By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - The head of Japan's public broadcaster expressed regret on Monday for his comments on the use of military brothels in World War Two, news reports said, as Asian countries voiced fresh outrage about a highly sensitive point in relations with Tokyo.
Apparently trying to snuff out further controversy over Japan's view of its wartime role, new NHK chief Katsuto Momii told local media his comments had been "extremely inappropriate".
Addressing a news conference on Saturday on the issue of "comfort women," a euphemism for Korean and other women forced to work in military brothels, Momii said such things occurred at the time in all countries at war. He acknowledged, however, that the practice was bad "by today's morals".
Political parties in South Korea, the country most indignant about the wartime practice, demanded Momii's resignation, suggesting his remarks risked becoming a fresh diplomatic headache for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
China's foreign ministry restated its frequent calls for Japan to adopt a "responsible" view of its wartime history.
Tokyo already has strained relations with Seoul and Beijing rooted in disputes over remote islands and lingering memories of Japanese aggression before and during the war.
Momii, a former vice president at one of Japan's largest trading houses, reiterated on Monday that his weekend comments on the "comfort women" amounted to his personal view.
"Even as a personal opinion I shouldn't have said it. It was extremely inappropriate," he said according to the Mainichi Shimbun daily. "I had never been (speaking) in such a place before, it is my fault for not grasping the rules."
An NHK official said the broadcaster could not confirm Momii's latest remarks. It had no plans to issue a statement.
VISIT TO CONTROVERSIAL SHRINE
Abe, who visited a controversial shrine last month that honors war criminals along with millions of war dead, is also battling an international image as a right-wing nationalist who wants to revise Japanese history to have a less apologetic tone.
On Saturday, Momii said South Korea's statements that Japan had been alone in forcing women to work in such brothels were "complicated".
He also said it was "only natural" for NHK to voice the Japanese government's position in international broadcasts on such matters as the dispute with China over uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.
But NHK, he said, would make editorial decisions in line with Japan's broadcast law, which calls for the publicly funded broadcaster to maintain political neutrality.
In Seoul, Yonhap news agency said President Park Geun-hye told ethnic Koreans from Japan that she hoped "Japanese politicians will get back on the right path as early as possible".
Lee Hye-hoon, a member of South Korea's ruling Saenuri party, was quoted by Yonhap as saying that Momii should apologize to South Korea and step down.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news briefing that Momii's remarks "show that in Japan there have all along been forces who seek to downplay or deny the crimes of the invasions of the militarists".
Despite Momii's expression of regret, the damage had already been done, the official Xinhua news agency said.
"For now, Momii's remarks are surely taking a toll on NHK's reputation and Japan's national image," it said.
Yoshihide Suga, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, said he believed that Momii's remarks meant the matter was closed.
"He made those comments as his personal opinion and when it was pointed out that this was a news conference as NHK head, he said he retracted them all, so this is not a problem," he told a news conference.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and David Chance in Seoul; Editing by Ron Popeski)