TOKYO (AP) — Japan's top government spokesman on Monday defended the new head of public broadcaster NHK for his remarks that the use of women as military prostitutes was common worldwide during World War II.
NHK chairman Katsuto Momii told a news conference Saturday marking his appointment that "comfort women" existed in any country at war, not just Japan, and criticized South Korea for dredging up a compensation issue that had been settled by a bilateral peace treaty.
Momii said he had no opinion about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's inflammatory visit to the Yasukuni war shrine last month but suggested NHK might step up its coverage of Japanese claims in territorial disputes with China and South Korea.
His remarks have raised concerns about a possible right-leaning shift by the country's public broadcaster to reflect Abe's views, after it reportedly faced criticism from his nationalist government for having programs that were deemed too liberal.
Momii's comments drew an angry response from South Korean officials and former victims. South Korea's ruling and opposition parties demanded an apology from Japan and Momii's resignation. Kang Il-chul, 87, who said she was abducted by Japanese soldiers and forced into sex slavery at age 15, called his comments "absurd."
Abe is thought to be pushing a more nationalist agenda since taking office in December 2012, and NHK's recent appointments were seen as reflecting his ideological bias. The government oversees NHK's public service content, and its chairman is picked by parliament-approved advisers. One of them, a best-selling author reportedly favored by Abe, is known for remarks defending Japan's wartime actions.
Under national security guidelines adopted by Japan's Cabinet last month, Abe wants to raise the country's defense posture and play a greater role in international peacekeeping.
His visit to the Yasukuni war shrine last month and his World War I analogy last week comparing Japan-China tension with that of Britain and Germany a century ago were seen as signs of his belligerence.
The military brothel system was "common in any country at war," Momii said Saturday. "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."
"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. Why do they dredge up something, the issue that had been already settled by a bilateral treaty? It's wrong."
Momii, 70, previously was vice chairman of Mitsui, a large trading house.
At a news conference Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga defended Momii's remarks as his personal views.
Suga said that Abe, in line with his predecessors, has expressed sympathy to Asian women forced to provide sexual services for Japanese soldiers, and "there is nothing more to add to that."
Although numbers vary, historians have said as many as 200,000 Asian women, mostly Korean but also Chinese and others from Southeast Asia countries, were forced into Japan's military brothel system.
One of the advisers who picked Momii is Naoki Hyakuta. The author of a best-selling book on a wartime suicide fighter pilot, he has said Japan did not force Asian women into military brothels.
Associated Press writer Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.