Japanese prime minister apologizes to World War II-era sex slaves

TOKYO (AP) – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, under criticism for denying that Japan forced women to work as sex slaves during World War II, offered a fresh apology Monday but stopped short of clearly acknowledging the government’s responsibility for the brothels.

“I express my sympathy toward the comfort women and apologize for the situation they found themselves in,” Abe told a parliamentary debate, using a euphemism used by Japanese politicians to refer to former sex slaves.

“I apologize here and now as prime minister,” he said.

Abe’s apology was his clearest yet since the conservative leader triggered international furor earlier this month by saying there was no evidence that women were coerced into sexual service in the World War II era.

Still, his remarks fell short of demands made by victims that Abe clearly acknowledge that the wartime military forced the women into prostitution.

Historians say that as many as 200,000 Asian women, mostly from Korea and China, worked in military-run brothels. Victims say they were forced into the brothels by the Japanese military and were held against their will.

But right-wing politicians, which make up a bulk of Abe’s support base, have in recent weeks made renewed efforts to push for an official revision of a landmark apology offered by a senior government official in 1993.

Conservative ruling party lawmakers argue that the women were professional prostitutes and were paid for their services, and maintain that the military authorities were not directly responsible for the establishment or running of the brothels.

Abe’s earlier denial of coercion drew intense criticism from China and Korea, which accuse Japan of failing to fully atone for wartime invasions and atrocities.

The issue also has stirred debate in the United States, where a committee in the House of Representatives is considering a nonbinding resolution calling on Japan to fully acknowledge wrongdoing and make an unambiguous apology.

Abe on Monday rebuffed criticism in the U.S. media for his efforts to champion the cause of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents decades ago, while refusing to own up to Japan’s own past kidnappings.

“(North Korea’s) abductions and the comfort women issue are a completely different matter,” Abe told reporters. “The issue of the abductees is an ongoing violation of human rights, while it is not as if the comfort women issue is continuing.”

Abe had said previously he would not offer a fresh apology, saying the government expressed its remorse in a 1993 statement on the matter by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. Right-wing politicians who make up the bulk of Abe’s support base have made renewed efforts in recent weeks to roll back that apology.

Japan has rejected most compensation claims from victims. Instead, a private fund created in 1995 by the Japanese government has provided a way to support former sex slaves without offering official government compensation.

Many women rejected the payments, demanding government compensation and a parliament-approved apology.

Also Monday, a Japanese court rejected demands for compensation of about $1.56 million by a group of Chinese forced to work as slave laborers at a Japanese mine during World War II, an official said.

The Miyazaki District court dismissed the lawsuit seeking damages from the Japanese government and Mitsubishi Metals Corp., formerly Mitsubishi Metal, that operated the mine during the war, court spokeswoman Tomomi Hirata said.

Kyodo News agency quoted the judge as saying the state has an obligation to pay damages but the 20-year deadline for filing compensation claims had expired.