The new chairman of NHK expressed regret Monday for his earlier comments that seemed to defend the nation’s wartime use of sex slaves, calling his words “extremely inappropriate.”
Katsuto Momii’s comments at a press conference Saturday to mark the start of his three-year term at the helm of the public broadcaster have drawn fire from opposition parties and riled the South Korean media.
Asked about the thousands of young females, mostly Asian, forcibly recruited to provide sex for Imperial Japanese soldiers during the war and euphemistically called “comfort women,” Momii said such an institution existed in “every country” and that it is only considered wrong by “today’s morality.”
“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,” the former vice president of trading house Mitsui & Co. said.
“And (South Korea) demands money, compensation. Why do they dredge up something . . . that had been already settled by a bilateral treaty? It’s wrong,” he said Saturday.
Momii, also former president of Nihon Unisys Ltd., told reporters Monday in Tokyo that while the remarks represented his personal opinion, “even as an individual opinion, it’s not something I should have said.”
“It was my first time (speaking) at such an occasion and I did not know the rules,” he said.
Momii, rumored to have been the preferred choice of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for the top NHK post, said he will continue to deal with the fallout from his comments and devote himself to the role of president.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, peppered with questions at Monday’s news conference about the remarks, defended them as his personal views. The government oversees NHK’s public service content and its chairman is picked by Diet-approved advisers.
“I understand Mr. Momii made the comment as his personal view,” Suga said, declining comment on the comfort women remarks.
Suga said Abe has voiced sympathy to the Asian females who suffered the pain of providing sex to the Japanese and that “there is nothing more to add to that.”
Criticism from the South Korean government and the media poured in Monday, with the Foreign Ministry in Seoul stating that it is deplorable that even the chairman of Japan’s public broadcaster, who is supposed to be fair and politically neutral, distorted history and presented wrong arguments.
The daily Seoul Shinmun said Abe was strongly behind the selection of Momii as NHK chairman. The Korea Times, in an editorial, criticized Momii’s remarks as absurd, undignified and lacking a recognition of history or a verification of the facts.
Momii faced a backlash in Japan as well, with opposition parties saying they would raise the matter in the Diet.
“His comments are inappropriate and biased,” said Akihiro Ohata, secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Japan. “He lacks awareness as the chairman. We are very concerned about the direction of NHK,” he said.
Hiroyoshi Sunakawa, an associate professor of media studies at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, called for Momii’s resignation, denouncing his remarks as “unforgivable,” given his position as head of the public broadcaster.
“Being a public broadcaster doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stick to the government stance,” the professor said, speculating that Momii’s apparent justification of the comfort women system and his eagerness to beef up NHK’s international programming were meant to cater to the hawkish Abe’s government.