AUG. 15, the anniversary of Japan's defeat and rebirth, will be commemorated for the first time in 38 years by a new government, untrammeled by the burdens of the past and willing to confront this date both in terms of an honest look at history and of building a better future. "World at Peace" was the banner headline this newspaper carried on Aug. 15, 1945. Not "Japs Defeated" or "Hirohito Surrenders." I don't recall what headlines Japanese newspapers used, but I do remember that the first postwar Prime Minister, Prince Naruhiko Higashikuni, called for national repentance by 100 million Japanese.
That call was quickly smothered by bureaucrats who, while admitting that Japan had been foolhardy to take on the United States, tried to assuage their own sense of defeat by calling Aug. 15 "the day the war ended" rather than "the day of defeat." And they described the American troops who took over the country as "advancing and stationing forces" instead of using the blunt term, "Occupation Forces." The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, coming at the very end of the war, made it easier for many Japan ese to think of themselves as victims rather than perpetrators of the war.
In Germany, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, while political foes, agreed from the beginning that Germany had been the aggressor in World War II, that Nazism was evil, and that Hitler's genocidal persecution of the Jews called for national repentance.
In Japan, Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur purged the country's leading bureaucrats, politicians, and businessmen but left largely intact the bureaucratic apparatus that ran the country. Once the occupation ended, the predecessors of today's Liberal Democrats sharply disagreed with the Socialists over the security treaty with the US as well as the question of war guilt. The dispute was particularly severe over Japan's prewar and wartime role in Asia. Had Japan been the aggressor, or had its tro ops simply "advanced" into China and other Asian countries? That dispute lasted pretty much until a couple of months ago, when young Turks rebelled against the Liberal Democratic leadership over political reform and voted with Socialists and other opposition parties to bring down the government.
Throughout this period the Liberal Democrats, formed by a merger of conservative parties in 1955, monopolized the government. The Socialists, though remaining the largest opposition group, became an increasingly ineffective political force.
As a new generation grew up within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), younger politicians, stimulated by the German example, began to ask why Japan could not forthrightly admit that it had been the aggressor in World War II and formally apologize to the countries it had overrun, instead of pussyfooting around with expressions like "regret" and "deeply self-reflect." Tsutomu Hata, who is to be deputy prime minister and foreign minister in the just-formed Morihiro Hosokawa cabinet, has been calling for a forthright admission of guilt.
In recent remarks at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, he recalled that in 1991, the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the Liberal Democratic government, headed by Kiichi Miyazawa, had contemplated getting the Diet (Parliament) to pass a resolution expressing regret for Japan's wartime role. But that, as with so many of this government's projects, never came to fruition. As for his own position, "We should use the word 'apologize' " Mr. Hata said. "We should say 'defeat,' not 'the end of the war. ' We should tell our children what their forefathers did in waging war on the Asian continent."
Prime Minister Hosokawa, whose cabinet was installed Monday, says he wants openness and forthrightness to replace the obfuscations of the past. His cabinet brings together seven parties, the Socialists being the largest. Electoral reform is the priority task the government has set for itself. But the coalition parties also agree that one way in which to clearly differentiate themselves from the Liberal Democrats is to apologize and repent for the Japanese role in World War II and to express determination
to help build a post-cold-war global structure of peace. A formal statement to this effect is to be issued at the time of the Aug. 15 anniversary. It is a needed beginning for the new Japan.