Meaningful Japanese apologies and compensation to thousands of Asian women forced into sexual slavery during World War II are still due. But a surprise court ruling in favor of three mistreated women is an appropriate step toward closing the book on a sorry saga of wartime abuse.

There is, of course, no price that fittingly rights those wrongs committed more than 50 years ago. Japan's government today has progressed far from the dark days of World War II by all humanitarian and economic measuring sticks. Yet it continues to be haunted by a sordid chapter that cannot be rewritten but may be expunged by candid admission and reasonable restitution.A nation that prides itself on honor, Japan has refused to proved redress to former compulsory "comfort women," arguing that postwar treaties settled all claims. Judge Hideaki Chikashita, at the Yamaguchi District Court in the southwestern sector of the country, disagreed. He ruled the government must compensate the women for their suffering and rightfully called the conscription of Korean women for forced gratification of soldiers a "fundamental violation of human rights." It was an appalling policy that had no justification, even during the horrors of war.

Only open Japanese admission, sincere apology and some attempt at compensation today can begin to heal wounds of as many as 200,000 women who suffered terribly in yesteryear.

It took until 1992 for Japan to admit that its imperial army was involved. The three women filed their lawsuit that same year. In the case, 10 women originally demanded $4.2 million for their pain. The court rejected claims by seven of them who were forced to work in Japanese military plants but who were not forced into sexual slavery.

That seems a reasonable legal decision. While clearly wronged, the seven did not experience the egregious suffering endured by the other three and thousands others like them.

The ruling may have a favorable impact on five pending cases and could encourage others to come forward and file new lawsuits. Instead of waiting for that to happen, the Japanese government should offer moderate settlement and meaningful apology to all victims of sexual slavery it can identify. It is a matter of honor that perhaps can help the healing process and close the book on a chapter that never should have been written.