HashimotoJapanese politician Toru Hashimoto is well-known for his conservative and nationalist views in Japan. A former lawyer, he was the youngest governor in Japan’s history and became the mayor of Osaka city in November 2011. The following year he launched the nationalist Japan Restoration Party, the first Japanese political party to be based outside of Tokyo. The right-wing populist party is co-led by Shintaro Ishihara, a former governor of Tokyo with similar prejudices. This week, Hashimoto caused outrage when he claimed that it was “necessary” for Imperial Japanese forces to force women from conquered territories to become sex slaves during the Second World War because it gave soldiers a chance “to rest” and it “maintained discipline”.

The Japanese media quotes him as saying: “For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest, a comfort women system was necessary. That’s clear to anyone.” Though he said Japan was responsible for its actions, he maintained that there was no evidence that the women had been coerced into sex slavery.

He also said that U.S. troops in Southern Japan should use the local sex industry in order to reduce the number of rapes and sexual assaults.

He has since publicly refused to take back his comments saying that when he said it was “necessary” he meant it to mean that it needed to be understood within the context of the time, and that he did not think it was necessary today. He also said that the world was unfairly singling out Japan for this practice, and claimed other countries have provided prostitutes and employed other similar systems to soldiers during wartime. On Monday, amid mounting pressure, he held a press conference where he refused to take back his remarks, saying his remarks had been misunderstood and only reported in part and further historical research was needed on the issue to prove Japan “as a state” had been involved.

The “comfort women” (etymologically related to the Japanese for ‘prostitute’) were forced into sex slavery by Imperial Japan during the Second World War. There is evidence to suggest that they were lured in hope of better jobs or abducted by Imperial Japanese forces, though historiographical opinion is split on the issue. This era in Japanese history has been politicised due to Japan’s actions during the war, as conservative and nationalist historians take a view more sympathetic to the Japanese military. The effect of politicising the issue has made discussion, combined with the fact this event is relatively recent, very difficult. Historical revisionists, who wish to ‘revise’ the popular narrative on “comfort women”, now seek to capitalise on this to absolve Japan of its responsibility by giving hollow apologies.Hashimoto’s comments effectively excuse the horrendous system. It is the latest attempt to whitewash history.

“Comfort women” were taken from all of the territories conquered by Japan, and though the majority were from China and Korea, significant numbers also came from Taiwan and the Philippines (some historians have claimed some were from Japan itself). Many countries in the region have argued that Japan has never fully atoned for its actions during the war, and that comments like this and the gradual shift to the right under right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (who has made some disturbing comments about “comfort women” and embraces some aspects of revisionism himself) are damaging relations in the region. Last year Abe questioned whether Japan was the aggressor during the war, saying “invasion” was relative. He also went further than Hashimoto, going so far as to doubt the existence of “comfort women” altogether in 2007. He was forced to apologise.

His comments about “comfort women” and his encouragement of U.S. troops to use the local sex industry suggest that he sees women as only having a role to gratify men. There is no reason why Hashimoto’s attitude should be excused or overlooked. It is right that pressure is being put on him. War rape elsewhere is rightly condemned. A U.N. report from Rwanda estimated 200,000 women were raped as a form of torture in the spring of 1994, many killed afterward. Historical revisionism has not been attempted there because it will not be tolerated. Likewise, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust in many European countries. Why does this go on in Japan? As well as Shinzo Abe, other leaders have attempted to popularise their revisionist historiography. Shintaro Ishihara, the co-leader of the Japan Restoration party with Hashimoto, considers the Rape of Nanking to be fictitious (something he first revealed in an interview with Playboy magazine, which is also revealing about the opinions of the Japan Restoration Party toward women). The Stamford psychologist Philip Zimbardo talks about the Rape of Nanking in his book The Lucifer Effect:

“So graphically horrifying – yet so easily visualised – is the concept of rape that we use the term metaphorically to describe other, almost unimaginable atrocities of war. Japanese soldiers butchered between 260,000 and 350,000 Chinese civilians in just a few bloody months of 1937. Those figures represent more deaths than the total annihilation of caused by the atomic bombing of Japan and all the civilian deaths in most European countries during all of World War II.” (Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect. Random House: 2007. pp. 16-17.).

During those few months, 20,000-80,000 women were raped. The Rape of Nanking is notorious for the lengths soldiers in the Imperial Japanese Army went to to humiliate, torture and kill Nanking’s civilian population. All of which Ishihara denies ever took place.

Mariko Oi, a student who grew up in Japan but moved to Australia in her late teens, recently wrote for BBC magazine that Looking back at her textbook, she notices only 19 of the 357 pages of her textbook dealt with the events of 1931-45. There is also just one sentence on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Other nations in the region place far more emphasis on modern history, since the region has been through massive change in the last 200 years. Japan often dismisses the curriculum of China as having an anti-Japanese bias as a result of smear campaigns by nationalists.

Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it: history is used to reflect on the past in order to shed light on the present. This drift to the right in Japanese politics is making Imperial Japan look attractive once more. More worryingly, it is also creating an inability, or an unwillingness, to identify mistakes that have been made in the past. Hashimoto and other nationalists must be kept accountable by the people, and to do so they must be educated in the modern history of their country.