Japan still grapples with past on anniversary of war's end

August 16, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- While World War II anniversaries elsewhere are being used to put ghosts to rest, in Japan they merely reinforce an inability to come to terms with the past.

Yesterday's 49th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II capped a weekend in which the contradictions and confusion of Japan's position was glaringly evident.

Thousands of people, including seven Cabinet ministers in direct defiance of the prime minister, attended a bellicose memorial ceremony at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a symbol of Japanese militarism.

Attendees, most elderly and some in military uniforms, stood on either side of a long gravel roadway, sweating profusely under a blazing sun as they listened to speakers exonerate Japan's responsibility.

Professor Ko Shodo of Showa University said that Japan's militarism was justified because it occurred during a period when the strong invaded the weak. If it had to apologize, then so, too, should England, the United States and China.

Yesterday's events came less than 24 hours after a Cabinet minister was forced to resign for denying Japan's prewar colonization policies were intentionally aggressive and praising the impact that Japanese rule had on other Asian countries. The comments provoked outrage throughout Asia.

Two months ago, a minister in the former administration was forced to resign after denying Japan's role in the 1937 Nanking massacre in China.

In another ceremony yesterday, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama followed the precedent set during the past year by two brief-lived administrations by apologizing for the agony Japan caused.

His comments were followed by expressions of remorse by Emperor Akihito that made no distinction between the suffering caused by Japan as an aggressor and the suffering caused to Japan in its defeat.

The brief remarks, scripted by government officials, avoided any suggestion of responsibility for the war fought in his father's name.

The importance of yesterday's ceremonies was underscored by the broader debate now under way to define a new role for Japan's military, carefully referred to in public as "self-defense" forces.

A blue-ribbon report on reforming Japan's military was issued Friday that advocated sending troops abroad for the first time since World War II.

The report was commissioned months ago under a different administration, and appeared to be unenthusiastically received by a new, Socialist-led administration that describes itself as "dovish."

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