TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's biggest newspaper apologised on Friday for the repeated use in its English language edition of the term "sex slave" to describe women who worked in brothels serving Imperial soldiers during World War II.
The step by The Yomiuri Shimbun comes as Japanese conservatives grow increasingly bold in their demands that the country's wartime record be re-evaluated more sympathetically, egged on by the nationalist government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The centre-right Yomiuri said its "Daily Yomiuri" English-language paper had used the term "sex slaves" and other similar expressions in error, giving what it claimed was the mistaken impression that the system was official policy.
"The Yomiuri Shimbun apologises for having used these misleading expressions and will add a note stating that they were inappropriate to all the articles in question in our database," the Japanese paper said in a column printed in its English-language paper, now named The Japan News. The Japanese language paper carried a similarly worded apology.
The term "sex slaves" used by the Daily Yomiuri was "based on an inaccurate perception and using foreign news agencies' reports as reference", said The Japan News, adding that the original Japanese Yomiuri stories did not use them.
The English edition now uses the euphemism "so-called comfort women", although the paper admits that the phrase is difficult to understand without any prior knowledge of the issue.
AFP, in common with other global news agencies, uses the term "sex slaves".
Despite a dearth of official records, mainstream researchers estimate up to 200,000 women, many from Korea but also from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan, served Japanese soldiers in "comfort stations".
Many historians say these women were not willing participants and that the Imperial Japanese Army and the wartime government were involved in their enslavement, either tacitly or explicitly.
But the Yomiuri's change of policy aligns with conservative arguments that the Japanese government was not directly involved. Right-wingers say the women were common prostitutes engaged in a commercial exchange for which they were recompensed.
The issue has come under renewed public attention this year after the influential liberal Asahi Shimbun newspaper retracted highly contentious reports it began publishing in 1982.
The reports cited a Japanese man who claimed to have kidnapped women on the South Korean island of Jeju for the purposes of sex slavery. His testimony has since been discredited by independent research carried out by rival newspapers and academics.
After a long delay, the Asahi finally admitted those reports were based on "false" testimony.
The Japanese government, including the conservative Mr Abe, has repeatedly recognised and apologised for the suffering of individual women who were part of the system.
But equivocations by Mr Abe and other nationalists - including a review of the Japanese government's 1993 apology for sex slavery that he instituted - have sparked controversy among liberals at home and abroad.
South Korea is particularly vocal on the subject and has repeatedly demanded Japan apologise sincerely and come to terms with its past.
The issue is a major sticking point in ties between the countries, and has prevented Mr Abe and South Korean President Park Geun Hye from holding a bilateral meeting.
Both countries have waged a global campaign to press home their point of view, with expatriate communities in the United States fighting proxy battles over memorials to the sex slaves.