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The Prime Minister Says No to Denial : Murayama faces the war guilt question

August 17, 1994

Forty-nine years after its surrender in World War II, Japan remains steeped in denial, torment and revisionism regarding its true role in that conflict.

Even as Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama became the latest official to express regret for Japan's war actions, seven of his Cabinet members ignored his suggestion that they forgo the annual--and controversial--visit to the Yasukuni Shrine to the war dead. There they heard the usual declarations that Japan's wartime aggression was justified.

Tokyo's inability to truly come to terms with its militaristic past continues to haunt the nation and disappoint its neighbors and allies. However, Murayama, should he survive in a time of revolving-door changes of Japanese prime ministers, plans to make 1995, the 50th anniversary of the war's end, a year for self-reflection and apology to Japan's victims. The task will be formidable; already debates and reflections have begun in newspapers and television broadcasts.

Murayama began his consciousness-raising on Monday by refusing to go to Yasukuni. At a separate, government-sponsored ceremony at Budokan Hall to honor Japan's war dead--an event attended by the emperor--Murayama declared that Japan had "inflicted tragic sacrifices beyond description upon large numbers of people in Asia and other countries."

He expressed grief and deep self-reflection and added, "We must repent for our own history and tell younger generations about the wretchedness of war and numerous precious sacrifices caused by the war."

Educating the Japanese public is itself a monumental task. Generations of postwar Japanese have virtually no objective knowledge about Japan's aggression in Asia because government-sanctioned textbooks simply ignore much of that era.

Even worse are the politicians who persist in whitewashing Japan's brutal past. Just last Sunday Environment Minister Shin Sakurai was forced to resign from the Cabinet for declaring that Japan did not go to war with the idea of committing aggression in Asia. In May another Cabinet member, Justice Minister Shigeto Nagano, was forced to resign for saying that Japan went to war to free Asian nations from Western colonialism.

Three years ago, the government failed to pass a resolution of remorse to mark the 50th anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Murayama, the first Socialist prime minister in 46 years, wants Parliament to pass such a resolution to mark the 50th year of Japan's surrender. A year of self-reflection should lead at the very least to objective evaluation in Japan of its war guilt.

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