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Taro Aso, policy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party, apologized Monday for infuriating Koreans during the weekend by claiming they voluntarily adopted Japanese names during World War II.

“My words failed to express my true intentions. I regret my remarks and I would like to frankly apologize to the South Korean people,” Aso told a news conference.

Aso drew protests from the South Korean government when he said Saturday that the 1939 decree forcing Korean people to adopt Japanese names “stemmed from Korean requests for surnames.”

Aso, chairman of the LDP Policy Affairs Research Council, said there are “various views” in both Japan and South Korea on how the 1939 decree came about.

He also stressed that his recognition of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea is “no different” from that expressed in 1995 by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who apologized for the considerable damage and pain inflicted on the Korean people by Japan.

Aso also said he supports the view expressed in 1996 by then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto that Japan hurt the sentiments of Korean people by forcing them to take Japanese names during the colonial rule period.

The decree was issued in 1939 and enforced in 1940 as part of Tokyo’s efforts to promote loyalty to Imperial Japan during the colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Aso said in an address Saturday at a University of Tokyo campus festival that an old South Korean person agreed with his view that the policy “stemmed from Korean requests for surnames” when he visited the country earlier.

The comments drew fire from South Korean politicians in both the ruling and opposition camps ahead of President Roh Moo Hyun’s four-day visit to Tokyo starting Friday.

Both the ruling Millennium Democratic Party and the Grand National Party, South Korea’s largest opposition force, demanded that Aso rescind the remarks and offer an apology to the South Korean public, the Yonhap News Agency reported Monday.

The Japanese Communist Party Secretariat head, Tadayoshi Ichida, joined the Korean officials the same day in criticizing Aso’s remarks.

The policy was “designed to legally force (Koreans) to identify themselves with Japanese surnames, and the remarks run counter to the truth,” Ichida said. “Even past LDP governments have admitted the policy was wrong. This is a serious issue.”

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