In that marathon presser, Mr Hashimoto repeated his claim that there is no evidence of the wartime Japanese state’s involvement in herding what some scholars estimate to have been 200,000 Asian women into military brothels. He was aware of the pain suffered by the so-called comfort women, he assured, but said other countries should look squarely at their past too. “Sexual violation in wartime was not unique to the Japanese army,” he said, citing Britain, America, France and Russia for indulging in what he called, rather jarringly, “sex on the battlefield”. His remarks on Okinawa were merely intended to draw attention to the misdeeds of a “heartless minority” of American soldiers, he insisted. And to strengthen Japan’s military alliance with America, naturally.
Mr Hashimoto survived a vote of no-confidence in the Osaka assembly, but the full verdict on the whole performance has yet to emerge—many commentators suspect that Mr Hashimoto has torpedoed his political career. This would be especially extraordinary given his party’s having won a stunning 12m votes in the elections of December 2012, a share that put them ahead of the party of the previous government, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) as the country’s second-largest. The lessons, whatever they may be, will be of great import to the government of Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, ahead of general elections on July 21st. Mr Abe has previously expressed views on the comfort women that were similar to Mr Hashimoto’s, and even more abrasive. A majority of his government agrees with him and press the point even further than Mr Hashimoto did. Mr Hashimoto was careful to say Japanese politicians should accept that the nation waged colonial wars of aggression in Asia, for instance, while 13 of the lawmakers in Mr Abe’s cabinet reject Japan’s “apology diplomacy” for the abuse of the comfort women and other war crimes.
Since leading the conservative Liberal Democrats (LDP) back to power in December, Mr Abe has been advised to avoid the terrain that ensnared Mr Hashimoto, but it never seemed likely that he could keep himself entirely free of it. In April, he queried the definition of “aggression” in relation to Japan’s colonial wars in Asia—in effect undermining the basis of Tokyo’s relations with its former victims. His semantic quibble had the effect of corroding Japan’s gold-standard apology for its imperial warmongering and atrocities, the 1995 Murayama statement. Indeed, Mr Abe has hinted that he may retract it.
On May 12th, the LDP’s policy chief, Sanae Takaichi, revealed to millions of television viewers that Mr Abe rejects the verdict of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, which blamed Japan for the war and sentenced its leaders to hang. Then a record number of LDP lawmakers visited the Yasukuni shrine last month, where those hanged leaders were enshrined clandestinely. A pilgrimage to the shrine is taken to imply a tacit endorsement of the wartime leaders and their aims. To reject the verdict of the war trials themselves would mean setting back to zero Japan’s modern relations with China, Korea and even America. The consequences would be profound.
For this reason, Mr Abe’s government has struggled to keep its actual positions opaque. As the prime minister twists and turns, pulled between his political id and the dreadful reality of making them plain, his spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, has spent the month putting out fires. For example: No, says Mr Suga, the prime minister does not deny war crimes; but, Yes, Japan stands by its war apologies. No, Mr Abe does not want to retract the 1993 Kono statement, in which Japan acknowledged its role in rounding up sex slaves.
Mr Hashimoto, who was wooed by Mr Abe earlier this year as a possible political partner, lamented at his press conference that Japan is once again getting bogged down in discussion about the past. “My generation should look ahead and create a better future for our people,” he said. He said this as if he were unaware that he had just spent almost three hours straight talking about the middle of the 20th century. Courtesy Joyo News