Fifty years after the end of history’s bloodiest war, Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama today issued the clearest apology yet for his nation’s World War II deeds, saying its “colonial rule and aggression caused tremendous damage and suffering.”
“In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard in a spirit of humility these irrefutable facts of history and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology,” Murayama said in a statement.
The Socialist prime minister laid blame on Japan’s “mistaken national policy” in the first clear statement of responsibility for a misguided war by national leaders. But, answering follow-up questions from reporters, Murayama declined to specify who was mistaken and said he was not questioning the responsibility of the late Emperor Hirohito, in whose name the war was fought.
He also said there was no change in the government policy that all issues of war compensation had been settled by various peace treaties, dealing a blow to the growing numbers of former sex slaves, forced laborers, prisoners of war and other victims appealing for reparations.
Underscoring how the perceptions of the war continue to divide Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party, a member of the governing coalition, issued a separate statement neither apologizing nor admitting “aggression.” Instead, the LDP praised the nation’s “war heroes” who it says formed the foundation of Japan’s current peace and prosperity.
LDP opposition also quashed Murayama’s plans to hold a memorial for non-Japanese war victims, and seven LDP Cabinet members paid unofficial visits to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, the Shinto memorial to the war dead popularly associated with right-wing nationalism.
At Yasukuni, the debate raged over how the war should be remembered. “That war was for the sake of Japan’s defense and Asia’s stability,” said Toshiro Maiyuzumi, an official with a national war anniversary commemoration group.
But Shigenori Nishikawa, a spokesman for a competing group of veterans, told Japanese television: “Fifty years have passed with the people not knowing about the facts of our aggression. In order to build a foundation for peace, we have to record these facts and convey them to succeeding generations.”
In a new poll published by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun today, the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, 53.5% of those surveyed said Japan had not done enough to atone for the war. The response was split according to age, with older respondents saying Japan had done all it could.
Memorial services honoring the Japanese who died during the war were held throughout the nation, including the major ceremony at the Budokan Hall in Tokyo. Following the playing of the national anthem and a minute of silent prayer, Emperor Akihito read a prayer for the war dead, while a procession of politicians and other VIPs presented flowers and delivered addresses.
In South Korea, where bitterness still runs deep over Japan’s brutal 35-year colonial rule, few people appeared moved by Murayama’s statement. Chun Chung Ja, 50, said it seemed to come under pressure from Asians and “does not seem to be a sincere expression of remorse and apology, because government officials under him make remarks to the contrary.”
But Ahn Hee Dong, 78, said Murayama’s statement was the strongest so far by a Japanese leader. “I am completely satisfied,” he said, ". . . but one thing I particularly regret is he made his remarks too late.”
In Seoul, anniversary festivities celebrating the nation’s colonial liberation included a two-hour parade and the climactic removal of the dome spire from the former Japanese Government-General building. It is the first step in the demolition of the building and reconstruction of a royal palace.
South Korean President Kim Young Sam, in a nationally televised address before 50,000 guests, declared that the building’s demolition “signifies the genuine, complete liberation of all of us from any wrongs of the past that may have lingered in our national consciousness.”
Kim also called on Japan to “properly recognize and acknowledge its recent past.”
In his statement, Murayama urged Japan to “eliminate self-righteous nationalism” and advance peace and democracy through international cooperation. He also said that the nation must campaign against nuclear weapons as the only way “Japan can atone for its past and lay to rest the spirits of those who perished.”
Despite the lingering controversies over war perceptions in Japan, the nation has moved to offer new measures of aid to war victims. It recently announced a private fund for former “comfort women” forced to supply sex to Japanese soldiers.
In addition, Murayama’s statement marks a step forward in a clear policy toward recognition of Japan’s aggression. It began in the mid-1980s with former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Since then, every prime minister has acknowledged Japan’s aggression in one way or another.
Watanabe reported from Tokyo and Holley from Seoul.