TOKYO - A Japanese lawmaker Thursday said wartime sex slaves forced to work for Japan's Imperial Army were "professional prostitutes", before he was forced to retract the remarks and issue an apology, local media reported.
The comments from a senior member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party provoked criticism from Seoul, just two weeks after Tokyo offered an apology and a one-billion yen (S$12 million) payment to surviving South Korean women under an agreement both nations described as "final and irreversible".
The plight of the "comfort women" - a euphemistic expression used in Japan and South Korea to describe them - is a hugely emotional issue that has for decades marred ties between Seoul and Tokyo, which ruled the Korean peninsula harshly as a colony from 1910 to 1945.
The landmark agreement has sparked an angry reaction from some of the victims and South Korean activists, who take issue with Japan's refusal to accept formal legal responsibility for the sex slavery.
Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yoshitaka Sakurada initially made the comments during a meeting with 10 other LDP lawmakers Thursday morning.
"They were professional prostitutes," Sakurada told the gathering, according to Jiji Press, referring to wartime sex slaves from Korea.
"That's business," he added.
Sakurada, also a former senior vice minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology under Abe, said further that Japan "is too much fooled by propaganda," an apparent questioning of the accounts of the women and other evidence.
But later in the day, he reversed course and retracted the remarks, saying in a statement reported by public broadcaster NHK: "My comments could create misunderstanding. I sincerely apologise to those who were troubled."
Immediate confirmation of the reports was not available. Calls to Sakurada's office went unanswered.
"We should not respond to every remark by a lawmaker," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, said before the reported retraction. He stressed, however, the importance of "sincerely" fulfilling the accord with South Korea.
Sakurada's initial comment likening comfort women to prostitutes drew a sharp rebuke from South Korea.
"I don't feel the need to respond to each reckless remark made by a shameless lawmaker," foreign ministry spokesperson Cho June-Hyuck told a regular press briefing, stressing the issue is understood internationally to have marked a "grave human rights violation" against the women.
"What is important at this point is ensuring the victims are not scarred again and creating a mood to steadily implement the agreement."
Up to 200,000 women in Asia, many of them Koreans but also from China, the Philippines and what is now Indonesia, and others, are estimated to have been forced to have sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II.