Japan and the War: Tokyo belatedly bites the bullet: Japan's new Prime Minister has faced up to his nation's past. Terry McCarthy begins a three-part series with an analysis of the diplomatic reasons for the apology

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The Independent Online
JACK EDWARDS broke down last week when he heard the new Prime Minister of Japan, Morihiro Hosokawa, saying that the Second World War was 'a war of aggression, and a wrong war' in his first press conference. 'I could not believe my ears,' said Mr Edwards, a former British soldier taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced to work in a copper mine in Taiwan.

Many of his comrades died of torture or starvation in captivity, and he wrote a book about his experiences, Banzai You Bastards, which was not about forgiveness. 'After all these years, suddenly there is a Japanese prime minister saying the war was a mistake, it was aggression and it is time for atonement. I never dreamed I'd live to see this,' he said after Mr Hosokawa's speech. 'I'm hoping this will turn a new page for Japan . . . it is time for healing 50 years on.'

Similar sentiments echoed around the world as veterans, civilian victims and relatives of those who suffered from Japanese atrocities during the war saw Japan begin the painful process of apologising. At the same time, a debate was opened in Japan between those who want to make their peace with the past and the minority of right-wingers who still cannot bear the shame of Japan's military defeat.

Mr Edwards's response is not unique. For many people, both outside and inside Japan, the issue evokes powerful, even uncontrollable emotions. And it has been allowed to fester for far too long.

The war ended nearly half a century ago, leaving 20 million dead in Asia after an eight-year campaign by the Imperial Army to conquer China and South-east Asia. Up to now the Japanese government has refused to accept full responsibility for its wartime aggression, pretending instead that Japan was somehow a victim of the war.

On foreign trips Japanese leaders pledge ambiguously to 'reflect deeply on the sufferings of the war', while, for domestic consumption, the public is told that Japan was forced to defend itself against the manoeuvring of the US and Britain. Schoolchildren are taught about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki before anything else, reinforcing the idea of the war as something terrible that was done to Japan from outside.

But Mr Hosokawa and his new seven-party coalition government, which has ended 38 years of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), have decided the country must finally face up to the past. In his first policy speech to the Diet (parliament) next Monday, Mr Hosokawa is expected to call for an official resolution apologising for the war.

His campaign has met opposition, even from certain members of his cabinet. The Agriculture Minister, Eijiro Hata, said 'there could be factors that deny it was totally a war of aggression', and the Justice Minister, Akira Mikazuki, said: 'I have reservations about branding my comrades who died (in the war) by saying they assisted in a war of aggression.'

Right-wing groups have called for the Prime Minister's resignation. But Mr Hosokawa has begun a historic process of atonement that is supported by most of the media. It is linked to Japanese aspirations to play a more important diplomatic role in Asia, and probably cannot be stopped by right-wing groups.

Mr Hosokawa, 55, was seven when the war ended. Most of his cabinet colleagues are of a similar age, and represent a new generation of political leaders with no real experience of the war. By contrast, the last prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, was 73.

Mr Hosokawa's agenda represents a new generation in Japanese policy- making. Japan's period of catching up economically with the West, while hiding under the US security blanket, is over. Japan is coming of age and wants to play a broader role in world affairs. Most urgently, it wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But, until it has delivered a credible apology for the war, Asia's only other permanent member, China, is likely to veto a seat for Japan.

Even before Mr Hosokawa took power, there were signs that Japan was bracing itself for a reassessment of the war. In its final days last month, Mr Miyazawa's government acknowledged that Japanese troops had abducted tens of thousands of Asian women to work as sex slaves - or 'comfort women' - during the war.

The Education Ministry has gradually increased the amount of information on the war printed in school history books. Some recent editions include references to comfort women and to the Nanking massacre of 200,000 Chinese by Japanese troops.

Bureaucrats are extremely sensitive about any Japanese admission of responsibility for the war, in case it encourages a flood of compensation suits from victims. Japan has not compensated any victims, arguing that bilateral economic treaties concluded with all Asian nations, except Communist North Korea and Taiwan, which was not a separate country at the end of the war, clear Tokyo from paying anything to individuals.

But Mr Hosokawa may break even this taboo, as his aides were reportedly working on establishing a 1 trillion yen ( pounds 4bn) fund to compensate victims of the war in Asia.

Tomorrow: Japan's diehards