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Japan keeps wartime sex slave apology after review

Japan said Friday it would not change a landmark 1993 apology over wartime sex slavery despite an inflammatory review that said there was no corroboration of evidence given by former "comfort women".

TOKYO: Japan said Friday it would not change a landmark 1993 apology over wartime sex slavery despite an inflammatory review that said there was no corroboration of evidence given by former "comfort women".

South Korea's foreign ministry swiftly expressed "deep regret" at the review results, which it said "distorted facts" and "undermined" Japan's 1993 apology.

The episode, which observers say is a messy compromise that looks set to satisfy no one, came as South Korea put on a show of force, holding a rare live-fire drill near islets at the centre of its territorial dispute with Tokyo.

Prime Minster Shinzo Abe's government said earlier this year it would not reverse the apology, known as the Kono statement, which was issued under a liberal government and acknowledged official complicity in the practice for the first time.

The review, launched as an apparent SOP to fellow right-wingers, was putatively established to examine how the decision to apologise was reached, and on what historical facts it was based.

"There is no change in the government's position to uphold" the 1993 apology, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters after the review was submitted to parliament Friday.

"There is no change in Japan's position that we feel our hearts aching over those who suffered hardships that are beyond all description," said Suga, the top government spokesman.

Around 200,000 women, mainly from Korea, but also from China, Taiwan and Indonesia among others, were forced to work in brothels as "comfort women", serving imperial troops as Japan stomped across Asia before and during World War II.

While mainstream Japanese opinion holds that the wartime government was culpable, a small but vocal tranche of the political right -- including Abe -- continues to cast doubt, claiming the brothels were staffed by professional prostitutes.

The equivocation is a huge bugbear in Tokyo's relations with East Asia, and with South Korea in particular.

The review highlighted the fact that the Japanese and South Korean governments at the time secretly discussed the wording for the apology, Jiji Press reported.

It also said there was no effort to collect corroborating evidence for the testimony from 16 Korean women, Jiji said.

Tokyo will give details of the probe by a five-member "verifying team" to Seoul soon, Suga said, adding no diplomatic slight had ever been intended with the investigation.

"We will let the evaluation of history, including the 'comfort women' issue, rest in the hands of historians and experts," he said.

Friday's announcement appears set to leave all sides unsatisfied in a corrosive dispute that shows no signs of ending.

Japan's right wingers would like the apology revoked, something that Abe was always under huge international pressure to avoid.

However, having undermined the evidence on which it is based is likely to further anger historical doves and neighbouring countries.

The issue is a volatile one in South Korea, where feelings run high that Japan has never properly made amends for its warring, despite a 1965 treaty normalising ties that involved a multi-billion dollar settlement in regard to property and claims.

"The (South Korean) government's unwavering position is that the comfort women issue was not solved by the 1965 treaty," Seoul's foreign ministry said Friday.

The inability of the two countries to bury the hatchet is a bane for Washington, which would dearly like its two major allies in the region to get along, especially in the face of an increasingly confident China.

While on a regional tour two months ago, US President Barack Obama blasted the comfort women system as a "terrible, egregious violation of human rights".

It also infuriates China, which regularly castigates Tokyo on its attitude to the past.

On Friday, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said there was incontrovertible evidence of the Japanese government's wrongdoing.

"The forcible recruitment of comfort women was an anti-human and atrocious crime committed by Japanese militarism against victims of Asian countries," she said.

"We hope that the Japanese side can face up to history and be responsible with its commitment and statement, and properly deal with issues left over from history."

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