TOKYO, AUG. 4 -- Moving toward a fuller acceptance of responsibility for its deeds during World War II, the government of Japan conceded today that the Imperial Army forced large numbers of captive Asian women to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during that war and expressed its "sincere apologies and remorse" to the women and their survivors.
Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's office issued a hastily prepared report admitting that so-called "comfort women" were made to serve as forced prostitutes between 1932 and 1945 in Japan and 10 other Asian nations colonized by the Japanese. The government said it would study whether and how to compensate them.
The report was issued on Miyazawa's last day in office, and government officials said he had particularly wanted to act on the issue before his term ended.
But the newly elected coalition government taking office Thursday has promised to go much further than Miyazawa's or any previous postwar government in taking the blame for World War II war crimes and apologizing to the victims.
For decades, Japanese governments have been criticized at home and abroad for failing to face up to the country's responsibility for acts of brutality in East Asia and the Pacific before and during the war.
Japanese emperors and prime ministers had issued statements of regret in recent years, but they never used the word "apologize." Thus there remains a strong feeling in Asia that the Japanese are holding back. History textbooks and classes here cover the war crimes, but generally in a perfunctory way. Many Japanese students are stunned when they learn the full extent of Asia's lingering anger.
Leaders of the new coalition government have vowed to change that. "I think . . . the right thing to do is to offer a clear apology," said Tsutomu Hata, a leader of the coalition who is likely to be vice prime minister of the new government.
"We need at long last to take a soul-searching look at the meaning of the war," he said this week. "We must also inform our children what their forefathers did in the past."
The case of the "comfort women" reflects the belated and sometimes grudging way Japan has dealt with evidence of its wartime misdeeds.
After refusing to discuss this aspect of World War II for decades, the government finally admitted in 1991 that thousands of women -- some estimates by victims' groups run to 200,000 -- were enslaved as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers. But Tokyo did not concede that the women were forced by the Japanese military to serve.
The government's position in 1991 seemed to be that the "comfort women" were actually employed by private Japanese businesses that then sold their services to soldiers. Last year, Miyazawa said that the military was "involved," but did not say the army had forced the women to serve -- a distinction cited here as a reason why the government need not pay compensation.
Today's statement, based on wartime documents and interviews with surviving "comfort women," conceded that "the then-Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women."
"In many cases," it said, "they were recruited against their own will through coaxing, coercion, etc."
The government said it has confirmed that there were "comfort women" slaves taken from Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia, as well as Dutch colonists in Indonesia. The largest number seems to have been from Korea.
South Korea's President Kim Young Sam has said his government does not want compensation from Japan for the women, as long as Tokyo provides a complete acknowledgment and an apology.
But some of the survivors are seeking monetary recompense now. Several in South Korea have sued for redress in Japanese courts. But Japanese civil suits take so long that the elderly women involved could die before a verdict comes down.
South Korea today issued a statement saying, "We appreciate the fact that . . . the Japanese government now acknowledges coercion was involved in . . . recruiting, transporting, and managing 'comfort women.' " But it said it expects Japan to continue investigating the issue.