Even by the standards of one of Japan's most controversial politicians, May has been a torrid month for the mayor of Osaka, the man who some have tipped as a future prime minister.
Toru Hashimoto, a rightwing populist, has angered Japan's neighbors and its most important ally with recent comments apparently justifying the use of wartime sex slaves in Asia and offering advices on the sexual behavior of present-day US troops. Judging by opinion polls, he has also annoyed many Japanese voters, just weeks before crucial elections. The furor over his comments could even put a halt – at least for now – to his political ambitions.
On Monday, he finally attempted to mend fences, saying his original remarks had been misinterpreted. "My real intention was to prevent a mere handful of US soldiers from committing crimes and strengthen the Japan-US alliance and the relations of trust between the two nations," Mr. Hashimoto told a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo.
Yuji Yoshitomi, a veteran Osaka journalist who has written a book about Hashimoto, says the mayor had been forced to clarify his remarks following widespread coverage in the international media, particularly in the US. "The issue had started to threaten his party and his own personal standing. So he felt he needed to talk directly to the international media," says Mr. Yoshitomi. "He wanted to clarify his remarks about the US military, but the feeling is that his explanation was unsuccessful."
Mr. Hashimoto is also co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), the country's third-biggest political party. He caused uproar earlier this month when he suggested that US servicemen in Okinawa, a southern Japanese island that hosts more than half the 48,000 American troops in Japan, should be encouraged to use the "adult entertainment" industry as a way of cutting sexual assaults against local women.
Lingering anger in the US over Hashimoto's view on soldiers' errant sexual behavior resulted in the cancellation of a planned visit to the US next month, Japanese media reported on Tuesday. Hashimoto was to have met his counterparts in New York and San Francisco, which has sister-city ties with Osaka.
Whether or not the comfort women row has put the brakes on Hashimoto's political ambitions will become apparent in the next few weeks. A poll in the Nikkei business paper this week does not augur well, showing support for his JRP at just 3 percent in May, down six percentage points from April.
Will he quit?
Hashimoto seemed almost resigned to his fate when asked if his comments had damaged his party's chances in upper house elections in July. "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."
Speculation was building that Hashimoto would step down before the July poll, particularly after his would-be hosts in the US had refused to give final approval for his planned visit, says Yoshitomi.
"There is a good chance he will quit," Yoshitomi says. "At least two Japanese newspapers described his attempt to apologize as a failure. The image of his party and of him as a politician has suffered, and he is unpopular with female voters because of his earlier comments about women."
On Monday, Hashimoto insisted that his original remarks had been misquoted by the local press, then allowed to circulate around the world. He had been referring, he said, to legal commercial sex establishments, not prostitution – which is illegal in Japan – and did not mean to tarnish the reputation of law-abiding military personnel.
However, “I understand that my remark could be construed as an insult to the US forces and to the American people and was inappropriate," he said. "I retract this remark and express an apology."
Having initially denounced Hashimoto's remarks as "outrageous and offensive," US officials accepted the apology.
"I have no reasons to doubt the sincerity of the mayor's apology," an unnamed senior official with the US Forces Japan told Kyodo news agency. "We hope this ends the discussion of the remarks."
And then there is the row with South Korea...
Hashimoto has had a more difficult time convincing South Korea to understand his revisionist take on the comfort women, the name given to as many as 200,000 mainly Korean and Chinese girls and women who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels from the late 1930s until the end of World War II.
A planned meeting with two Korean former comfort women scheduled for last Friday was abruptly cancelled at their request. The meeting, they said, would have been a waste of time, given Hashimoto's apparent lack of contrition.
In this case, too, Hashimoto said he was the victim of sloppy reporting. In referring to military brothels as a "necessity," Hashimoto claimed he had been evoking the feeling among armies around the world during the war. He had not, he insisted, ever meant the description to be interpreted as a personal endorsement of sexual slavery.
"What I intended to convey ... was that other nations should also sincerely face the fact that their soldiers violated the human rights of women," he said.
"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."
"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. I have never condoned the use of comfort women."
Japan issued an official apology to surviving sex slaves in 1993, but says that their claims for state compensation were settled by a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Seoul.
A compensation program, administered by the Japanese government but funded privately, was disbanded after many of the women refused to accept the money unless it came directly from the state.
Hashimoto's suggestion that South Korea should take its compensation claims to the International Court of Justice in The Hague provoked an angry response in Seoul. "By making such remarks, Japan will be further isolated in the international community, said South Korea's foreign minister, Yun Byung-se.
"Many see such remarks as being far below common sense, embarrassing, and shameful. If he made such remarks at the UN General Assembly or the US Congress, that would cause serious damage to Japan's many conscientious people," Mr. Yun said.
Seoul will have been similarly unimpressed by Hashimoto's claim that there is no evidence that Japan's wartime government played a direct role in trafficking sex slaves.
"Historical evidence shows that private businesses used military ships to transport the women," Hashimoto said. "Most of the employers at the comfort stations were private businesses." The military had been involved, he added, but only to "conduct health checks to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases."
"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," said Hashimoto.