TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s government said Thursday it may re-examine a 20-year-old study that led to a landmark apology over forced prostitution during World War II, in a sign it is leaning toward a denial that officials were involved in organizing sex slavery.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the official government spokesman, said it may decide to verify the accuracy of interviews with 16 South Korean women who said they were forced to serve as prostitutes for Japan’s wartime military.
Although numbers vary, some historians say as many as 200,000 women from across Asia, most of them Koreans, were forced to serve as sex slaves, called ‘‘comfort women’’ in Japan, for frontline soldiers.
Japanese nationalists have long insisted that women in wartime brothels were voluntary prostitutes, not sex slaves, and that Japan has been unfairly criticized for a practice they say is common in any country at war.
The interviews, conducted by Japanese officials in 1993 at the request of South Korea’s government as part of a broader investigation by Japan, were key to a statement in which Japan apologized later that year.
A reversal of that apology would greatly worsen already-strained relations between Japan and South Korea.
The statement, issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, acknowledged that many women were forced into prostitution for Japan’s wartime military, despite a lack of records clearly indicating direct government involvement.
‘‘We would like to re-examine’’ the interviews, Suga said, adding that he would seek ways of doing so while taking into consideration that the contents of the interviews are classified information. Suga also suggested that a government-led team would review the overall study.
Abe has been criticized by South Korea and China for backpedaling from past Japanese apologies and acknowledgements of wartime atrocities.
Members of his nationalist government and many others who share their view have been frustrated by recent efforts by South Korea to enlist U.S. support in pressuring Japan to stick to its 1993 apology. They are stepping up efforts to discredit accounts by South Korean women who say they were sex slaves.
They have been particularly unhappy about ‘‘comfort women’’ statues that have been erected in several cities in the U.S., including Glendale, California, and about growing international support for the South Korean victims.
A nationalist Japan Restoration Party lawmaker, Hiroshi Yamada, said Japanese children cannot be proud of their country because of the statues and other ‘‘false’’ accusations.
Suga’s comments Thursday followed a statement by the deputy chief Cabinet secretary at the time of the apology, Nobuo Ishihara, that Japan had never verified the 16 women’s accounts.
Ishihara told a parliamentary committee earlier Thursday that South Korea had demanded that Japan interview the women after an earlier Japanese investigation found no hard evidence that the wartime government had coerced people into sexual slavery.
Ishihara said Japan and South Korea had agreed that the 1993 apology would allow them to put their difficult past behind them and open the way for forward-looking relations.