In a strongly worded speech on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of his city, the mayor of Hiroshima yesterday managed what has eluded the Japanese government - an unambiguous apology for his country's wartime aggression.
"At this 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, it is important to look at the stark reality of war in terms of both aggrieved and aggressor, so as to develop a common understanding of history," said Takashi Hiraoka in a peace declaration delivered at a memorial service for victims of the bomb. "With the suffering of all war's victims indelibly etched in our hearts, we want to apologise for the unbearable suffering that Japanese colonial domination and war inflicted on so many people."
Mr Hiraoka stopped short of apportioning blame for the war; in 1989 the then mayor of Nagasaki was nearly killed by a right-wing gunman after suggesting the late Emperor Hirohito bore some of the responsibility.
In May, Japan's ruling coalition came close to breaking up after a promised resolution apologising for the war divided the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of the Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, from his partners in the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The compromise motion used the expression "deep reflection" rather than apology, and was ill-received by Japan's former Asian colonies.
Yesterday Mr Murayama offered "my sincere condolences to the souls of the many people whose precious lives were taken by the atomic bomb" and expressed his determination to maintain the Japanese constitution, which renounces war, but avoided any reference to the origins and conduct of Japan's war.
The anniversary comes at a tricky time for the Prime Minister, who has survived political and national disasters since his inauguration in June last year. Until then, an apology for Japanese aggression had been a key element of SDP policy. But, in the power sharing deal struck with the LDP, the party was forced to renounce most of its socialist principles. After defeats in elections to the Upper House of the Diet last month, Mr Murayama relies more than ever on the support of the LDP, most of whose members oppose an apology. At the weekend a convoy of 20 trucks manned by nationalist right-wingers drove through Hiroshima broadcasting martial music and the slogan "No apology for the war" through loudspeakers.
On one issue the Prime Minister was outspoken: the nuclear testing planned and carried out by the French and Chinese governments. Protesters marched through Hiroshima and Tokyo, urging a government-sponsored boycott of French goods. Mr Murayama described the tests as "extremely regrettable".