Japan to the UN: Leave us alone on WWII sex slaves

SEOUL, South Korea — This week, it’s not North Korea or Zimbabwe resisting a call for justice from the United Nations.

Rather, it is East Asia’s wealthiest and oldest democracy: Japan.

The government says it’s “not obligated” to abide by a request from the UN Committee on Torture last month, the Asahi Shinbum reported, after the body urged Tokyo to take measures to stop far-right politicians from insulting so-called “comfort women” — sex workers exploited by the Japanese army during World War II.

The Japanese government should “refute attempts to deny the facts by government authorities and public figures, and to re-traumatize the victims through such repeated denials,” the report said in late May.

Since right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in September 2012, the issues of “comfort women” and Japanese war crimes have resurfaced in regional relations. The gestures and statements by right-wing Japanese lawmakers have stirred tensions with Japan's neighbors, South Korea and China.

During World War II, when the Japanese military occupied Korea, China and Southeast Asia, soldiers employed some 200,000 comfort women for sexual favors, according to some estimates. Most were of Korean descent, but many also came from China, the Philippines and other occupied countries.

More from GlobalPost: Osaka mayor denies 'comfort women' were sex slaves

Japan apologized to the former sex workers in 1993. But the controversy was fired up again most recently in mid-May, when Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka and a nationalist party co-leader, announced that the comfort women system was a “necessity” for soldiers to “rest.”

The South Korean foreign ministry said the remarks would “further isolate” Japan in its diplomatic relations. The UN committee’s report contained what appear to be veiled references to Hashimoto, although it did not mention him by name.

Hashimoto later apologized following a demonstration outside Osaka's city hall and condemnation by the US State Department.

“We must express our deep remorse at the violation of the human rights of these women by Japanese soldiers in the past, and make our apology to the women,” he told reporters in Tokyo.

But he added that it’s not “fair” to blame only Japan for human rights abuses.

This hasn’t been the only diplomatic flare-up in recent months.

In April, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se canceled a planned trip to Japan in protest at a visit by Japanese leaders to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where many convicted war criminals are entombed. South Korea and China condemned the visit.