Japan's government yesterday announced that it was not planning to revise an apology for the military's use of sex slaves in the 1930s and 1940s, in apparent response to a week of intense criticism from Asian neighbours.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga triggered the row last week with parliamentary testimony in which he said he planned to set up a team to "verify" the testimony given by 16 Korean sex slaves, whose evidence formed the basis of the 1993 apology.
The apology, known as the Kono statement, was issued in the name of then-cabinet secretary Yohei Kono.
Suga's remarks last Monday triggered a storm of outrage from China and South Korea, on the assumption that the Kono statement would be changed. It took a full week before Suga publicly clarified the government's position yesterday.
"I am not thinking of revising the Kono statement," Suga said.
However, he said he stood by last week's parliamentary testimony that he planned to verify the evidence of the 16 women and check whether the 1993 statement was a result of inter-government negotiation.
"There have also been suggestions that Japan might have negotiated with South Korea over the content of the apology" at the time, he said.
Suga said that while he planned to maintain the victims' anonymity, he was willing to present the results of the verification to parliament if asked.
It was unclear what would happen if Tokyo's review was at odds with the official apology.
Suga also rejected comments by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi , who said last week that Japan must make a clean break with the past to get out of an impasse in bilateral relations.
The Kono statement acknowledged the coercive recruitment of sex slaves by Japan's imperial army. It apologised for the treatment of tens of thousands of women, many from South Korea, who were trafficked to military brothels as Japanese troops invaded large parts of Asia.
The statement offered "sincere apologies and remorse" to the women and vowed to face the historical facts squarely.
South Korea's concern that Japan may be vacillating on its apology has further soured ties between the two countries. President Park Geun-hye has refused to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Park had said after Suga publicly discussed reviewing the apology that "if a nation continues denying past history, it will only end up driving itself into a corner and looking more miserable". She said it was "imperative to heal the wounds of the comfort women victims of the Japanese imperial military".
China shares many of South Korea's concerns over Japan's past, and relations with Beijing are also strained over historical issues. Suga called Wang's March 8 comments on Japan "extremely regrettable".
"Our country has upheld freedom, democracy and the rule of law for 69 years and we have contributed to the peace and prosperity of Asia," Suga said. "I believe that the international community recognises this."
Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women were made to serve Japanese troops in brothels across Asia.
The Japanese government set up a fund to compensate victims, some of whom rejected the money because it came from private donors.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse