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 to mark his appointment that “comfort women” existed in any country at war, not just Japan. He criticized South Korea for dredging up a compensation issue that had been settled by a bilateral peace treaty.

His remarks have raised concerns about a possible right-leaning shift by the country’s public broadcaster, which has reportedly faced criticism from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalist government for having programs that were too liberal.

The military brothel system was “common in any country at war,” Momii said. “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.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, peppered with questions at Monday’s news conference about Momii’s remark, defended them as his personal views. The government oversees NHK’s public service content, and its chairman is picked by parliament-approved advisers.

“I understand Mr. Momii made the comment as his personal view,” Suga said, declining to comment on his comfort women remarks.

Suga said Abe has expressed sympathy to the Asian women who had gone through the pain of providing sexual services to Japanese soldiers and that “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. Some historians put the number at less than half.

Momii, 70, previously served as a vice chairman of Mitsui, a large trading house, and was reportedly Abe’s preferred choice to head NHK.

“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 Saturday. “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.”


By MARI YAMAGUCHI Associated Press