THIS Sunday, just a week after Japan's first change of government in 38 years, many Asian nations will be watching what happens at a controversial shrine in downtown Tokyo.
Or rather, they will be watching what may not happen.
The Shinto shrine, known as Yasukuni, is dedicated to honoring 2.6 million Japanese soldiers killed in wars over the past century, including seven wartime leaders executed as criminals by the Allies after World War II.
For the past four decades, many government ministers from Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) visited the shrine every Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.
The visits by the the ruling LDP lawmakers, especially one in 1985 by then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, were condemned by many Asian nations as an example of Japan's failure to fully acknowledge its wartime behavior.
But the conservative LDP lost power last week, and a new crop of leaders in a seven-party coalition is presenting a fresh view on Japan's role in the war. The new government is even considering a plan to offer a formal apology for its wartime aggression.
Almost all of the 20 ministers in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa plan to avoid the anniversary commemoration at the war memorial. About half of them are from leftist or Buddhist parties that have criticized the war and the LDP's occasional defense of it. But one or two ministers in the coalition who were LDP members until just a few months ago say they might go to the shrine. In fact, the new foreign minister, Tsutomu Hata, who heads the LDP splinter group called the Japan Renewal Party,
is head of a group of parliament members who worship at Yasukuni.
"As foreign minister, I shouldn't invite misunderstanding from various countries," said Mr. Hata on Monday. "Though I don't want to deceive myself, I will not do anything official," suggesting he may visit privately. The new agriculture minister, Eijiro Hata, who is in the same party, says he will pay an official visit. Prime Minister Hosokawa would not say whether he would make a visit, but many believe he will not. In fact, he startled the nation on Tuesday by declaring at a press conference that World
War II was a mistake for Japan.
"Personally, I believe it was a war of aggression," he said, in a description that no LDP leader has ever used. Hosokawa added that Japan should "clearly express our remorse at and atonement for our past history."
Past Japanese leaders were never able to make such clear statements. A recent LDP prime minister, Noboru Takeshita, once said that the questions of Japan's role in the war should be left to future historians.
In 1991, on the 50th anniversary of Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor, some LDP members tried to have an apology approved by parliament, but party hard-liners who are close to the often-violent rightist groups in Japan killed the move.
Hosokawa's statement was particularly surprising because his grandfather, Fumimaro Konoe, was prime minister for 18 months during the war, and was in office when the Japanese Army committed the so-called Nanjing Massacre in China. He committed suicide in 1945 when he was due to be arrested for war crimes.
LAST year, Hosokawa wrote in an article that he would not repeat the mistake of his grandfather, "who failed to speak up when he should have," referring to Konoe's alleged lack of opposition to the Imperial Army's invasion of China in 1937.
How Japanese leaders remember the war has been a controversial point, not only for the Japanese, who remain divided over the war, but for Asian people who were conquered by Imperial troops and remain suspicious that Japan has not been contrite or retrospective enough to prevent a return of militarism.
"How much better the Germans have made it for themselves by disclosing and publishing all past secrets and educating their young on the horrors of their Nazi past," former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told a Japanese audience recently. "I believe Japan has much to gain in the long run if she is also frank and open over what has happened in the past," he said.
Foreign Minister Hata, even though he may visit Yasukuni, admits Japan must still do more to win the confidence of neighboring nations. "Throughout the war, Japan caused trouble, especially to Asian countries. It's important to acknowledge facts frankly," he says. He says the coalition will be different than from the LDP by owning up to Japan's wartime behavior.
Last week, just before the LDP left power, the Foreign Ministry released a study admitting that the wartime Army had coerced many Asian women, mainly Koreans, into forced prostitution for Japanese soldiers.
The admission has already helped to partially mend ties with South Korea, which was colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945. Seoul officials had demanded that Japan acknowledge the use of force in recruiting the so-called comfort women before it would improve relations.
On Tuesday, five days after Japan's confession, South Korea announced that it would phase out a trade ban against many Japanese products over the next five years, stating that trade issues should be separate from politics or history.
The Japanese study left open the option of Japanese compensation for the thousands of comfort women who are still alive. "We have to sincerely cope with former comfort women and others who were put under special circumstances," says Hata. The Japanese government faces two class-action suits from a total of 25 Asian women claiming to be former comfort women. Besides visits to Yasukuni, Asian nations also decry the apparent white-wash of the war in Japanese history textbooks, which leave young Japanese ign orant of the war's origins.
"Students nowadays lack knowledge of modern history," admits the new education minister, Ryoko Akamatsu. "It makes me angry when I wonder why they do not turn their eyes to history." The ministry she took over Monday strictly screens all textbooks used in Japanese schools.
Hosokawa says he wants the government to review the wartime polices and teach younger Japanese about the cruelty of war.