Koreans rampage as Tokyo tones down war apology

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After a day of firebombs and demonstrations in the South Korean capital, Seoul, Japan's fragile coalition government appeared to have been saved from disintegration last night, following an agreement on what eluded it all year: a resolution in the Japanese Diet marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

The text of the resolution is not yet not available. But it is unlikely to appease Japan's angry Asian neighbours who have been exasperated by the delaying tactics of hard-liners in the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

As envisioned by the Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, the left-wing leader of the coalition's minority Socialists, the resolution was to have included an explicit apology for Japan's aggressive and imperialist policies, and a renunciation of war in the future.

Polls suggest that 55 per cent of Japanese support such a motion. But right-wingers in the LDP claimed it would dishonour Japan's war dead. Hard-liners have revived the nationalist argument that Japan was waging a war of Asian liberation against the white colonial powers of Britain and America.

Talks between the two parties and their partner, the small New Party Sakigake, reached deadlock last week after the Socialists insisted that the text should include acknowledgement of Japan's responsibility for wartime aggression. Last night, however, the Socialists caved in: the final wording was drafted by the LDP.

According to Kyodo news agency, the resolution includes "passages which can be read as meaning that Japan implemented acts of aggression and colonial rule". But it will be a long way from the statement of repentance once anticipated.

The issue of Japan's attitude to its military past reached a pitch yesterday when 200 elderly veterans of the Korean resistance movement staged an emotional rally in a public park in Seoul, warning against "a revival of Japanese militarism". About 100 students attacked a nearby Japanese cultural centre with metal pipes and petrol bombs. Many were arrested.

They were enraged by remarks made by Michio Watanabe, a senior LDP member and former foreign minister, made to a party meeting, in which he said Japan had "amicably" occupied the Korean peninsula in 1910. This came as news to Koreans who have bitter memories of 35 years of Japanese colonisation. Under Japanese rule, opposition leaders were imprisoned and tortured, the Korean language was suppressed and Koreans forced to take Japanese names. Tens of thousands were transported to Japan, where many of their descendants suffer discrimination in work, education and marriage.

Mr Watanabe's deftly phrased apology - he withdrew the word "amicably", but not the substance of his remarks - has not diminished outrage among most Koreans.

For Mr Watanabe, 72, a tough and colourful member of the LDP old guard, it was a familiar situation. "Mitchy", as he is known, is an undiplomatic ex- diplomat. In 1988, he focused his insight on to China. "Many people there are still living in caves," he said. "It's that kind of country." Shortly after, he said of the US: "When it comes to bankruptcy, we Japanese take it seriously. But over there, where credit cards are common, there are people like the blacks who say: 'We're bankrupt! We don't have to pay our bills any more, that's all'."

In both cases the pattern was the same. There was uproar followed by an apology. After the cave remarks, Mr Watanabe had to resign his party post.

After the second incident, he unexpectedly became patron of the United Negro College Fund. In the present tense atmosphere, however, his latest remarks may be harder to forget.