Japan opposition urges PM to stay with apology

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A Japanese opposition lawmaker on Tuesday urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to alter a two-decade apology to World War II sex slaves, saying a revision would be "counterproductive."

Mr Abe, an outspoken conservative, called before taking office for a review of the landmark apology issued in 1993 by then top government spokesman Yohei Kono - a move that would outrage Asian neighbours, particularly South Korea.

On a visit to Washington, parliament member Motohiro Oono - whose Democratic Party of Japan lost power in Dec 16 elections - said that views on history should be left to academics.

"We believe that... if the government revises (the) statement of Kono on history, it is counterproductive," Mr Oono said at the Heritage Foundation think tank. "We would like to request Mr. Abe to have a cautious attitude to revising this historical issue," Mr Oono said.

Mr Yoshihide Suga, the chief spokesman for Abe's government, has said only that experts should study the Kono statement. But he has said that Japan honoured a broader 1995 apology - issued by then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama on the 50th anniversary of Japan's defeat - to World War II victims.

Up to 200,000 women from Korea, along with other Asian nations and The Netherlands, are estimated to have been kidnapped and forced to work as so-called "comfort women" in brothels set up around Asia for Japanese soldiers.

Nationalists have long resented the Kono statement. During his previous 2006-2007 stint as prime minister, Mr Abe said that Japan did not directly coerce the comfort women into brothels.

Japan's relations with fellow US ally South Korea and China remain tense over historical disputes, with surviving comfort women often demanding compensation from Japan.

A left-leaning Japanese government in 1995 set up a fund to compensate former comfort women but few accepted the payments as the money relied on private donations.