UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed on Thursday to work at home and abroad to improve the plight of women, in a shift of tone for the conservative leader.
Addressing the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, Mr Abe returned to a familiar Japanese theme of pledging a strong international role and announced another US$60 million (S$75 million) in aid for Syria.
But Mr Abe, the Japanese leader with the strongest political position in nearly a decade, largely focused on women's rights, calling the issue critical for development.
"I wish to bring about a society where women shine, both within Japan and also in regions in conflict and countries suffering from poverty," Mr Abe said.
"I do not consider the outlook to be optimistic. However, I know one thing: that in my country, Japan, there are a considerable number of people who are working unsparingly towards that end."
Mr Abe said it was "a matter of outrage that there continues to be sexual violence against women during times of armed conflict, even now in the 21st century".
"Japan will do everything possible to prevent such crimes against women and to support both materially and psychologically those people who unfortunately become victims," he added.
Before taking office, Mr Abe caused outrage in South Korea and China by saying he would revise Japan's apology for the sexual slavery of tens of thousands of women - euphemistically known as "comfort women" - during World War II.
The historical row has haunted Japan's relations with South Korea, although foreign ministers from the two countries were scheduled to meet on Thursday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Since starting his second stint as prime minister, Mr Abe has signalled that he will not revise past apologies and has sought instead to highlight efforts to revive Japan's economy after two decades of little or negative growth.
A slew of studies have concluded that Japan can boost economic growth by providing more opportunities to its women, who are less represented in the corporate and political world than in most other wealthy nations.
Women's difficulties in the workplace have also contributed to Japan's dwindling birth rate, which is placing a growing burden on the economy as a smaller work force supports a mass of pensioners.
"Creating an environment in which women find it comfortable to work and enhancing opportunities for women to work and to be active in society is no longer a matter of choice for Japan," Mr Abe said.