CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (REUTERS) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday his heart ached for women who were forced into prostitution by the nation's military during World War Two, and that he stood by previous Japanese leaders' apologies for the country's wartime history.
"My heart aches when I think about the people who were victimised by human trafficking and who were subject to immeasurable pain and suffering, beyond description. On this score my feeling is no different from my predecessor prime ministers," he told students at Harvard's John F Kennedy Jr Forum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
His remarks came in response to a question about Japan's use of so-called "comfort women", a Japanese euphemism for women forced into prostitution and sexually abused at Japanese military brothels before and during World War Two.
Japan acknowledged military involvement in the practice and apologised to these women in the 1990s. But human rights groups have recently ramped up pressure on Abe to ease concerns that he wants to whitewash Japan's wartime past - including its treatment of prisoners of war - as his conservative domestic allies feel that after 70 years of peaceful policies, fresh apologies are not needed.
About a dozen protesters stood outside the auditorium where Abe was speaking, holding signs denouncing sexual slavery.
Abe was visiting Boston ahead of a meeting with President Barack Obama on Tuesday in Washington and a high-profile speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, the first by a Japanese leader.
He is expected to stress that Japan is ready to take more responsibility for security on the world stage, and to seek fresh assurances that the United States will show up if needed in the event of any clash with China.
Abe's remarks about Japan's wartime record could provide hints to a statement he plans to make in August to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
He has said repeatedly he would uphold a landmark 1995 apology by then-Premier Tomiichi Murayama, but that he wants to issue a forward-looking statement in his own words.
Abe said Monday his government was working with the United Nations on women's rights issues and was "determined that in the 21st century, women's human rights should not be violated".