Emperor Akihito expressed "deepest regret" and Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu apologized today for Japan's harsh colonial rule over Korea, in statements designed to put the nations' bitter past behind them.
South Korean President Roh Tae Woo met Kaifu and the emperor on the first day of a three-day state visit that is a carefully scripted attempt by the two countries to move ahead as partners in spreading peace and prosperity.
For Japan, which normalized relations with South Korea in 1965, the statements marked a breakthrough in acknowledging the suffering it inflicted during its stifling 1910-1945 rule of Korea.
At a state banquet, Roh said the two countries "should strive to remove the dark shadow of history," but Koreans had hoped for a more direct apology from the emperor.
Feelings still run high in South Korea over Japanese colonial abuses. Koreans had to study Japanese in school and were taught to worship the Japanese emperor. Koreans were drafted into the Japanese army and into forced labor in Japan. Hundreds of thousands died in wartime service to Japan.
When Roh's predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, made the only previous visit by a South Korean president in 1984, the late Emperor Hirohito left the Koreans dissatisfied with a vague statement expressing regret about the "unfortunate past" between the two countries.
Akihito never used the word apology in his brief speech--government officials will use that word in later meetings--but he made a point of saying:
"I think of the sufferings your people underwent during this unfortunate period, which was brought about by my country, and cannot but feel the deepest regret."