “necessary” role, not the mayor of Hiroshima. The article has been amended to reflect this.

Did the American government employ sex slaves during the Second World War? The newly appointed chairman of Japan’s public broadcasting system apparently thinks so.

In the latest in a string of revisionist statements by conservative leaders in Japan, Katsuto Momii said the “comfort women” system, in which women were coerced into serving in brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II, “could be found in any nation that was at war.”

“The comfort women system is considered wrong under today’s moral values. But the military comfort women system existed as a reality at that time,” said Momii. “Can we say there were none in Germany or France? It was everywhere in Europe.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Japan denied that U.S forces operated a system of comfort women during or after that war. “We are not aware of anything that would indicate the U.S. engaged in any such kind of activity,” says an embassy official authorized to speak on the subject. “We would prefer not to comment any further on Mr. Momii’s statements.  I would simply reiterate that his apparent belief regarding U.S. practices is incorrect.” The official asked not to be named, in line with State Department policy.

Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian Studies at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo, says Momii’s views reflect a comforting delusion among some Japanese conservatives and nationalists. “There is no evidence that any other nation recruited tens of thousands of teenagers to serve as sex slaves for their troops at the specific request of military and government authorities,” Kingston says. “U.S. troops have frequented brothels in war and occupation like troops everywhere, but the comfort women system can hardly be compared to these brothels.”

Momii was appointed last month to a three-year term as chairman of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, also known as NHK. The agency provides news, public service and entertainment programming throughout Japan, and operates news bureaus worldwide. It is funded primarily by viewer license fees and is overseen by a 12-member board of governors appointed by the national Diet.

Momii, the former head of a major trading company, set off a storm of protest during his first press conference as chairman on Saturday by defending the comfort women system and seeming to blame some of the victims. “Putting my chairman’s title aside, the issue becomes complicated because South Korea criticizes as if Japan was the only one that forcibly drafted women into the system,” Momii said. “And [South Korea] demands money, compensation.”

Officials in South Korea immediately called for Momii to be fired. “It is deplorable that the head of Japan’s public broadcaster, who should remain fair and impartial, has distorted historical facts and made such a ridiculous claim,” a South Korea foreign ministry spokesman said.

Momii later said he had been speaking as an individual, and “retracts” his statement.

While there is some disagreement, historians generally believe that as many as 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, China and the Philippines, were forced or coerced into brothels operated by or for the Japanese military. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to the system as “sexual slavery.”

In 1993, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a formal apology to former comfort women and acknowledged Japan’s responsibility for their suffering.

Japan’s political elite has been plagued with controversy over its supposedly revisionist views of history since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012.

Abe triggered protests last year when he suggested that Japan had not been the aggressor during its period of wartime and colonial expansion, and the once-popular mayor of Osaka fueled the fire by stating that comfort women served a “necessary” role by relieving soldiers from stress. Abe courted more criticism last month when he visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which is accused of glorifying Japan’s role in the war.

Kyodo News Service reported that Momii was Abe’s personal choice for NHK chairman. A search committee that recommended Momii included conservative author Naoki Hyakuta, a close friend of Abe’s and a member of the NHK board. Hyakuta’s best-selling book, Eternal Zero, was made into a hit movie last year; the film ends with the hero, a fighter pilot opposed to the war, carrying out a Kamikaze attack against an American aircraft carrier.