By Yoshiyuki Osada
OSAKA, Japan (Reuters) - Two elderly South Korean women forced to work in Japanese war-time military brothels canceled a meeting on Friday with the mayor of the city of Osaka after he refused to withdraw remarks asserting the brothels were "necessary" at the time.
The mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, an outspoken populist who has often stirred controversy, sparked a storm of criticism at home and abroad when he said last week that the military brothels had been needed, and Japan has been unfairly singled out for wartime practices common among other militaries.
Victims of Japan's war-time aggression, including many people in China and South Korea, are sensitive to what they see as any attempt by Japanese politicians to excuse Japanese abuses before and during the war.
Octogenarians Kim Bok-dong and Kil Won-ok said they had hoped their planned meeting with Hashimoto, who heads the small right-leaning Japan Restoration Party, would encourage him to change his mind but they had heard he planned to manipulate them by an "apology performance" in front of media.
"Indescribably heart-wrenching reality and history of the victims cannot be traded with his apology performance and sweet talk," the women said in a statement provided by the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
"We do not want to kill ourselves twice," they said. "If he truly feels sorry to us and regretful, he must take back his criminal comments and make a formal apology. He should hold himself responsible for his wrongdoing and retire from politics."
Hashimoto also said there was no evidence the Japanese military directly abducted "comfort women", as they are euphemistically known in Japan, to work in the brothels before and during World War Two.
Historians estimate that as many as 200,000 women were forced into sexual slavery in the Imperial Japanese Army's brothels before and during the war.
On Friday, Hashimoto, who trained as a lawyer, told reporters he had not meant to imply that he personally approved of the wartime brothel system and said he was sorry that the women's feelings had been hurt by the misunderstanding.
But he declined to withdraw the remarks.
"I believe at the moment there's nothing I should withdraw," he said during a news conference. "But I feel sorry if media coverage (of his remarks) hurt comfort women's feelings."
Hashimoto also said that it was clear that the Japanese military ran the brothels, but it was necessary for scholars to study and clarify whether Japan's military and government were directly involved in abducting the women to work there.
"Whether Japan as a state abducted Korean women and trafficked them. That's the most contentious point between Japan and South Korea. The Japanese government has not made this point clear," he said.
"This should be debated rigorously among historians to make things clear and to restore relations between Japan and South Korea."
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caused controversy during his first term in 2006-2007 by saying there was no proof that Japan's military had kidnapped women - mostly Asian and many Korean - to work in the brothels. Such sentiments are common among Japanese ultra-conservatives.
But Abe has sought to distance himself from Hashimoto's remarks and his government has drawn back from early signals that it might revise a landmark 1993 government statement acknowledging military involvement in coercing the women, and apologizing to them.
The issue has often frayed relations between Tokyo and Seoul.
Japan says the matter of compensation for the women was settled under a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties. In 1995, Japan set up a fund to make payments to the women from private contributions, but South Korea says that was not official and therefore insufficient.
(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park and Narae Kim in Seoul, Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo; Writing by Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Robert Birsel)