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Edward W. Desmond/Tokyo

When Emperor Hirohi to announced over the radio Japan’s surrender in World War II, Tomiichi Murayama, Japan’s current Prime Minister, was a 21-year-old soldier on the southern island of Kyushu. At that time, he would have fought to the death for the Emperor. But when Murayama, the son of a simple fisherman, attended university after the war, his view of traditional authority changed. He read Marx and became a socialist. He joined a club devoted to the study of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who put him on guard against the foolish consistencies that are the hobgoblins of little minds. Last week the Prime Minister broke ranks with the little minds in his government and spoke out on Japan’s wartime actions with an unqualified repentance never heard from his predecessors.

On the morning of the 50th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, Murayama last week told an assembly of journalists at his official residence that “during a certain period of time in the not too distant past” Japan followed a “mistaken national policy” of “colonialism and aggression” that caused “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries.” He expressed his “heartfelt apology” and promised to eradicate “self-righteous nationalism.”

In a society where several rounds of apologies will be made in the most trivial circumstances, the question of how to admit responsibility for the enormities Japan committed during the war has been a vexing one. Previous Prime Ministers used the term hansei, a fudge word meaning “regret,” to express some measure of sorrow. Since his election last year, Murayama, a socialist at the head of an unwieldy coalition dominated by conservative Liberal Democrats, has been determined to show that Japan could at last admit its guilt. Liberal Democrats made sure the final wording of a Diet resolution was bloodless. So Murayama chose to speak out on his own, a bold act for a Prime Minister in the highly choreographed world of Japanese politics.

What made his speech so significant was his use of the word owabi, which unequivocally means “to apologize.” Murayama also said Japan was guilty of “aggression,” something no Prime Minister had stated so baldly before. The comments earned applause from some of Japan’s former enemies, like the U.S. and Britain. But the reaction in South Korea and China was more muted. China’s Foreign Ministry called the remarks “positive,” but added, “Some people in Japanese society, including political circles, are still unable to adopt a correct attitude toward the history of that period.” Tens of millions of people died as a result of Japan’s attempt to seize control of Asia; in the Rape of Nanjing as many as 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered by Imperial troops.

The right wing insists that Japan’s “guilt” is a fiction created by Japan’s conquerors. The majority of Japanese, how ever, believe their country should express contrition. In their eyes, Murayama did not go far enough. For one thing, he told reporters that Emperor Hirohito was not responsible for any wrongdoing. But a full airing of Japan’s record, many believe, must begin with the admission that Hirohito himself largely conducted the war. Nevertheless, Murayama seized a dramatic occasion to say what thus far had been unsayable.

–With reporting by Jaime A. FlorCruz/Beijing and Hiroko Tashiro/ Tokyo, with other bureaus

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