TOKYO – The embattled head of Japan’s public broadcaster NHK insisted Wednesday it would remain impartial, after his controversial remarks about wartime sex slavery reportedly jeopardized an interview with US ambassador Caroline Kennedy.
Katsuto Momii has been under fire after saying last month that the Japanese Imperial Army’s system of forcing women into military brothels during World War II was “common in any country at war”.
The issue is a particularly sensitive one for China and South Korea, which both suffered from Tokyo’s brutal expansionism.
“The most important thing is that all NHK staff strictly adhere to the principles of freedom of expression, political neutrality and fairness,” Momii told lawmakers who were considering NHK’s annual budget. “That I offered personal views at my inaugural press conference was inappropriate, and I will be more cautious in the future.”
Momii has apologized for his statement.
But he has refused to quit or retract his remarks, raising questions over the integrity of the organisation — amid wider concerns about the political views of Japan’s conservative government.
A national Japanese journalists’ association and rights groups, as well as thousands of NHK viewers, have demanded Momii’s resignation, as the government distances itself from the remarks — saying they were “comments made as an individual”.
Reports this week said the controversy had made the US embassy wary of granting the broadcaster an interview with its ambassador, the only living child of late US president John F. Kennedy, who took up the role late last year.
Embassy officials declined to confirm the reports when contacted by AFP.
The storm swirling around NHK was heightened when a senior manager this month denied any massacre in Nanjing during the 1930s, despite well-documented historical accounts of an orgy of murder and rape by Japanese troops as they rampaged through China.
On Wednesday Kenichiro Hamada, head of the committee that dictates NHK’s management policy, told lawmakers the comments did not violate its internal management rules.
But he said the oversight body has agreed that staff should “abstain” from expressing political opinions in future.
The comments, along with the resignation of a noted academic who had been told to avoid criticising nuclear power until after the Tokyo governor’s election, have fuelled fears that NHK’s editorial independence has been compromised under the current conservative government.
Up to 200,000 women from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere were forced into brothels catering to the Japanese military in territories occupied by Japan during WWII, according to many mainstream historians.
The issue has fuelled wider regional tensions, with South Korea and China insisting that Japan must face up to its sexual enslavement of women.
The 1937 “Rape of Nanking” is another sensitive issue in Japan’s often-fraught relations with China, which says Tokyo has failed to atone for one of the most brutal episodes of its occupation.
There are varying accounts on the number of victims, ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands dead.
But no mainstream historians — including Japanese — dispute the fact that the massacre occurred.