Japan's operation of military brothels during World War II was "deplorable," but the issue can only be resolved by Tokyo and its Asian neighbors, a top U.S. official said Friday.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte spoke a day after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied the women were forced into prostitution, calling into doubt an apology by a top government spokesman in 1993.
Negroponte refused to comment directly about Abe's comments, but he said he hoped disagreements between Japan and its neighbors would not interfere with regional cooperation on other important issues.
"Our view is that what happened during the war was most deplorable," he said when asked about the sex slave issue.
"But ... as far as some kind of resolution of this issue, this is something that must be dealt with between Japan and the countries that were affected," Negroponte added.
Up to 200,000 women served in Japanese frontline brothels known as "comfort stations" during the war.
Witnesses, victims and even some former Japanese soldiers say many of the women - most of them from Korea and China - were kidnapped or otherwise forced into sexual slavery at the brothels, where they could be raped by scores of soldiers a day, the AP says.
Victims and their supporters have pushed unsuccessfully for a parliament-approved apology from Japan and official government compensation. Tokyo set up a private fund for compensation in 1995, but has refused to provide government money.
The United States has avoided public involvement in historical disputes between Japan and its neighbors, though it has expressed concern that such conflicts could affect other issues, such as cooperation on efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Last month, however, the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings on a resolution calling for Japan to fully acknowledge and apologize for the sexual abuse. Abe, however, told reporters on Thursday that "there was no evidence to prove there was coercion" in the running of the brothels.
On the second day of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, a plenary meeting was held, in which Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and IMF head Christine Lagarde took part