Japan had committed "indescribable wrongdoings" by forcing women from South Korea and elsewhere to serve as sex slaves to its wartime troops, former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama said yesterday.
Murayama, who as prime minister issued an apology in 1995 for Japan's wartime aggression, said that it was time for Tokyo to finally resolve the issue of the so-called "comfort women" who were drafted into military brothels.
"Indescribable wrongdoings were committed, in which these women's dignity was forfeited. Japan must solve it," he said in a speech inside the parliament building in Seoul.
Murayama, now 89, on Tuesday met three elderly victims, after which he said he realised "that this issue must be settled expeditiously".
He also criticised some Japanese politicians and opinion-makers for making "nonsensical remarks" about the former sex slaves and stressed that the vast majority of Japanese people understood the wrong that had been committed.
Katsuto Momii, the new head of Japan's national broadcaster NHK, angered Seoul recently by stating that sex slavery was common to any country at war.
Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula remains a hugely emotive issue in South Korea, which believes Japan has failed to live up to the spirit of the 1995 apology and has not properly atoned for its past aggression.
Relations hit a new low in December when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a controversial war shrine which commemorates 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including several high-level war criminals.
Murayama arrived on Tuesday for a three-day visit at the invitation of an opposition party.
He reportedly requested a meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye but was turned down on account of her "busy schedule".
Park has made it clear she will not hold a summit with Abe until the Japanese leader takes steps to address South Korea's historical grievances.