Japan, under fire for appearing to sidestep responsibility for forcing women to act as wartime sex slaves for its soldiers, says the government stands by a 1993 apology acknowledging coercion.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stirred anger around the world with remarks last week appearing to question the nation's role in forcing women to act as prostitutes during World War II, although he also said the earlier apology stood.
The apology, known as the "Kono Statement" after then-chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono, in whose name it was issued, acknowledged the Japanese military's role in setting up and running wartime brothels as well as the fact that many of the women were taken to and kept in the brothels against their will.
"The government stands by the Kono Statement, including its recognition of coercion," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference on Wednesday. "Recent comments by the prime minister show this stance will not change."
Abe touched off additional protests when he told parliament on Monday that Japan would not apologise again over the sex slave issue even if US politicians adopt a resolution calling for an apology.
The non-binding resolution introduced by US Congressman Michael Honda, a California Democrat, calls on Japan to unambiguously apologise for the tragedy that thousands of women, many Korean, endured at the hands of its Imperial Army.
An Australian woman forced into sexual slavery by Japanese forces said on Monday she was disappointed and saddened that her story of abuse had been denied.
Eighty-four-year-old Jan Ruff O'Herne said she was one of the thousands of women interned in brothels as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the war.
The Adelaide woman testified last month at a US House of Representatives hearing in Washington that she had been raped "day and night" for three months by soldiers when she was just 19.
On Wednesday about 30 women gathered in Sydney to protest, waving red paper butterflies with the words "Break the silence. Bring justice to comfort women."
Elderly South Korean women who served as "comfort women" - Japan's euphemism for wartime sex slaves - also protested in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, while in Tokyo members of a women's group gathered near parliament to lambast Abe's remarks and show solidarity with the victims.
South Korea had expressed outrage over Abe's remarks and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing urged Japan to confront its past on the topic and accept responsibility while Taiwan called on Japan to apologise and compensate the women.
US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, visiting Seoul on Tuesday, noted that Japan had apologised in the past.
But an editorial in the New York Times blasted Tokyo for what it termed "efforts to contort the truth" - an attack that was featured on Japanese news programs.
Shiozaki sought to allay concern that Abe's refusal to apologise again contradicted the spirit of the 1993 statement.
"Parts of the resolution are not based on objective fact, and it does not include what the government has done up to now, so that's why the prime minister has said Japan will not apologise again - a view that does not contradict the statement at all," he said, adding that the intensifying debate was not constructive.
"The longer this discussion goes on, the more misunderstandings there are likely to be," Shiozaki said.