TOKYO — Under harsh questioning in parliament, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologized Monday for the suffering of women exploited for sex during World War II. But senior members of his administration continued to deny that the Japanese military organized the brothel system that recruited the women.
"I express my sympathy for the hardships they suffered and offer my apology for the situation they found themselves in," Abe told the legislature when pressed on what he would say to the aging survivors of the "comfort women" system. "As the prime minister, I am apologizing here."
Government officials say they consider Abe's apology, issued in the capacity of prime minister, to carry more weight than his previous statements of remorse.
In the past, Abe had continually fallen back on the mantra of saying he stood by the 1993 apology issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. The Kono statement acknowledged that a government study found that "in many cases [the women] were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments."
But critics argue that Abe has gutted the significance of that apology by also issuing qualifications contending there is no written evidence linking the Japanese military to the coercion of women from across Asia. That position has a large constituency within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and among many Japanese scholars, who argue that the women were coerced by private profiteers, were sold into sexual slavery by their own families or were prostitutes.
Such a view was reflected in comments made Sunday by Hakubun Shimomura, the deputy chief Cabinet secretary and a member of Abe's inner circle during his rise to power. Shimomura told a radio program, "It is true that there were 'comfort women,' " adding: "I believe some parents may have sold their daughters. But it does not mean the Japanese army was involved."
Shimomura's comments have made it harder for Abe to cut off discussion of the issue, which threatens to cast a pall over his visit to the United States in late April. Abe has tried to put an end to the controversy by refusing to further debate the nature of the coercion of the women.
In parliament Monday, he said he had no comment on whether he considered credible the testimony of surviving comfort women about their experiences.
He also rejected criticism that he was failing to see the moral equivalency between the coercion of the comfort women and the abduction of 17 Japanese civilians by North Korean agents during the Cold War, an emotional issue that Abe has made the centerpiece of his political career.
"The issue of the abductees is an ongoing violation of human rights," Abe said.
"The comfort women issue is not ongoing."