TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Friday that his government would not revise a landmark 1993 apology to women, many Korean, forced to serve in wartime military brothels, as Washington presses for better ties between its two Asian allies.
Japan's ties with South Korea are frayed by a territorial row and the legacy of its 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula, including the issue of compensation and an apology to women, known euphemistically in Japan as "comfort women", forced to serve in military brothels before and during World War Two.
South Korea and China were outraged by signs that Abe's government might water down the apology, issued by then-chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono, which recognised the involvement of Japanese authorities in coercing the women to work in the military brothels - a point many conservative Japanese dispute.
Nationalist politicians have been urging the government to revise the apology, arguing there is no evidence of large-scale coercion by government authorities or the military.
"With regard to the 'comfort women' issue, I am deeply pained to think of the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering, a feeling I share equally with my predecessors," Abe told a parliamentary panel.
"The Kono Statement addresses this issue ... and, as my Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga stated in news conferences, the Abe Cabinet has no intention to review it."
Abe also said his government adhered to the positions stated by past governments on history, including the 1995 apology for suffering caused by the war given by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama.
"We must be humble regarding history," he said. "Issues regarding history should not be politicised or made diplomatic issues. I think that research on history should be left in the hands of intellectuals and experts."
Japan's already strained ties with both South Korea and China worsened further after Abe paid his respects in December at Yasukuni Shrine, where wartime leaders convicted by an Allied tribunal as war criminals are honoured along with war dead.
Under pressure to improve ties with Seoul ahead of an April visit by US President Barack Obama, Tokyo has been trying to arrange a summit between Abe, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Obama on the sidelines of a global nuclear-security summit in the Hague, Netherlands, on March 24-25.
A South Korean government official said earlier this week, however, that no progress was likely unless Japan made further efforts to resolve frictions stemming from Japan's wartime past.
And on Thursday, South Korean Foreign Ministry Spokesman Cho Tai-young told a news briefing: "We have no reason to refuse dialogue with Japan if Japan shows that it has changed and creates the right conditions that would make constructive dialogue possible."
Japan has been sending mixed messages on the Kono Statement, announcing that it would review the circumstances behind the apology, but adding that it would not rescind the statement.
Abe himself sparked controversy during his first 2006-2007 term by saying there was no proof Japan's military had kidnapped women for the brothels.
Japan says the matter of compensation for 'comfort women'was settled under a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties. In 1995, Japan set up a fund to make payments to the women from private contributions, but South Korea says that was not official and therefore, insufficient.