TOKYO -- The Japanese government raised new questions yesterday about its contrition for past militarism by declaring that its annexation of Korea in 1910 was legal and was not forced on the Korean people.
The latest assertions by Japan's official government spokesman are likely to add to anger in Asia at Japan's reluctance to apologize for wartime brutality. This remains a sensitive issue in the region.
The statement from Tokyo is as if the German government were to declare that its invasion of France during World War II had been legal and amicable, because agreements were signed between Germany and the puppet government in Vichy.
The newest controversy began a week ago when Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama said in Parliament that the 1910 Japan-Korea treaty of annexation had been signed in a legally valid way.
This reflected Japan's long-standing position, but it still seemed out of place because Mr. Murayama had appeared to be one of the few Japanese politicians genuinely remorseful for militarism.
South Koreans and North Koreans bitterly criticized Mr. Murayama's remarks, but yesterday the Japanese government expanded on them.
As translated by the Kyodo News Agency, Koken Nosaka, the chief Cabinet secretary and the government's chief spokesman, said the annexation of Korea had been completed according to legal procedures, rather than under compulsion.
Mr. Nosaka prefaced his remarks by saying the prime minister's statement had been taken out of context, while noting Mr. Murayama also had apologized for Japan's wartime role.
It may be possible to argue that the 1910 agreement was legal in a narrow sense, in that it was signed by a Korean prime minister -- albeit a Japanese puppet.
But history books are virtually unanimous that it was forced on Korea by military means.
Japan had earlier assassinated a Korean queen and, by military pressure in 1905, forced Korea to become a protectorate.
Japan then dissolved the Korean army before drafting the annexation treaty and compelling its puppet officials to agree.
Even Japanese school textbooks, which are screened by the government and are widely criticized abroad for playing down Japanese misconduct, acknowledge that annexation was forced on Korea.
The annexation was followed by a brutal reign of terror in which Koreans were forced to abandon their culture and in some cases work as slave laborers for Japan. Those who tried to resist were massacred.
Mr. Nosaka did say yesterday that Japan was deeply sorry for the pain inflicted during Japan's colonial rule of Korea, from 1910 to 1945. He said that Mr. Murayama was determined to enjoy good relationships with North and South Korea.
The authorities in South and North Korea had no immediate reaction to Mr. Nosaka's comments. But they had earlier condemned Prime Minister Murayama's remarks.