TOKYO — Prime Minister Naoto Kan offered Tokyo's latest apology Tuesday to South Korea for Japanese colonial rule, as part of an effort to strengthen ties between the two countries ahead of the 100th anniversary of Japanese aggression against Korea.
During Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910-45, many Koreans were forced to fight as front-line soldiers, work in slave-labor conditions, or serve as prostitutes in brothels operated by the military. The issue of Japanese wartime aggression against its Asian neighbors is still a sensitive one more than half a century later.
"For the enormous damage and suffering caused by this colonization, I would like to express once again our deep remorse and sincerely apologize," Kan said in a statement approved by the Cabinet.
The statement apologized specifically to Koreans, in contrast to earlier apologies by Japan for wartime actions made broadly to the country's Asian neighbors.
Seoul accepted the apology, although President Lee Myung-bak does not plan an official response, said presidential spokesman Cho Hyun-jin.
"We hope that through proper recognition and reflection of the unfortunate history, close bilateral relations can further develop into a partnership for the future," said South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun in a statement.
Some victims of Japan's rule called Tokyo's apology insufficient, saying there should be reparations for victims, prosecution of wrongdoers and a record of the Japanese military's history of sexual slavery in Japan's textbooks.
"Kan says Japan apologizes and repents but they are just words," said Kang Joo-hye with the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
"He didn't mention the victims once or pledge any action to heal their hurt and pain," Kang said.
The apology comes ahead of the 100-year anniversary of Tokyo's annexation of the Korean peninsula on Aug. 29. Kan also said Japan would soon return Korean cultural artifacts to the country, including historical documents, according to Japanese broadcaster NHK, and also spoke with South Korea's president after the statement was approved.
Despite their troubled history, Tokyo and Seoul remain closely tied economically and militarily. Both countries host tens of thousands of U.S. troops, and Japan was quick to stand by South Korea after it accused North Korea of sinking one of its warships in March, killing 46 sailors.
Tokyo has repeatedly apologized in the past for aggression against its Asian neighbors. An apology in 1995 marking the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII has become the government's official stance.