PRIME Minister Tomiichi Murayama yesterday announced that Japan would spend $1 billion over the next 10 years to promote a deepened understanding of Japan's actions before and during World War II.
Mr. Murayama disappointed people in many parts of Asia who thought Japan might offer compensation directly to the people it injured during some 15 years of conflict. Instead, he unveiled a bookish plan that emphasizes research and inter-Asian exchange programs.
The Japanese are growing more and more aware that an increasingly integrated regional economy is forcing them to improve relations with many of the Asian countries Japan's Imperial Army occupied during World War II. Murayama has just returned from a tour of four Southeast Asian countries, where he apologized repeatedly for his country's wartime excesses.
A year from now, on Aug. 15, the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the war's end in this hemisphere, and many in Asia feel this is the right time to address lingering feelings of bitterness and anger.
Japan has steadfastly refused to consider compensating individuals, arguing that it has paid vast sums to several Asian countries through various postwar treaties and agreements. At the same time, the clamor for individual payments has grown.
Asian and Dutch women abducted by the Japanese Army to serve as sex slaves in battlefield brothels have been the most vocal claimants, but the list of aggrieved parties includes Koreans and Chinese forced to labor for Japanese corporations, British prisoners of war, and Taiwanese who want back pay for being forced to serve in Japan's Imperial Army.
In recent years, many of these groups have filed lawsuits against the Japanese government seeking redress. They have been encouraged, too, by a year-old willingness on the part of Japanese premiers to admit that Japan was an aggressor and to apologize to people that Japan injured.
Murayama's arrival in office two months ago was another bright sign for claimants. He is a Socialist, and his party has taken a more self-critical view of Japan's war record than other political groups. Even so, advocates of war claimants were disappointed yesterday.
For one thing, the so-called Peace, Friendship, and Exchange Initiative was short on details and specifics. A year ago, the government admitted that Japanese soldiers had forced some women into prostitution and began studying the matter of compensation.
But yesterday's document made no specific mention of a plan to address the claims made by women who say they were abused by soldiers. In fact, even a plan for the government to fund ``women's centers'' in some Asian countries went unmentioned, although press reports here have said the government was considering such a program.
``On the issue of wartime `comfort women,' '' Murayama said, using the government's euphemism of choice, ``I would like to take this opportunity once again to express my profound and sincere remorse and apologies.''
Briefing reporters yesterday, a Foreign Ministry official explained that the ``way to express this feeling of profound remorse and apology must be to face up to past history and promote exchanges in a future-oriented manner.''
The government left open the possibility it would create some sort of compensation fund from private-sector donations.
This approach did not impress Kenichi Takagi, a Tokyo lawyer representing war claimants. ``For the past year, there's been no indication that the government has taken this issue into serious account.'' The initiative, he adds, represents ``small progress.''
Mr. Takagi says is it good to promote study and praised the plan's call for an Asian Historical Document Center to collect and publicize the war record. But he called these steps ``peripheral'' to those who were harmed by Japan's wartime actions.
THE government's argument that paying some injured parties would generate a tidal wave of claims does not convince Takagi: ``The government should pay compensation in proportion to its wrongdoing.''
But there is reason to believe the Japanese are in need of more thorough history lessons. Two Cabinet members have had to resign in recent months after egregiously mischaracterizing Japan's war record. Critics have argued that many Japanese have chosen to believe Japan was forced into belligerency, have concentrated on how they themselves suffered, or have blocked out the era altogether.
Again and again, Murayama said Japanese need ``to face squarely'' what he called ``errors in our history.''