'We are embarking on a new government five decades after the war,' said Mr Hata, 57, a former finance minister who is now head of the Shinsei (Renewal) party. 'It is a good time for soul- searching on what that war meant. If there are things to apologise for, we must apologise quite clearly.'
The Shinsei party is the main force behind a seven-party coalition which is set to form a government when the Japanese parliament is convened tomorrow, depriving the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of power for the first time in 38 years. Morihiro Hosokawa of the Japan New Party has been proposed as prime minister. But he said yesterday that he may not be able to announce a cabinet until Friday or even later, indicating continuing policy differences between the seven-member coalition.
Until now, Japan has played disingenuous word games with the issue of its war guilt, infuriating its neighbours in Asia who suffered apalling atrocities at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army in the 1930s and 1940s. The Emperor and various prime ministers have expressed 'deep sorrow' or 'reflected deeply' on the 'unfortunate sufferings of the past', as if the war had been a terrible epidemic beyond human control. So far no straightforward statement of apology has been made for the millions of Asians who were killed, injured or raped by Japanese forces.
As Mr Hata and his colleagues in the Shinsei party know, a full apology will be crucial to Japan's overcoming remaining resistance to its attempt to become a permanent member of the Security Council. As the second-largest economy in the world and the second-largest donor to the UN, Japan has said it aims to get a permanent seat by 1995, the UN's 50th anniversary.
On Monday Boutros Boutros- Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, said 11 countries, including the US, had expressed their support for Japan's permanent membership. Britain and France have recently reversed their outright opposition to the candidacy, following the US lead. But the other two permanent members, China and Russia, are still opposed to Japan's membership. China has particularly bitter memories of massacres and rapes by Japanese troops.
One of the main aspirations of the Shinsei party, masterminded by Ichiro Ozawa, 51, a former secretary-general of the LDP, is for Japan to play a more responsible role in the world; Security Council membership fits in snugly with this aspiration. 'We must take (international) initiatives. Japan cannot keep following, only doing something because Europe or the US does it,' said Mr Hata.
'We should put a full stop to all this word play,' he said. 'There are various expressions around, but I think 'apology' is closest to what I feel.' He also said Japan should stop whitewashing the August 1945 capitulation as the 'end' of the war, but openly call it the 'defeat'.
'Our message should be that war is miserable and tragic, and we must make it clear that we will never wage war again.' And the history of the war should be taught properly to schoolchildren, said Mr Hata - an indirect reference to the censorship of history textbooks which gloss over many of the worst aspects of Japan's wartime aggression.