By Yoko Kubota
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso acknowledged Tuesday that a family firm had used POWs to work in a mine during World War Two, and that the government had been mistaken when it denied that fact when he was foreign minister.
But Aso, 68, made no further remark in reply to opposition party charges that a flip-flop on the topic by the ministry symbolised the premier's inconsistent leadership.
"Research by the welfare ministry last year newly revealed that ... Aso Mining had made Allied POWs work," Aso told the lower house when questioned by the opposition Democratic Party's No. 2 leader.
An outspoken nationalist and grandson of a former prime minister, Aso was only a child when the family firm, Aso Mining, used forced labourers from Korea as well as Allied POWs during World War Two. Historians have said the mine had a reputation for brutality and a high rate of runaway workers compared to others.
Aso has said he was too young to be aware of the firm's activities at the time. Over the years, Aso Mining faded and other companies from the Aso Group rose to prominence, such as Aso Cement, which Taro Aso ran from 1973 to 1979.
The International Herald Tribune had reported in 2006, when Aso was foreign minister, that Aso Mining had used Asian and Western forced labourers.
The foreign ministry responded by issuing a comment online that called the report "unreasonable."
Hatoyama asked whether Aso himself had ordered the foreign ministry to issue the statement.
"I understand that the foreign ministry has removed the objection from its website since it found out about facts that it could not be aware of back then," Aso said, without saying whether he instructed the ministry.
Dusty documents on workers at the mine were recently found in a labour ministry storage room, although scholars have written about the matter for years.
The opposition No. 2 said the shift in government stance was similar to other flip-flops by the unpopular Aso on policies.
The premier's support rates have plunged below 20 percent, undermining his ability to control his Liberal Democratic Party and make policy decisions as he tries to revive the economy.
Aso's woes have emboldened opposition parties, which control the upper house and can delay bills, casting doubt on whether he can get the budget and related legislation through parliament.
"Even if you insist that the economy and diplomacy should be left to you, no one will trust you if you are a prime minister who cannot recognise truth or reality," Democratic Party executive Yukio Hatoyama said in parliament.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)