China greets Japan PM with a bitter reproach

The embattled Japanese Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, arrived in China yesterday, to be greeted by a very public reminder of his country's bloody past.

Hours before the official visit, intended to cement Sino-Japanese relations on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper published a page-long account, complete with photographs, of the Imperial Army's invasion of China in 1937.

"More than 35 million Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed," the People's Daily reminded its readers. "China's direct economic losses totalled $100bn. When commemorating the 50th anniversary of World War Two, the people must conscientiously summarise history's experience and prevent the revival of militarism and Nazism."

Mr Murayama did not need reminding. His five-day visit was intended as the centrepiece of efforts to improve Japan's relations with its Asian neighbours and trading partners. But his meetings with President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Li Peng, and discussions of Japanese investment in China and concerns about Peking's burgeoning military expenditure have been overshadowed by the recurrent subject of the war.

Personally, Mr Murayama has no problem with saying sorry. "It is important to face up to the unbearable pain and sorrow caused to many people by Japan's aggressive actions," he told Japanese reporters before catching his flight. Entente with Japan's former enemies and opposition to military involvement overseas were key platforms of Mr Murayama's Social Democratic Party, before its absorption last summer into a coalition with the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). High on his itinerary is a penitential visit to Marco Polo Bridge near Peking, across which the Japanese Imperial Army swarmed in 1937.

The difficulty lies with his LDP partners. For weeks, Mr Murayama has been vainly trying to forge a resolution in the Diet (parliament) formally renouncing aggression and apologising for wartime atrocities. "Japanese colonial rule and aggression are historical facts," he declared last week.

But far from uniting Japan in a common act of amity, the resolution has galvanised a vocal minority of elderly revisionists stubbornly opposed to any concession of Japanese wrong-doing. A parliamentary league of 206 LDP politicians has revived the old argument that Japan's wartime actions were motivated not by expansionist greed but by the wish to liberate Asia from Western imperialism. "I firmly believe that the Great East Asian War was fought to save Asian countries from the white man," Seisuke Ono, the 81-year-old former education minister, declared recently. "Japanese have been brainwashed into believing they started the war."

The resolution has been put on ice until after Mr Murayama's visit - a watered down version will probably emerge before the anniversary of Japan's surrender in August. Last week, five Chinese victims of the Japanese invasion began private law suits demanding $1m compensation from the Japanese government. For Mr Murayama, the subject is not going to go away.