The head of Japan's public broadcaster has expressed regret for comments about military brothels in the second world war, as China and South Korea voiced outrage about a highly sensitive point in relations with Tokyo.
Trying to snuff out further controversy over Japan's view of its wartime role, new NHK chief Katsuto Momii said his comments were "extremely inappropriate". Addressing a news conference on Saturday on the issue of "comfort women", a euphemism for Korean and other women forced to work in military brothels, Momii said such things occurred at the time in all countries at war. But he acknowledged the practice was bad "by today's morals".
Political parties in South Korea demanded Momii's resignation, suggesting his remarks risked becoming another diplomatic headache for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
China's foreign ministry restated its frequent calls for Japan to adopt a "responsible" view of its wartime history.
Tokyo already has strained relations with Seoul and Beijing rooted in disputes over remote islands and lingering memories of Japanese aggression before and during the war.
Momii, a former vice-president at one of Japan's largest securities trading houses, reiterated that his weekend comments amounted to his personal view.
"Even as a personal opinion I shouldn't have said it. It was extremely inappropriate," he said. "I had never been [speaking] in such a place before. It is my fault for not grasping the rules."
Abe, who visited a controversial shrine last month that honours war criminals along with millions of war dead, is also battling an international image as a right-wing nationalist who wants to revise Japanese history to have a less apologetic tone.
On Saturday, Momii also said it was "only natural" for NHK to voice the government's position in international broadcasts on such matters as the dispute with China over uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.
Xinhua said that despite Momii's expression of regret, the damage had already been done. "Momii's remarks are surely taking a toll on NHK's reputation and Japan's national image," it said.
Yoshihide Suga, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, said he believed Momii's remarks meant the matter was closed.
"He made those comments as his personal opinion and when it was pointed out that this was a news conference as NHK head, he said he retracted them all, so this is not a problem," he said.