The head of Japan's influential public broadcaster has used his first public comments to say that Japan's World War Two policy of forcing conquered foreign women into sex slavery was "common in any country at war".
Katsuto Momii, who was appointed to lead NHK by the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said on Saturday at a public news conference that sex slaves, known as "comfort women" in Japan, were also used in Europe.
"Can we say there were none in Germany or France? It was everywhere in Europe," the AFP news agency quoted him as saying. "Comfort women [were] bad by today's morals," he added. "But this was a fact of those times."
Up to 200,000 women from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere were forced into brothels for use by Japanese soldiers in territories occupied by Japan during the war, according to many mainstream historians.
The issue is a scar on contemporary relations between the affected nations, and Momii's comments are the latest to apparently dismiss or excuse the policy.
"[South] Korea's statements that Japan is the only nation that forced this are puzzling. Give us money, compensate us, they say, but since all of this was resolved by the Japan-Korea peace treaty, why are they reviving this issue? It's strange," Morii added.
The Asahi Shimbun newspaper said Morii later retracted his comments.
In a landmark 1993 statement, then chief Japanese government spokesman Yohei Kono apologised to former sex slaves and acknowledged Japan's role in causing their suffering.
But in comments in 2007 that triggered a region-wide uproar, Shinzo Abe, the current prime minister, said there was no evidence that Japan directly forced women into the brothels.
Last year the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, suggested that the women served a "necessary" role by keeping battle-stressed soldiers in check.
Momii, 70, who previously served as a vice chairman of trading house Mitsui, is rumoured to have been Abe's preferred choice as NHK chairman, Kyodo news agency said.