The US House of Representatives has rebuked US ally Japan and called for an apology for the sexual slavery inflicted by its wartime military on 200,000 Asian "comfort women."
In a resolution passed by a voice vote on Monday, lawmakers called on the Tokyo government to make an "unambiguous apology" for the coercion of women into army brothels during the 1930s and World War II.
The non-binding measure says the "government of Japan should formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces' coercion of young women into sexual slavery, known to the world as `comfort women.'"
It calls on the Japanese prime minister to make a public apology, urges the government to refute any claims that the episode never happened and wants future generations to be told of "this horrible crime."
But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed regret at the vote, saying he hoped to look to the future instead.
The conservative leader, who has stirred controversy before with his remarks on so-called "comfort women," said he had already made his views clear when he visited Washington earlier this year.
"It is regrettable that this resolution was passed," Abe said.
Backers of the resolution immediately hailed it as sending an important message to Japan about the need to make further amends over an episode that still scars, generations after the war.
In Seoul, South Korean former "comfort women" welcomed the resolution as offering hope for victims of Japanese troops.
"We welcome the passage ... and demand Japan immediately express its willingness to accept it and fulfill its responsibility," the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan said in a statement.
The statement was issued during a news conference attended by six former "comfort women" and 13 activists outside the Japanese embassy, which was guarded by riot police.
"The passage gives hopes for the restoration of honor and the realization of justice for `comfort women' victimized by Japanese troops in the Asia-Pacific region," the statement said.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said lawmakers made a "strong statement in support of human rights."
"More than 50 years later, the Japanese government has still not issued a clear apology to the `comfort women,'" she said.
"This is disappointing because Japan is a critical ally of the United States and a leading international voice on issues such as global warming and assistance to the poorest people in the world," she said.
"Although the violence against the `comfort women' occurred many years ago, their wounds have yet to heal," she said.