LEADER: The importance of VJ Day

For four years in the Far East, British servicemen fought and suffered, alongside Australians, Americans, Indians, Chinese, Dutch and others, to defeat one of the most pitiless and remarkable enemies any of these nations had ever encountered. A relatively small, isolated and newly developed country, the Japanese empire waged a war characterised by tenacity and ferocity.

Despite this, the war in the East was never given the same recognition as that in Europe and North Africa. Some of this was due to shame; shame at the military mistakes that led to one of the greatest defeats in British military history - the fall of Singapore, with all its defenders. Nor was the liberation of those countries invaded by Japan as clear-cut a victory for their peoples as, say, the reconquest of France, Greece or Norway. To many in Vietnam, Burma and Malaya, 1945 meant exchanging one imperialism for another. When the veterans of Burma returned to Britain, often after five whole years away, they found a country already several months into peacetime reconstruction, and impatient with stories of war.

Some of the bitterness of those who fought in the Far East can be explained by this long-standing feeling of neglect. Which is why Saturday's commemoration of VJ Day was so important. The Duke of Edinburgh's action in joining the parade as a marcher himself was a well-judged act of solidarity with the veterans of the Far East. Many veterans who attended the events commented on their feeling that at last their sacrifice had been recognised.

But while the celebrations have had a restrained and dignified character, the same cannot be said about the national debate that has run parallel to them. Much of this has been a rehashing of familiar (and sometimes racist) complaints about a nation that we still do not fully understand. And the conclusion that seems to have been reached is that the business with Japan is still, in some way, unresolved.

Central to this has been the question of the Japanese apology. Why, many younger readers may wonder, has this assumed such overriding importance? Partly because our own experience at the hands of the Japanese was so much worse than with the Germans. Where 5 per cent of prisoners captured by the Germans died, more than a quarter of those held by the Japanese succumbed to disease or were murdered.

But the other reason why the wound has not healed is the strong feeling that the Japanese, unlike the Germans, regretted not their aggression, but their defeat - that they didn't apologise because they weren't sorry. And there was a great deal in this sentiment. For years the Japanese education system promoted a version of 20th-century history that absolved Japan's wartime leaders of all responsibility for aggression.

In the last week, however, it has become clear that this self-exculpation has now come to an end. True, there has been much semantic scrutiny of the word "sorry", but perhaps it is best to give the Japanese the benefit of the doubt. Examine in full the address that Japan's Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, gave on television last week. He said that a mistaken national policy had advanced Japan on the road to war and caused tremendous suffering and damage, for which he felt remorse. That is the message that young Japanese are hearing today. It should be good enough. Time to move on.