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TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought on Sunday to contain fallout from his remarks about women forced to act as wartime sex slaves for Japanese soldiers as the furor threatened to cloud summits with Chinese and U.S. leaders.
Abe sparked outrage abroad when he said in February there was no evidence that Japan's government or army had forced the mostly Asian women to work in military brothels during World War Two.
Abe has endorsed a 1993 government apology to the "comfort women", as they are euphemistically known in Japan, but has also said Tokyo would not apologize again even if U.S. lawmakers adopted a resolution calling for a new and unambiguous apology.
On Sunday, Abe repeated that the 1993 apology remained in effect. "We have stated our heartfelt apologies to the 'comfort women' at the time who suffered greatly and were injured in their hearts," Abe said in an interview with NHK television. "I want to say that that sentiment has not changed at all."
The furor precedes a visit to Tokyo in mid-April by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Abe's trip to Washington later that month.
In a sign the Bush administration was growing concerned, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer last week advised Tokyo not to renege on the 1993 apology, known as the "Kono Statement" after the chief cabinet secretary in whose name it was issued.
"No friend of Japan would want Japan to back away from the Kono Statement," Schieffer told Japanese reporters on Friday.
China, apparently keen to keep on track an improvement in ties begun after Abe took office last September, has called on Tokyo to face up to its past but has been restrained in its comments so far.
"China wants to make a success of the summit meeting," said Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University political science professor.
"But the United States is a democracy ... you have a free media," he said ahead of the Sunday interview. "It is quite possible, even probable, that Abe will be embarrassed, even if (U.S. President George W.) Bush doesn't want that."
Any diplomatic fallout could also reverberate at home, where Abe has already seen his popularity ratings slip on doubts about his leadership ahead of a July national election, analysts say.
Harsh criticism from China might annoy Japanese voters, many of whom resent lectures by their Asian rival, but upsetting close security ally Washington could damage Abe's image.
"When Asian governments criticize Japan, no one cares but when it's reported in the New York Times, they have to react," Nakano said. "They care about the American elite being upset."
U.S. Congressman Michael Honda, a California Democrat, has introduced a resolution seeking an unambiguous apology for the suffering of the sex slaves at the hands of the Japanese army.
Abe has declined of late to elaborate on his stance, which he says was misreported by some U.S. media, and on Sunday only about one minute of an hour-long interview was devoted to the topic.
Ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa said on a separate TV program that Japan should not overreact even if the U.S. resolution passed.
"Keeping a lower profile suggests Abe has found his pragmatism again," said Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Richard Samuels. "No more fuel on the fire."
Some, however, question whether the strategy will work.
"He wants to put an end to this unfortunate situation," said Andrew Horvat, a professor at Tokyo Keizai University.
"But the fact is that the genie is out of the bottle. The whole issue of the resolution is to make a clear and unambiguous apology and he has again shown that he is unwilling to do that."
Abe, 52, comes from the most conservative wing of the LDP, which wants to revise how wartime history is taught so as to restore pride in Japan's past and rewrite the pacifist constitution so Tokyo can play a bolder role in global security.
Many conservatives felt betrayed when Abe appeared to soften his stance on history after taking office in September, a step seen as intended to thaw a chill in ties with Beijing.
With his popularity ratings sagging after a series of missteps, analysts say Abe's original remarks were intended to woo back his base ahead of July upper house elections.