DESPITE the passage of five decades, an official admission by Japan that its wartime Army had forced a "great number" of Asian women into sexual servitude for its soldiers could improve Japan's image in the region.
The belated confession came primarily at the request of South Korea, which had conditioned better relations with Japan on an acknowledgment that tens of thousands of Korean women were coerced into becoming so-called "comfort women," mainly in Japanese-occupied China.
"We hope that the sincerity which we ... will continue to bring to this issue ... will be accepted and appreciated by our Asian neighbors," said Sadaaki Numata, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
While most of those recruited were Korean, many other Asians, as well as some Dutch women, were forced by the Imperial Japanese Army or their agents to work in combat-area brothels. "They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere," government spokesman Yohei Kono said.
The official report, based on archives and interviews with 16 Korean women and about 30 Japanese recruiters, found that the women "were forced to move with the military under constant military control and that they were deprived of their freedom and had to endure misery."
Japan is also considering financial compensation for the women.
The report was issued on the last day in power for the Liberal Democratic Party, whose leaders have often evaded acknowledgment of Japan's worst wartime behavior.
The incoming government, led by younger politicians with no experience of the war, has vowed to "show its readiness to cooperate in promoting peace and development in Asia and the world with repentance for involvement in World War II."
"This is the best time to again have a soul-searching about what that war was all about for us," said Tsutomo Hata, leader of the Japan Renewal Party, one of seven parties expected to join the new government. Questions over Japan's thinking about World War II and the 35-year occupation of Korea "can't continue for years," said Mr. Hata, who is expected to be deputy prime minister. "We should put a punctuation mark on these words [of apology]."