The new government's top spokesman refused to say clearly whether the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, would uphold the 1993 apology for sexual slavery during World War II, known as the Kono Statement.
A top official hinted Thursday that Japan's newly installed conservative government may seek to revise a two-decade-old official apology to women forced into sexual slavery during World War II, a move that would most likely outrage South Korea and possibly other former victims of Japanese militarism.
Speaking a day after the new cabinet was named, the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, who serves as the government's top spokesman, refused to say clearly whether the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, would uphold the 1993 apology, known as the Kono Statement.
However, he told a press conference that it would be "desirable for experts and historians to study" the statement, which acknowledged the Imperial Army's involvement in forcing thousands of Asian and Dutch women to provide sex for Japanese soldiers.
Mr. Suga seemed to keep his comments intentionally vague, adding only that the matter "should not be made into a political or diplomatic issue." He also said the Abe government would uphold a broader 1995 apology to all victims of Japan's early 20th-century colonialism and aggression.
Still, any move to revise the sex slaves apology would likely prove inflammatory in South Korea, a former Japanese colony where the issue remains highly emotional. On Thursday, the South Korean Foreign Ministry responded to Mr. Suga's comments by calling on Japan not to forget its militaristic past.
The Kono Statement has long been a sore point for Japanese rightists, who deny that the women had been coerced or that the military had a hand in forcing them to become what many Japanese euphemistically call comfort women. These critics include Mr. Abe, an outspoken nationalist who has repeatedly called for revising the statement.
However, the issue does not resonate with most of Japan's confrontation-adverse public. During this month's national parliamentary elections, which swept his Liberal Democrats back into power, Mr. Abe avoided talking about the comfort women apparently so as not to be seen as too far to the right of mainstream voters.
His position has also caused concern in Washington, where the U.S. government has urged Japan and South Korea, its two closest Asian allies, to increase cooperation against security threats, including a nuclear-armed North Korea.
In the summer, the South Korean president at the time, Lee Myung- bak, visited a group of disputed islands claimed by both his nation and Japan in an apparent display of displeasure over Japan's refusal to pay official compensation to South Korea's few hundred surviving former comfort women, now in their 80s.
South Korea's newly elected president, Park Geun-hye, has also shown interest in the comfort women, attending U.S. congressional hearings in 2007 on the issue.