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COLUMN ONE : Regrets Without Apology : Fifty years after Pearl Harbor, Japan still spreads blame for the war among the world’s powers. But there is no escaping the impact of ‘this unfortunate period of history.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“If I went to the United States and was asked why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it would be useless. I couldn’t answer. I don’t know,” said Hidenori Suzuki, 20, a freshman at Waseda University.

Suzuki blames Japanese education. But educational instruction is only part of the picture. Fifty years after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, this country has still not come to grips with its past.

No Japanese leader has ever explicitly acknowledged Japan’s responsibility for the war--or issued an unambiguous, heartfelt apology. And none has ever spoken specifically of the atrocities its troops committed, such as the Bataan Death March, the “Rape of Nanking” or massacres of Chinese in Singapore.

While textbooks no longer attempt to cover up Japan’s actions by substituting such words as advance for aggression, they pay more attention to the suffering that Japan endured than to the suffering it inflicted.

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Blame for the war is spread among the world’s powers, even by some of Japan’s most prominent officials, who see those other countries as equally wrongheaded imperialists of the era. If anyone in Japan was to blame, by some accounts, it was Japan’s military leadership--never its average citizens.

To the Japanese, the war was a mistake, not a crime. And so, too, was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a mistake.

The war came to an “end.” There is no mention of surrender.

It is only natural that the war is not a matter of common discussion here; two-thirds of the population was born after Japan’s defeat. And yet there is no escape from the memories and strictures that war and defeat imposed.

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Declarations of regret and pledges never again to become a military giant mark every visit by a Japanese prime minister to another Asian country.

Statements about the “unfortunate period of history” have become a ritual in dinner toasts by the emperor to visiting leaders of nations victimized by Japanese aggression or colonization.

Visits by Japanese leaders to pay homage to the war dead at Japan’s equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery--the Yasukuni Shrine, where seven war criminals are among the honored dead--continue to stir controversy at home and protests abroad.

Hardly a week goes by without some group of Koreans or Taiwan Chinese or Indonesians or Filipinos demanding compensation for their war losses. Periodically, new evidence of wartime atrocities touches off another round of news items.

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Still Being Resolved

Even now, Japan is negotiating a diplomatic conclusion to the remnants of war and colonialism with the Soviet Union and North Korea. A dispute over four northern islands the Soviets seized from Japan after World War II has prevented signing of a peace treaty with Moscow. And while Japan’s 35-year colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula ended with defeat in 1945, Japan has settled accounts and established diplomatic relations only with South Korea.

For years after World War II, Japan’s national flag and the national anthem--which had become symbols of militarism even to many Japanese--were shunned. Resistance to their use continues. Only last year were schools required to use the flag and anthem at ceremonies.

In Parliament, the war casts a shadow over debate to enact bills permitting the regular dispatch of Japanese troops overseas for the first time since 1945 for disaster relief and noncombat missions in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

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In the United Nations, Japan is still classified, along with Germany and Italy, as an “enemy nation” and excluded from permanent membership in the Security Council.

Japan’s reticence about acknowledging responsibility for the nation’s prewar policy stems, in part, from memories of the late Emperor Hirohito and the continuing, deep respect for the emperor system.

“We were different from the Germans, who could be more explicit and articulate the mistakes made by Nazism and Hitler,” said Takakazu Kuriyama, who retired as vice foreign minister last summer. “The Japanese have always been . . . afraid of (tying) the national responsibility . . . to the responsibility of the emperor himself.

“I don’t think the experience of the war could ever be separated from the emperor--exactly because millions of people went to war and died, believing they were doing so for the emperor. None of them went to war for Tojo, you know,” Kuriyama said, referring to Gen. Hideki Tojo, prime minister of the war Cabinet of 1941.

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What’s more, the Japanese see themselves as war victims. Citizens who feel little “responsibility” even for the actions of their present government blame the military for plunging the country into the war and making people suffer. Socialists and Communists have promoted such thinking to discredit Japanese capitalism and its chief defender, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which traces its roots to prewar conservatives.

The United States, ironically, also contributed to the sense that only Japan’s military leaders were guilty by staging the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, said Prof. Marius B. Jansen of Princeton University. All of the blame, he said, was put on Tojo and a limited number of military leaders, making it easy for the Japanese to say, “They did it--don’t blame us!”

It is not Pearl Harbor but rather the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that are commemorated annually. And every year, the emperor leads mourning for the nation’s 2,517,406 war dead in a ceremony marking the “end” of the war on Aug. 15, 1945.

A Different View

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Only this year did Hiroshima add an acknowledgement in its annual “peace declaration” that Pearl Harbor and Japan’s “sin of war” had preceded the atomic bombing. Nagasaki has included such references only in the last three years.

