Japan's shame refuses to be buried: The war in the Pacific ended 47 years ago today, but Japan's record continues to cause resentment. Terry McCarthy reports from Tokyo

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The Independent Online
YASUKUNI SHRINE is a peaceful place, surrounded by trees with white doves fluttering to and fro. Built just beside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the shrine contains the records of 2.5 million Japanese war dead. People come daily to pay homage to soldiers who gave up their lives for Japan.

At the side of the shrine is a war museum, which contains, among other exhibits, a railway engine from the infamous Burma railway and a replica of a kamikaze plane used against the US navy in the closing days of the Second World War.

The shrine itself contains memorials to Hideki Tojo, Japan's wartime prime minister, and six other top military figures, all of whom were executed in 1948 for war crimes. But neither the museum nor the shrine attempts to express any judgement on the war: they are simple and dignified tributes to the Japanese men and women whose lives were cut short in one of this century's greatest tragedies.

But today, on the 47th anniversary of the end of the war in Japan, 12 cabinet ministers are due to attend memorial ceremonies for the country's war dead at Yasukuni. And, as happens every year, it will create yet another political and diplomatic controversy. Domestic critics and many of Japan's Asian neighbours will again use the opportunity to point out that, while honouring its own dead, the Japanese government has never fully apologised for the suffering it caused others during the war.

This year feelings are running particularly high, because in the autumn two momentous events concerning Japan and its neighbours are due to take place. In October, Emperor Akihito is to make the first ever visit by a Japanese emperor to China - where many of Japan's worst wartime atrocities were committed. And in the same month Japanese troops are due to be sent to join UN peace-keeping operations in Cambodia - the first time since the war that Japanese soldiers will be sent overseas.

In contrast to Germany, where repeated official apologies have sought to atone for the crimes of the Nazis and consigned the Second World War to the history books, in Japan the ghosts of war are returning in ever greater numbers to haunt the people. Every day the press has to cope with some aspect of Japan's wartime past. The scandal of around 200,000 Asian women forced to work as prostitutes for the Japanese army has been the latest dominant theme, with the two Koreas and China demanding some form of compensation from Tokyo.

It is one of the greatest paradoxes of Japan that nearly five decades after the end of the war, resentment towards the country because of its wartime behaviour is increasing, not decreasing, among its neighbours. 'The non-committal posture of the Japanese government with regard to its past wrongdoings, as symbolised by the issue of wartime 'comfort women', is only deepening the distrust of this country in contrast to the elevation of its international status,' said the daily Mainichi Shimbun this week.

As the second most powerful economy in the world, Japan would dearly like to expand its diplomatic influence, particularly in Asia. But because of the unsettled account of the war, Tokyo still has strained diplomatic relations with its three immediate neighbours - the Koreas, China and Russia - while further afield in South East Asia, wartime memories are still fresh. In a survey conducted by Japan's Foreign Ministry on South East Asians recently, 30 per cent said they were afraid that Japan would again become a military threat to the region.

'We are made aware . . . that the conservatives in Japan, including the hardliners in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, have little regret of the country's crimes in the war,' said Kompas, Indonesia's most influential daily paper this week. It is these same hardliners who are insisting that the Emperor should not make any real apology for the war when he visits China, beyond the customarily vague and anonymous expressions of regret for past sufferrings.

Many Japanese harbour fears of the hardline conservatives in their own government. One Japanese acquaintance, who is old enough to remember the war, said recently, 'People like Nakasone (Yasuhiro Nakasone, the former prime minister, who made a point of visiting the Yasukuni shrine as prime minister in 1985) are dangerous. We get the feeling they think the war was not wrong.'

It is these fears that will be further stoked by today's visit to Yasukuni shrine by the cabinet ministers. The government has traditionally tried to fudge the issue by distinguishing between 'official' and 'unofficial' visits, and engaging in endless debates over whether ministers should use their official cars, or sign their names with their official titles.

But for outsiders, such details are irrelevant, as long as no sincere apology to Japan's wartime victims is forthcoming. The real issue is that unrepentant nationalist hardliners inside and outside the government can hold an entire nation hostage to its inglorious past. And as long as this situation persists, even the souls in Yasukuni will not be able to rest in peace.

(Photograph omitted)