TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan said on Wednesday that its ties with Washington would not be shaken by a U.S. Congressional move to seek an apology for forcing women to serve as sex slaves during World War Two.
The non-binding resolution introduced by Japanese-American lawmaker Mike Honda was approved 39 to 2 by the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee on Tuesday and is expected to pass to the full house.
"Japan-U.S. ties are unshakable. That will not change in the future," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference.
Shiozaki said Japan would not comment on proceedings in another country's legislature, a stock response apparently aimed at keeping a lid on emotions over the sensitive issue.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caused an uproar in March when he said there was no proof that the government or the military had forced thousands of women, mostly Asian, into sexual servitude.
He has since apologized to the "comfort women," as the sex slaves are euphemistically known in Japan, and reiterated that he stood by a 1993 government statement acknowledging official involvement in the management of the brothels.
"The prime minister explained his views when he visited the United States in April," Shiozaki said, referring to Abe's apology at a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush.
"BLAME THE VICTIM"
The House committee's chairman, Tom Lantos, called Japan one of the United States' "closest partners in the world."
But he criticized persistent attempts by some conservative Japanese politicians to deny official involvement.
"The continued efforts by some in Japan to distort history and play a game of blame-the-victim are also highly disturbing," Lantos said during the committee's debate.
A group of Japanese lawmakers and commentators placed an advertisement in the Washington Post this month, stating that the women had worked as licensed prostitutes -- a stance Lantos termed "a ludicrous assertion totally counter to the facts."
A group of Japanese activists supporting former sex slaves welcomed the U.S. resolution.
"The women ... have been constantly attacked and abused by the repeated denial from ministers, high ranking officials and professors," the group said in a statement.
Historians say thousands of women -- by one estimate as many as 200,000 -- were taken to frontline brothels to provide sex for Japanese soldiers.
The Congressional panel's passage of the resolution comes at a time when some analysts see a possible rift between Tokyo and Washington over their North Korea policy following last week's surprise visit to Pyongyang by a top U.S. envoy.
Signs of progress towards getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms program have put pressure on Japan to change its stern stance toward Pyongyang.
But Abe has said Tokyo would not provide aid to the North without progress in a dispute over Japanese citizens kidnapped decades ago by Pyongyang's agents.