The accord, which aims to resolve the emotional core of South Korea’s grievances with its former colonial overlord, could begin to reverse decades of animosity and mistrust between the two thriving democracies, trade partners and staunch US allies.
It represents a shift for Tokyo’s conservative government and a new willingness to compromise by previously wary Seoul.
A statement by both countries’ foreign ministers said prime minister Shinzo Abe “expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women,” the name given the women.
Historians said tens of thousands of women from around Asia, many of them Korean, were sent to frontline military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. It wasn’t immediately clear if Mr Abe would be issuing a separate written statement or if it would be directly delivered to the 46 surviving former Korean sex slaves, now in their 80s and 90s.
The language mirrored past expressions of remorse by other prime ministers, although it was seen by some in Seoul as an improvement on previous comments by Mr Abe’s hawkish government, which has been accused of whitewashing wartime atrocities.
Another deciding factor was that the 1 billion yen (£5.5m) – to create a foundation to help provide support for the victims – came from the government, something Tokyo has resisted in the past.
South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se said Seoul considers the agreement “final and irreversible,” as long as Japan faithfully follows through with its promises.
Later yesterday, Mr Abe called South KoreanpPresident Park Geun-hye and reiterated his apology. He said Tokyo would implement the deal and called the issue settled irreversibly. Ms Park said she hoped the two countries will build mutual trust and open a new era in ties based on the agreement.
Mr Abe said the agreement was based on his commitment to stop future generations from having to repeatedly apologise.