Pearl Harbor, so embedded in the American psyche as a “date which will live in infamy,” is viewed differently in Japan--particularly in the context of its own loss of life.

“At Pearl Harbor, almost no one but military people died. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, almost all of the dead were civilians,” said Satoshi Niibori, president of Mitsui & Company’s Trade and Economic Studies Institute. And the lingering nature of the illnesses that resulted from the world’s first nuclear attacks are a war legacy with more poignant qualities for the Japanese than a military assault in Hawaii.

Some older Japanese confess a sense of guilt. And the government itself has demonstrated it.

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When South Korea in the early 1980s demanded a new package of loans from Japan, contending that compensation it had accepted in 1965 as closing the colonial era was insufficient, Japan approved a $4-billion package.

“It is not a happy situation to have a neighbor cling forever to a defiant attitude, and if that can be corrected with money . . . $4 billion was--well, I wouldn’t say cheap, but at least acceptable,” Takashi Hosomi, who heads the Nissei Research Institute, said when he was in charge of the agency that approved the loans. “A guilty conscience” induced the government to accept the Korean demand, he said.

A cruel 35-year colonial rule of Korea, which included forced labor, forced prostitution, military conscription, mandatory worship of Japan’s emperor and use of Japanese names and the Japanese language, created lingering hatred of Japanese.

Widespread atrocities in China left behind bitterness and mistrust. The 1937 “Rape of Nanking,” in which Japanese soldiers ran amok, killing an estimated 200,000 or more Chinese, including women and children, remains an indelible memory in Chinese minds today--but is barely known in Japan.

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In the Philippines, thousands of Americans and Filipinos died of starvation and maltreatment in the Bataan Death March of 1942, in which Japanese herded off to prisoner-of-war camps troops they had captured on the Bataan Peninsula, west of Manila.

In Singapore, tens of thousands of Chinese were shot to death for protesting the Japanese takeover. And throughout Asia, Asians and Westerners died by the thousands in POW camps and on work projects such as the Bangkok-Rangoon railway made famous in the movie “Bridge on the River Kwai.”

Destruction, suffering and defeat and the discrediting of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” Tojo’s justification for Japan’s sweep through Asia, turned postwar Japanese gun-shy at the thought of undertaking any international mission. Japan crawled into a shell under the security umbrella of the United States.

“We sought refuge in the idea of becoming a ‘little Japan’ . . . the Switzerland of the East,” said Kazuo Ijiri, an editorial writer for the Nihon Keizai newspaper.

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‘Low Posture’

Japan’s 46-year “low-posture” diplomacy was the result. The nation has been so fearful of being viewed as seeking Asian hegemony that “we refrained from taking any sort of initiative in the region,” said retired diplomat Kuriyama.

Indeed, Japan has grown so accustomed to hiding in the diplomatic shadows that both Americans and Europeans criticize the nation for not assuming its share of global responsibilities befitting a nation with the world’s second-largest economy. Only now is Japan about to enact a law that, for the first time since the end of the war, will permit it to dispatch noncombat troops overseas on a regular basis to participate in disaster relief and U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Previously, Japan shied away from anything to do with military affairs. Instead of pursuing diplomacy, Japan pursued economics. War and defeat induced Japanese to “substitute ‘enterprise-ism’ for ‘nation-ism,’ ” said Keiichi Konaga, president of Arabian Oil Co. and a former career bureaucrat in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

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To Kuriyama, the core of Japanese diplomacy remains focused on counteracting the lingering wounds of the war--with the nation’s postwar commitment to refrain from becoming a military giant itself a form of apology.

It is a Japanese way of recognizing responsibility for “the havoc we caused to our neighbors and the world,” Kuriyama said. Only with such self-reflection can Japan win “acceptability and legitimacy in the Asian-Pacific region.” Without it, “we can play no significant role. . . . Our voice will not be heard,” he said.

Opinions on responsibility for the war run the gamut.

A few Japanese, such as Hosomi of the Nissei Research Institute, bitterly condemn their fellow citizens.

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“The victimizer always is unaware of having been a victimizer, and the victim always is conscious of having been victimized. . . . The strong never understand the suffering of the weak,” said Hosomi, a former career Finance Ministry bureaucrat.

While Japan has not fully confronted its past, most Japanese have not whitewashed it--contrary to accusations by some foreigners. The invasion of Manchuria, the war in China and the Pearl Harbor attack are recognized as “mistakes” (although not as “crimes”). The government officially applies the same label to the attack on Hiroshima, where the cenotaph reads, “Rest in Peace--for This Mistake Shall Not Be Repeated.”

Mitigating Factors

A significant number of Japanese see mitigating factors, such as the one cited by Suzuki, the Waseda student.

