A State Department spokeswoman on Thursday branded remarks by a Japanese mayor defending Japan's wartime system of sexual servitude as "outrageous and offensive," in the first outright criticism of the comments by a U.S. government official.
Commenting on Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto's contention that the system was considered necessary before and during World War II, Jen Psaki told a press briefing, "We have seen of course those comments. Mayor Hashimoto's comments were outrageous and offensive."
"As the United States has stated previously, what happened in that era to these women who were trafficked for sexual purposes is deplorable and clearly a grave human rights violation of enormous proportions," Psaki said.
"We hope that Japan will continue to work with its neighbors to address this and other issues arising from the past and cultivate relations that will allow them to move forward."
A senior State Department official said, on condition of anonymity, "We were all broadly offended by the comments in the building."
Hashimoto, meanwhile, hit back on Twitter, saying, "Didn't the United States (also) use Japanese women during their occupation of Japan?" But he also said he approves of Japan's expression of remorse and apology to neighboring countries for its aggression and colonization during World War II.
He said that Japan is singled out for criticism as "a special race" for using sexual slavery during the war but that other countries also dealt with "the problem of sex on the battlefield" by the system of "comfort stations."
"It is impermissible to justify Japan's use of comfort women even if other countries in the world were doing so. But it is unfair that only Japan is particularly condemned," he said, urging the United States and other countries to also show remorse for their wartime behavior.
The mayor, who co-heads the Japan Restoration Party, the third largest force in the lower house, with former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, has made a series of remarks arguing that the sex slavery system was considered necessary to keep discipline in the wartime Japanese military.
Such women are euphemistically called "comfort women" in Japan.
He also suggested U.S. servicemen in Japan should use the country's legal adult entertainment industry in order to prevent them from committing sex offenses against locals.
The comments have angered neighboring countries such as South Korea which suffered under Japanese rule before and during World War II and even baffled many members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet.
Hashimoto said Thursday he lacked "international awareness" with regard to his remarks about U.S. servicemen. He noted he did not intend to encourage prostitution, but refused to retract the remarks.
In Tokyo on Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on the matter, saying that the government is "in no position to comment on remarks from an opposition party."
Abe has said that Hashimoto's views are "completely different" from his, his Cabinet's and those of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Asked for his view on diplomatic repercussions arising from Japanese politicians' remarks on perceptions of history, Suga said, "It all comes down to (the government's efforts) to explain its official stance through diplomatic channels."