Is Japan on the verge of baring its soul? The new prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, certainly appears determined to lead his nation in a public apology for its World War II aggression and atrocities. If he succeeds, Tokyo could embark on a long-delayed coming of age.
An annual rite of August in Japan is to reflect on World War II. Within a week after being sworn in as the reformist leader of the new ruling coalition government, Hosokawa set a precedent by offering condolences to victims of Japanese wartime brutality in other nations, on the 48th anniversary of Japan's surrender to the Allies. His words have thrown his country into much-needed reflection and internal debate.
At an official ceremony last Sunday, Hosokawa expressed "my humble condolences to victims of the war and their families in the neighboring countries of Asia and around the world." At his first press conference he had said that World War II was a "war of aggression, a mistaken war."
Hosokawa is the first post-war prime minister to directly address Japan's wartime history and specifically express condolences. His Liberal Democratic Party predecessors, at most, used vague language in dealing with the issue--a continuing evasion particularly stressful to Japan's Asian neighbors.
In another attempt to change Japan's attitude about the war, Hosokawa did not visit the Yasukuni Shrine to pay respects to the war dead. The controversial Shinto shrine in central Tokyo, which memorializes nearly 2.5 million Japanese war dead, has come to symbolize for many a glorification of Japan's unrepentant war past.
The shrine, established in 1869, played a key role in the government's promotion of militarism before and during the war. It was the center of an ultranationalist branch of Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion. Indeed, Hosokawa now faces a possible backlash from right-wing nationalistic groups, a small, sometimes violent minority.
In the past, visits to the shrine by Japanese officials triggered protests from China, the two Koreas and other Asian nations, which argued that Tokyo had no remorse for its wartime aggressions. Indeed, it was only two weeks ago that the outgoing LDP government, after years of denials, finally admitted that Japan forced women from Korea and other countries to serve in Japanese military brothels during the war.
Coming to terms with its war past is as important within Japan as it is to smoothing the way toward better relations with Asian neighbors. Japan's revisionist history has been passed on to postwar generations in textbooks that have been roundly criticized. Japan wants and deserves a respect that eludes it, despite its prosperity. Hosokawa recognizes that Japan needs to face up to its past if it is to be a respected world player.