ON Aug. 15, Mitsuharu Ishii, carrying a fluorescent-green backpack that matched his Swatch wristwatch, prayed in honor of the 2.6 million Japanese who died in World War II.
He came to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto place of worship that draws hundreds of thousands of people every Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender.
Mr. Ishii, not long out of college, was a rarity. The vast majority of the people who come to Yasukuni are old enough to have experienced the war personally.
The young man noted, however, that mostly young men died in the war. ``I want the government not to waste any more precious lives,'' he said. ``Although I don't think what Japan did in the war was a waste.''
His comment epitomizes one of the dilemmas Japan faces as it ponders its future. Japan's mix of religious traditions places great emphasis on the veneration of ancestors. And the people who cherish the honor of lost fathers and brothers are a political force.
At the same time, there is a growing recognition that in order to move forward, Japan must confront its past more bluntly. Politicians here talk more and more of making Japan more assertive internationally. Japanese corporations continue to set up shop in other parts of Asia.
Takako Doi, a socialist and pacifist who is the speaker of Japan's lower house, said in an anniversary speech: ``We haven't yet realized a reconciliation with our Asian neighbors, who had to face miserable suffering because of our mistakes in the war.''
The approach of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese surrender -
next year - has put a new premium on this sort of national introspection.
But Ms. Doi's contrition is unusual and does not convince the neighbors. Many of them pay more attention to critics who accuse the Japanese of whitewashing the war, of denying their atrocities, of refusing to acknowledge their aggression.
Every so often, one of Doi's colleagues will give the critics new grist. Twice this year, Cabinet ministers have had to resign for offending Asian sensibilities with erroneous comments about Japan's war record. One said the 1937 Nanjing massacre, in which Japanese troops killed as many as 300,000 Chinese, was a fabrication. (There is some historical debate over the death toll, but not the event.)
The second minister had to resign Aug. 14 for crediting Japan's militarism with the end of Western colonialism in parts of Asia and with the region's economic growth.
In a recent editorial, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's premier economic daily, called such comments further evidence of a national blindness: ``This country has been negligent in not thoroughly clarifying facts about the war and in making ethical judgments on what Japan did.''
It will be hard for Japan to judge its sons harshly. Every year the government holds an official ceremony of remembrance for the war dead. Thousands of people from all over Japan attend, the emperor and empress preside, politicians give speeches, and chrysanthemums are offered in memory.
This year Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama drew praise from the liberal media for apologizing for ``the tragic sufferings beyond description'' that Japan caused.
But contrition is not the real tenor of the ceremony. There is sorrow and pity and remorse. There is even some pride in the sacrifice of loved ones. But shame is imperceptible.
The offering of flowers takes place to the accompaniment of music: ``Eroica,'' Beethoven's 3rd symphony, the composer's tribute to heroism. It does not make a good sound- track for condemnation.