TOKYO (AP) _ Japan's nationalist prime minister denied Thursday that the country's military forced women into sexual slavery during World War II, casting doubt on a past government apology and jeopardizing a fragile detente with his Asian neighbors.
The comments by Shinzo Abe, a member of a group of lawmakers pushing to roll back a 1993 apology to the sex slaves, were his clearest statement as prime minister on military brothels known in Japan as ``comfort stations.''
Historians say some 200,000 women _ mostly from Korea and China _ served in the Japanese military brothels throughout Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. Many victims say they were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops.
But Abe, who since taking office in September has promoted patriotism in Japan's schools and a more assertive foreign policy, told reporters there was no proof the women were forced into prostitution.
``The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion,'' Abe said.
His remarks contradicted evidence in Japanese documents unearthed in 1992 that historians said showed military authorities had a direct role in working with contractors to forcibly procure women for the brothels.
The documents, which are backed up by accounts from soldiers and victims, said Japanese authorities set up the brothels in response to uncontrolled rape sprees by invading Japanese soldiers in East Asia.
In 1993, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized to the victims of sex slavery, though the statement did not meet demands by former ``comfort women'' that it be approved by parliament. Two years later, the government set up a compensation fund for victims, but it was based on private donations _ not government money _ and has been criticized as a way for the government to avoid owning up to the abuse.
The mandate for the fund is to expire March 31.
Abe's comments were certain to rile South Korea and China, which accuse Tokyo of failing to fully atone for wartime atrocities. Abe's government has been recently working to repair relations with Seoul and Beijing.
The statement came just hours after South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun marked a national holiday honoring the anniversary of a 1919 uprising against Japanese colonial rule by urging Tokyo to come clean about its past.
Roh also referred to hearings held by the U.S. House of Representatives last month on a resolution urging Japan to ``apologize for and acknowledge'' the imperial army's use of sex slaves during the war.
``The testimony reiterated a message that no matter how hard the Japanese try to cover the whole sky with their hand, there is no way that the international community would condone the atrocities committed during Japanese colonial rule,'' Roh said.
Dozens of people also rallied outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to mark the anniversary, lining up dead dogs' heads on the ground with pieces of paper in their mouths listing names of Koreans who allegedly collaborated with the Japanese during its 1910-45 colonial rule. Protest organizers said the animals were slaughtered at a restaurant; dogs are regularly consumed as food in Korea.
Roh's office said late Thursday it did not immediately have a direct response to the Japanese leader's remarks. In Beijing, calls to the Chinese Foreign Ministry seeking comment on the remarks were not immediately returned.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not comment on Abe's statement. ``I'll let the Japanese political system deal with that,'' he said.
The sex slave question has been a cause celebre for nationalist politicians and scholars in Japan who claim the women were professional prostitutes and were not coerced into servitude by the military.
Before Abe spoke Thursday, a group of ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers discussed their plans to push for an official revision of Kono's 1993 apology.
Nariaki Nakayama, chairman of the group of about 120 lawmakers, sought to play down the government's involvement in the brothels by saying it was similar to a school that hires a company to run its cafeteria.
``Some say it is useful to compare the brothels to college cafeterias run by private companies, who recruit their own staff, procure foodstuffs, and set prices,'' he said.
``Where there's demand, businesses crop up ... but to say women were forced by the Japanese military into service is off the mark,'' he said. ``This issue must be reconsidered, based on truth ... for the sake of Japanese honor.''
Sex slave victims, however, say they still suffer wounds _ physical and psychological _ from the war.
Lee Yong-soo, 78, a South Korean who was interviewed during a recent trip to Tokyo, said she was 14 when Japanese soldiers took her from her home in 1944 to work as a sex slave in Taiwan.
``The Japanese government must not run from its responsibilities,'' said Lee, who has long campaigned for Japanese compensation. ``I want them to apologize. To admit that they took me away, when I was a little girl, to be a sex slave. To admit that history.''