In a stunning reversal from two weeks ago, when Mr Hosokawa called it 'a war of aggression and a wrong war' at a press conference, his speech yesterday actually paid homage to the 'supreme sacrifices' made by Japanese military personnel during the war which, he said, contributed to Japan's current economic well-being.
Mr Hosokawa did refer to Japan's aggression and colonialism 50 years ago, but in an indirect way which went little further than comments made by Japanese leaders in the past.
Mr Hosokawa's new government, which displaced the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after 38 years of rule, had vowed to come to terms with Japan's war record. The Prime Minister had indicated that he would open a new era in Japan's relations with its neighbours by making a full apology in his first policy speech to parliament. This initiative had been widely, if cautiously, welcomed around Asia, where Japan has been regarded with suspicion and resentment for its failure to apologise for wartime atrocities.
But Mr Hosokawa has been subjected to unremitting pressure from nationalist lobbies at home which regard any apology for the war as a shameful loss of face. Several cabinet ministers distanced themselves from him. Shizuka Kamei, a senior member of the LDP, said: 'It is a blasphemy against history to define Japan's war acts as aggression.' Others feared a candid apology would invite overseas compensation claims. 'We don't want the Prime Minister to say something that might produce repercussions,' said Ryutaro Hashimoto, a former finance minister.
By the time Mr Hosokawa mounted the podium yesterday, his speech had been transformed into an ambiguous statement of regret for the sufferings of the war - a familiar tactic of politicians who want to appear conciliatory to foreigners without offending right-wing opinion inside Japan. But there was no straightforward apology, no direct admission that the war was caused by Japanese aggression and no mention of compensation.
Mr Hosokawa called the war a 'great mistake', and then, in a gesture to influential veterans' groups, he said that it should not be forgotten that Japan's prosperity 'rests upon the supreme sacrifices made during the war (by Japanese troops)'. A number of war veterans had bitterly criticised Mr Hosokawa for supposedly defaming Japan's war dead by calling the conflict a 'war of aggression.'
In his speech yesterday Mr Hosokawa spoke indirectly of Japan's 'actions, including aggression and colonial rule (of Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria)'. For this, he said, Japan would 'reflect deeply' and had 'feelings of apology' - a subtle play on words in the Japanese language which stops short of a direct apology.
The issue was somewhat obscured by an English translation of Mr Hosokawa's speech prepared by the government 'for the convenience of foreign journalists'. The 'feelings of apology' were translated into English simply as apology. The translation for foreign journalists mentioned 'remorse', when the Japanese original in Mr Hosokawa's speech was 'hansei' which in fact means self-reflection and is morally neutral, without the force of the English term remorse.
Some commentators were outraged at the Prime Minister's climb-down. 'This was very unhappy for ordinary Japanese,' said Keiichi Tsuneishi, a professor at Kanagawa University, who is doing research into Japanese war atrocities. But others said that the Prime Minister had at least referred to Japan's aggression and colonisation in East Asia, even if he did so in an indirect way. 'My question is: what concrete action the government will now take after this speech?' said Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a professor at Chuo University, in Tokyo, who has been campaigning for greater acknowledgement of atrocities against other Asians. 'They should make an apology, offer compensation, and prevent any recurrence.'
Compensation is an issue the government seems unlikely to embrace. Last week it was leaked that a pounds 4bn fund might be set up to compensate Asian victims. But this was strongly attacked by right-wing politicians and the Foreign Ministry. The Deputy Prime Minister, Tsutomu Hata, said Japan had already settled the issue of compensation through bilateral economic treaties with its neighbours.