Japan tried to calm an international furore today over forcing Asian women to work in military brothels during the Second World War, saying the government stood by an earlier landmark apology.
Prime minister Shinzo Abe triggered a barrage of criticism throughout Asia by saying last week there was no proof the women were coerced into prostitution.
He said on Monday that Japan would not apologise again for the so-called “comfort stations” for Japanese soldiers.
“The prime minister’s recent remarks are not meant to change this government’s position,” chief Cabinet secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said, referring to a breakthrough 1993 apology made by then-chief Cabinet secretary Yohei Kono.
“The government continues to support the Kono statement.”
Historians say thousands of women – as many as 200,000 by some accounts and euphemistically known as “comfort women” – mostly from Korea, China and Japan worked in the Japanese military brothels throughout Asia in the 1930s and 40s.
Documentary evidence uncovered in 1992 showed the Japanese military had a direct role in running the brothels. Victims, witnesses and even former soldiers have said women and girls were kidnapped to serve as prostitutes.
However, prominent Japanese scholars and politicians routinely deny direct military involvement or the use of force in rounding up the women, blaming private contractors for any abuses. The government has also questioned 200,000 women.
The US House of Representatives is considering a non-binding resolution demanding a formal acknowledgement and apology from the Japanese government for the brothels.
However, today Shiozaki also reiterated earlier comments by Abe that the prime minister would not apologise again even if the measure was passed.
“The US resolution is not based on objective facts and does not take into consideration the responses that we have taken so far. Therefore, we will not offer a fresh apology,” Shiozaki said.
Abe’s recent comments about the military brothels have spurred a backlash across Asia, with critics in China, South Korea and the Philippines demanding Japan acknowledge its responsibility.
Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing denounced the use of sex slaves as “one of the serious crimes committed by Japanese militarists during the Second World War”.
Li also urged the Japanese government to “stand up to this part of history, take responsibility and seriously view and properly handle this issue”.
Shiozaki tried to downplay criticism that Japan was reneging on past apologies.
“I think we should not continue these discussions in an unconstructive manner for much longer,” Shiozaki said. “Japan’s stance is clear.”
The 1993 apology was not approved by the parliament. It came after a Japanese journalist uncovered official defence documents showing the military had a direct hand in running the brothels – a role Tokyo until that point had denied.