updated 3/1/2007 3:05:09 PM ET 2007-03-01T20:05:09

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday there was no evidence Japan coerced Asian women into working as sex slaves during World War II, backtracking from a landmark 1993 statement in which the government acknowledged that it set up and ran brothels for its troops.

Abe’s comments to reporters came as a group of ruling party lawmakers urged the government to revise the so-called Kono Statement, which states that Japan’s wartime military sometimes recruited women to work in the brothels with coercion.

“The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion,” Abe said. “We have to take it from there.”

Historians say that up to 200,000 women, mainly from Korea and China, were forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers in brothels run by the military government as so-called “comfort women” during the war.

Japanese leaders have repeatedly apologized, including former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who said in 2001 that he felt sincere remorse over the comfort women’s “immeasurable and painful experiences.”

Abe’s comments were likely to provoke a strong reaction from South Korea and China.

‘Respecting the historical truth’
Earlier Thursday in Seoul, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun urged Japan to be more sincere in addressing its colonial past as dozens of people rallied outside the Japanese Embassy, lining up dead dogs’ heads on the ground. The demonstration marked the anniversary of a March 1, 1919, uprising against Japanese colonial rule, which still stirs up deep-rooted bitterness among Koreans.

Each of the dogs had a knife placed in its mouth on pieces of paper with the names of Koreans who allegedly collaborated with Japan during its 1910-45 colonial rule. Protest organizers said the animals had been slaughtered at a restaurant, as dogs are regularly consumed as food in Korea.

In a nationally televised address, Roh said Japan “needs to, above all, show an attitude of respecting the historical truth and acts that support this.”

“Instead of trying to beautify or justify its past wrongdoing, (Japan) should show sincerity that is in line with its conscience,” he said.

Roh also referred to recent hearings with sex slave victims in the U.S. Congress.

“The testimony reiterated a message that no matter how hard the Japanese try to cover the whole sky with their hand, there is no way that the international community would condone the atrocities committed during Japanese colonial rule,” he said.

Roh’s office said late Thursday that it did not immediately have a direct response to the Japanese leader’s remarks. In Beijing, calls to the Chinese Foreign Ministry seeking comment on the remarks were not immediately returned.

Attacked by right-wing nationalists
Several members of the U.S. House of Representatives have drafted a nonbinding resolution calling for Abe to “formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility” for using “comfort women” during the war.

Supporters want an apology similar to the one the U.S. government gave to Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. That apology was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

Japan objects to the resolution, which has led to unease in an otherwise strong U.S.-Japanese relationship.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not comment on Abe’s remarks. “I’ll let the Japanese political system deal with that,” McCormack said when asked about the issue.

The Kono Statement was issued in 1993 by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono after incriminating defense documents were discovered showing the military had worked with independent contractors during the war to procure women for the brothels.

The statement has been attacked by right-wing nationalists in Japan, who argue the sex slaves worked willingly for the contractors and were not coerced into servitude by the military.

Despite the official acknowledgment, Japan has rejected most compensation claims by former sex slaves, saying such claims were settled by postwar treaties. Instead, a private fund created in 1995 by the Japanese government but funded by private donations has provided a way for Japan to compensate former sex slaves without offering official government compensation. Many comfort women have rejected the fund.

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