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TOKYO Jan 26 Japan should not be singled out for criticism of the use of military brothels during World War Two, the new chairman of Japan's influential public broadcaster NHK was quoted as saying in remarks likely to spark widespread anger.
The comments by Katsuto Momii, who has just taken over as chairman of NHK, are also likely to become an additional diplomatic headache for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Abe is already faced with deteriorating ties due largely to territorial issues with China and South Korea, nations that suffered from Japanese aggression before and during the war.
Abe, who visited a controversial shrine last month that honours war criminals along with war dead, is also battling an international image as a right-wing nationalist who wants to revise Japanese history to have a less apologetic tone.
The issue of "comfort women", as those forced to work in the wartime brothels are euphemistically known in Japan, is a flashpoint in Japan's relationship with Asian nations, especially South Korea. Many of the women forced to work in the brothels were Korean.
Asked about the issue at a news conference on Saturday, Momii said such things happened in every nation at war during that time, including France and Germany.
"(The issue of) 'comfort women' is bad by today's morals," Momii was quoted as saying by the Asahi Shimbun daily. "But this was a fact of those times."
"Korea's statements that Japan is the only nation that forced this are puzzling. Give us money, compensate us, they say, but since all of this was resolved by the Japan-Korea peace treaty, why are they reviving this issue? It's strange," he said.
Japan says the matter of compensation was closed under the 1965 treaty that normalised diplomatic ties between them.
Momii said he was only giving his personal opinion but, when reporters noted that he was speaking as a public figure, Momii then said he retracted his remarks, the Asahi reported.
He also said it was "only natural" for NHK to take the Japanese government position in international broadcasts on things such as territorial disputes with China over uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.
"International broadcasting is different from domestic," he was quoted as saying. "If the government says 'left' we can't say 'right.'"
Japanese politicians have repeatedly drawn fire for their remarks over the military brothels.
Toru Hashimoto, the populist co-leader of a small right-wing party, sparked a storm at home and abroad last year when he said the military brothels had been "necessary" at the time and Japan had been unfairly singled out for practices common among other militaries during wartime.
Momii's comments have already sparked an angry response within the government, the Asahi said, quoting an unidentified cabinet minister as saying the remarks were unacceptable from the head of national media and that Momii should resign.
Momii, who was vice president of trading house Mitsui & Co, is set to serve as NHK chairman for three years. He has denied that he was appointed because he was Abe's favoured candidate.
Analysts said NHK's reputation could well take a hit.
"His comments that NHK should be hewing the government line on foreign policy matters demonstrates how out of touch he is with media norms and values," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan Campus. (Reporting by Elaine Lies and Linda Sieg,; Editing by Paul Tait)