TOKYO (AFP) - The maverick mayor of Osaka on Thursday offered to meet former wartime sex slaves to apologise for their suffering, but insisted anew that Japan's soldiers were not unique in brutalising women.
Up to 200,000 "comfort women" from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere were forcibly drafted into brothels catering to the Japanese military during WWII, according to many mainstream historians.
"I think I have to apologise firmly for what Japan did as I talk to former comfort women," Mr Toru Hashimoto, who is co-leader of the national Japan Restoration Party, said in a television interview.
"I will tell the comfort women that I'm sorry for having had such a system no matter whether it was forcible or not," Mr Hashimoto said.
"It was a disgraceful act and should never be repeated."
But Mr Hashimoto, who has been mentioned as a possible future prime minister, insisted sexual exploitation of women was not unique to Japan.
"During World War II, neither the US nor the British militaries had comfort stations or comfort women, but it is an obvious fact that they made use of local women.
"Japan was not the only one doing so," he said.
"Everybody was doing bad things. I think Japanese people... should offer objections if there is a misunderstanding of facts in the world."
There is no mainstream evidence that other countries' modern militaries have employed a formal sex slavery system.
Mr Hashimoto prompted outrage at home and abroad by saying on Monday that soldiers living with the daily threat of death needed some way to let off steam which was provided by the comfort women system.
Mr Hashimoto's comments reflect an opinion not uncommon among those on the right of Japanese politics that there was no direct involvement in the system by the state or the imperial army.
The position holds that while there may have been coercion, it was carried out by individuals, gangs or businesses, some of which were non-Japanese.
Ms Rechilda Extremadura, executive director for the Philippine comfort women support group Lila Pilipina, told AFP Mr Hashimoto's qualified offer of apology was unacceptable.
"He should apologise outright, without the allegations that some other (country's) troops also did it," Ms Extremadura said.
In Washington, two US lawmakers on Wednesday condemned his remarks and urged Japan's central government to distance itself clearly from him.
Mr Mike Honda called Mr Hashimoto's remarks "repulsive" while fellow congressman Steve Israel said Japanese officials should offer apologies to ageing former comfort women instead of "abhorrent" explanations.
Japan's government has made no direct comment on the remarks, but has said it stands by pronouncements issued by earlier administrations.
In a landmark 1993 statement, the Japanese government offered "sincere apologies" for the "immeasurable pain and suffering" inflicted on comfort women.
Despite a robust stance, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicated last week he does not intend to backtrack on this apology.
Attitudes to Asia's fraught history colour present day relations, especially between South Korea, China and Japan, where territorial disputes further complicate matters.
Beijing and Seoul maintain Tokyo has never properly faced up to its guilt or expressed sufficient remorse for its brutal warmongering.
But many in Japan feel events that took place seven decades earlier are used by nationalists abroad as a stick to beat it for their own domestic ends.