Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday that ruling party lawmakers will conduct a new investigation into the military's use of brothels during World War II.
The government is ready to cooperate with the investigation, Abe told reporters. Conservatives have called for a new probe, saying they doubt reports that the military kidnapped thousands of women and forced them into sexual slavery.
"I was told the party will conduct an investigation or a study, so we will provide government documents and cooperate as necessary," Abe said.
Last week, Abe triggered outrage across Asia by saying there was no proof the women were coerced into prostitution. On Monday he said Japan will not apologize again for the military's "comfort stations."
Earlier Thursday, the top government spokesman said Japan's position on the coercion of women into sexual slavery during World War II has been misinterpreted and misrepresented by the U.S. media, and Tokyo will soon issue a rebuttal.
"Our view is that the media reports are being made without an appropriate interpretation of the prime minister's remarks," said chief Cabinet spokesman Yasuhisa Shiozaki. He did not cite any specific reports.
Abe's remarks came as the U.S. Congress was considering a resolution demanding a formal apology from Japan for the wartime brothels.
A senior Japanese official apologized in 1993 for the government's role, but the apology was not approved by Parliament.
"My remarks have been twisted in a sense and reported overseas which further invites misunderstanding," Abe said. "This is an extremely unproductive situation."
Historians say as many as 200,000 women — mostly from Korea, China, Southeast Asia and Japan — worked in Japanese military brothels throughout Asia in the 1930s and '40s. Defense documents uncovered in 1992 showed that the military had a direct role in running the brothels, a charge the government had previously denied.
Victims, witnesses and former soldiers have said women and girls were kidnapped to serve as prostitutes.
Abe said Thursday that he "basically stands by the 1993 apology." The apology, made by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, acknowledged government involvement in the brothels, and that some women were coerced into sexual service.
But Abe's remarks appeared to step away from the government's previous position.
Nariaki Nakayama, a conservative lawmaker who heads a group of ruling Liberal Democratic Party members calling for a new probe, said they want the government to review the 1993 apology if errors are found in previous investigations, public broadcaster NHK reported.
Abe's comments have incensed critics in China, North and South Korea, and the Philippines. They have demanded that Japan acknowledge its responsibility.
The fallout from the remarks has continued to build.
The coercion of women into prostitution was "one of the key, serious crimes committed by Japanese imperial soldiers," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Thursday.
"We hope that Japan can show courage, take a responsible attitude toward history," he said.
North Korea's official news agency said Abe's comment "once again strips bare his true colors as a political charlatan."