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“I saw reported on TV that President Roosevelt knew in advance of the attack on Pearl Harbor,” Suzuki said. Such suspicions exist in the United States, too, although no evidence has been uncovered that Roosevelt willingly let the attack occur to arouse the American people to go to war.

While Japanese are apologetic about their wartime behavior toward Asian nations, they feel no need to bow in shame to former Western colonial powers, said Nishio Kanji, a professor at Electric Telecommunications University.

“England occupied Singapore; Holland occupied Indonesia; France occupied Indochina; Spain and America occupied the Philippines,” Kanji said. “They came to deprive the Asian nations of their sovereignty.”

Hitler was out to conquer the world, but “our war was to defend Asia,” he said. Japan moved into China, for example, as a defensive move against the Soviets, he said.

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“There are a lot of ordinary Japanese who think the war was justified. I’d say 50% think it was correct--but they don’t come out and say it,” Kanji said.

Norio Tokumitsu, a Tokyo Broadcasting System television producer who has prepared a special program on Pearl Harbor, said: “Only Japan wasn’t allowed to have colonies. Historically, we were doing the same thing as Europeans.”

Japan’s mistake, Tokumitsu added, came in “not knowing where to stop.” After colonizing Taiwan in 1895 and Korea in 1910, Japan took over Manchuria in 1931 and spread its invasion to the rest of China in 1937. Ultimately, after attacking Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops swept through all of Southeast Asia--far surpassing even the worst of Western imperialistic ambitions.

Dodging the Issues

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Confronted with the complexities of the war, many Japanese simply dodge the issues, suggesting that history will ultimately provide some absolution.

“It will take decades or even centuries before the correct judgment is delivered on who was responsible for the war,” said Nobuo Ishihara, when he was deputy chief Cabinet secretary last August. Blame for the war must be shared by all “the parties responsible,” including the United States, he added.

When he was in office, former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita also said future historians would have to assess blame for the war.

Such comments remain rare, however. Japan’s officials recognize that debating the war is a no-win proposition and have made it a policy to avoid doing so. Instead, they reluctantly offer vague apologies in response to external pressure.

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In October, while visiting Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, Emperor Akihito declared that Japan is determined never to repeat “the horrors of that unfortunate war.” In Tokyo, Akihito told Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands that he was “very sad” about the war, in which 13,848 Dutch taken as prisoners died. Japan, he added, has resolved that it will live “as a nation of peace so that it should never repeat the horrors of war.”

But like so many of the apologies, Akihito’s conveyed little emotion. Indeed, it seemed that the emperor was writing off atrocities as caused by “war” in general--not by Japanese in particular.

Even so, some Japanese figure they have apologized plenty and are tiring of the exercise.

“As individuals, (Japanese) fought with pure feeling. They performed their duty to the nation. But what the nation did was wrong. We shouldn’t feel responsibility individually. We don’t like being told to apologize, even after 50 years--again and again,” said Tokumitsu, the TV producer.

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It’s not that the idea of a heart-felt apology doesn’t occur to some Japanese.

For example, Yoshiko Otaka, 71, a ruling party member of the upper house of Parliament who grew up in Manchuria and won fame in both China and Japan as an actress in wartime Japanese propaganda movies, said in October that she hopes to go to China next year with a musical based upon her life “to apologize on stage to the Chinese people.”

To write an autobiography on which the musical was based, she said, she watched her old movies “and couldn’t sleep for three nights.”

“I still feel the same way. I was so stupid. I played Chinese women falling in love with Japanese men. For the Japanese, it was entertainment. But for the Chinese, it was insulting.”

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The musical itself attacks Japan’s abuses against China, while also depicting the naive acceptance by ordinary Japanese of the wartime propaganda theme that their country really was intent on building “a new nation of brotherhood of five peoples"--Chinese, Mongolians, Manchurians, Koreans and Japanese.

The Asahi newspaper has urged Parliament to adopt a resolution to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor--and the 60th anniversary of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria--by accepting responsibility for the war. The Socialists and the Buddhist-backed Komei (Clean Government) Party have proposed such a resolution.

“It is a fact that at the bottom of Asia’s distrust of Japan is an image that Japanese . . . have evaded responsibility for the war,” the Asahi said in an editorial. “As Japan moves to play a larger role in international society, a resolution of the past is indispensable.”

Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa has responded by acknowledging the “aggressive-like . . . serious damage” that Japan inflicted, and another high government official said some kind of resolution was likely before Dec. 7.

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To former Columbia University Prof. James W. Morley, the historical question of 50 years ago was “how are a talented Japanese people who came out of a parochial history going to be able to find a role as appropriate to them as it is to the rest of the world?

“Pearl Harbor was a mistaken answer to that question,” Morley said.

But the answer, as the Japanese remain suspended in a time warp by their war legacy, still has not been found.

Times staff writers Leslie Helm and Teresa Watanabe contributed to this story.

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