TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, under fire abroad for denying government involvement in forcing women to serve as sex slaves during World War Two, said on Monday he was “apologizing here and now as the prime minister”.
Abe said earlier this month there was no proof Japan’s government or army kidnapped women to work in military brothels as “comfort women”, as the wartime sex slaves are known in Japan.
He had also said he stood by a 1993 apology known as the Kono Statement that acknowledged official involvement in the brothels.
But he has said there would be no new apology even if U.S. lawmakers adopted a resolution seeking one.
“I am apologizing here and now as the prime minister, and it is as stated in the Kono Statement,” Abe told a parliamentary committee in response to a question by an opposition lawmaker.
“As I frequently say, I feel sympathy for the people who underwent hardships, and I apologize for the fact that they were placed in this situation at the time.”
Abe, who made his name as a politician by pushing for resolution of a feud with North Korea over Japanese kidnapped by Pyongyang’s agents decades ago to train spies, has faced heavy criticism in U.S. media for his recent remarks on sex slaves.
“If Mr. Abe seeks international support in learning the fate of Japan’s kidnapped citizens, he should straightforwardly accept responsibility for Japan’s own crimes — and apologize to the victims he has slandered,” said a weekend editorial in the Washington Post entitled “Shinzo Abe’s Double Talk”.
Asked about the comparison, Abe told reporters said: “That is a completely different matter. The issue of the abductees is an ongoing violation of human rights,” he said.
“The ‘comfort women’ issue is not ongoing. As for the abductees issue, the situation is that Japanese people who were kidnapped by North Korea have not been released.”
North Korea’s state media criticized Abe on Monday for refusing to provide funds as part of a multilateral deal under which Pyongyang has promised to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for security pledges and economic aid.
“Japan is stooping to any infamy and barring the settlement of a problem in the international political arena to gratify its ambition of ultra-nationalism,” Pyongyang’s KCNA news agency said.
“For Abe to make any concession over the ‘abduction issue’ means his political death,” it said, adding Japan was “not qualified” to take part in the six-way nuclear talks among the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
Analysts have said Abe’s original comments were meant to appeal to his core conservative base at a time when his support ratings have slumped due to doubts about his leadership.
A survey by the Mainichi newspaper published on Monday showed his support rate was at 35 percent, down one point from February while his disapproval rare rose one point to 42 percent.
Abe’s denial of official involvement in kidnapping women, mostly Asian, to work in the wartime brothels angered Seoul and risked straining ties with Washington, where U.S. Congressman Michael Honda has introduced a resolution calling for Japan to make an unambiguous apology for the suffering of the sex slaves.
No vote on the resolution, which Abe has criticized as full of errors, is expected until May, after Abe visits Washington for talks with President Bush.
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg and Takeshi Yoshiike