TOKYO -- A top official hinted on Thursday that Japan's newly installed conservative government might seek to revise a two-decade-old official apology to women forced into sexual slavery during World War II, a move that would most likely outrage South Korea and possibly other former victims of Japanese militarism.
Speaking a day after the new cabinet was named, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who serves as the government's top spokesman, refused to say clearly whether the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, would uphold the 1993 apology, which was issued by the chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yohei Kono.
Mr. Suga said at a news conference, however, that it would be "desirable for experts and historians to study" the statement, which acknowledged the Imperial Army's involvement in forcing thousands of Asian and Dutch women to provide sex for Japanese soldiers.
Mr. Suga seemed to keep his comments intentionally vague, adding only that the matter "should not be made into a political or diplomatic issue." He also said the Abe government would uphold a broader apology, issued in 1995 to observe the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, to all victims of Japan's colonialism and aggression.
The sex slaves issue remains highly emotional in South Korea, a former Japanese colony. On Thursday, the South Korean Foreign Ministry responded to Mr. Suga's comments by calling on Japan not to forget its militaristic past.
The Kono Statement has long been a sore point for Japanese rightists, who deny either that the women had been coerced or that the military had a hand in forcing them to become what many Japanese euphemistically call "comfort women." These critics include Mr. Abe, an outspoken nationalist who has repeatedly called for revising the statement, most recently during an internal Liberal Democratic Party election in September.
The issue does not resonate broadly, however, among the general public, which would rather avoid confrontation with other Asian countries. During the national parliamentary elections this month that swept his Liberal Democrats back into power, Mr. Abe avoided talking about the matter, apparently so as not to be seen as too far to the right of mainstream voters.
His position has also caused concern in Washington, where the United States government has urged Japan and South Korea, its two closest Asian allies, to increase cooperation against security threats like North Korea.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.