Japan PM offers sympathy to S. Korea ferry victims

Japan's prime minister offered "heartfelt sympathy" on Thursday to those hit by South Korea's ferry disaster and his government offered help with the search, a rare moment of detente between the feuding neighbours.

Divers were looking for nearly 300 people still missing a day after the vessel capsized off the southwestern coast of South Korea, with hopes of finding any survivors fading. Nine people have been confirmed dead.

Speaking at a forum in Tokyo, Shinzo Abe, whose sometimes-abrasive nationalism has raised tensions between the two countries, said his thoughts were with those caught up in the tragedy.

"I extend my heartfelt sympathy towards people who were hit by the accident and their families," he said.

Separately, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters "we are offering whatever is necessary to help" Seoul, including the possibility of sending coastguard personnel and vessels.

Relations between Seoul and Tokyo are at a low, beset by disputes over Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula -- particularly the issue of the thousands of women forced into sexual slavery, the so-called "comfort women".

Abe and South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye have only met formally once even though both have been in power for more than a year. The meeting only came about after US President Barack Obama cajoled them into a three-way summit.

On Wednesday a senior Japanese diplomat visited Seoul for talks on the comfort women problem, with Japanese media reporting Tokyo was preparing a package of measures it hoped would salve the row once and for all.

Referencing the delicate state of ties with Seoul, Abe said Thursday: "I (hope) to build a forward-looking relationship with President Park Geun-Hye."