TOKYO - Nationalist Japanese politicians urged the government on Monday to revise a 1993 apology over Asian women forced to serve in wartime brothels, saying accounts that tens of thousands of women were forcibly recruited were a "total lie".
Any revision to the landmark apology by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono would enrage Japan's neighbours, China and South Korea, from where most of the "comfort women" were drawn.
Both accuse Japan of failing to atone fully for aggression before and during World War Two.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which wants to bolster the military and be less apologetic about the past, has said it will set up a team to review the testimony of South Korean comfort women. But officials have been careful to avoid any mention of revising or watering down the apology.
Noriaki Nakayama, a lawmaker from the nationalist Japan Restoration Party, which Abe's government looks to for support, dismissed any notion of large-scale forced recruitment of women.
"The things Korea is saying ... that 200,000 were forcibly recruited, are a complete and total lie," he told a cheering gathering jamming a 500-seat hall near parliament.
Former air force chief of staff Toshio Tamogami, who resigned in 2008 for denying in an essay that Japan was the aggressor in the war, said Japan had to "transmit its views more strongly".
"China and Korea are countries that, even if they lie, don't feel pain in their hearts. But we Japanese do feel pain if we lie," Tamogami told the meeting, called to launch a petition to revise the declaration to "protect Japan's honour".
The 1993 apology recognised the involvement of military authorities in the brothel system and apologised for the women's suffering. It was based in part on the testimony of 16 South Korean women, their identities kept anonymous in line with a Japanese government pledge.
Territorial row, colonial legacy
Japan's ties with South Korea have been frayed by a territorial row over small islands and the legacy of its 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula, including the question of compensation and an apology to the comfort women.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Saturday urged Japan to stop denying the past "and write a new history of truth and reconciliation so that we can walk together towards cooperation, peace and co-prosperity".
The plan to review the testimony of the 16 South Korean women, which led, in part, to the apology, has drawn criticism within Japan as well.
Former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who in 1995 made an apology for Japan having waged a war of aggression, last week said there was no need to review the testimony as the military had set up the brothels "out of operational necessities".
"As long as it is clear, I don't see why it is necessary to investigate further to see what happened and what did not," he said.
During Abe's first time in office in 2006-2007, his government said there was no proof that either the military or government officials had kidnapped women. But it also said the position reflected the position expressed by previous governments.