THE 15th of August was a day flush with symbols and semantics in the three most powerful nations of East Asia. But in Japan, China, and South Korea, the commemorations marking the end of World War II were as much about the future as the past.
The Japanese are growing ever more responsive to demands that they acknowledge their wartime excesses if they are to broaden their relationships with the other countries of Asia. Toward that end, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama spoke Aug. 15 with remarkable clarity and contrition about Japan's war record.
In China, the mix of recollection and outlook takes a different turn. Many Chinese in recent years have become increasingly vocal about the brutality of Japanese aggression. But the leadership has restrained these expressions of outrage in deference to the burgeoning economic relationship between the two countries.
Chinese leaders on Aug. 15 visited a key battleground in Japan's invasion of China, but issued no denunciations of their rich neighbor.
And in South Korea, a page of history was turned as the country chose this Aug. 15 to begin the demolition of the building that symbolizes the years of Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. Amid parades and fireworks, workers removed the dome of Japan's onetime colonial headquarters in downtown Seoul.
South Korean President Kim Young Sam used the occasion to imagine the reunification of the divided Korean Peninsula. ''We will be truly liberated,'' he said, ''only when all the people from the South and the North build a unified state blessed with freedom and prosperity.''
An unambiguous apology
No nation in Asia is more conflicted about the remembrance of the war than Japan. Liberals want the country to atone for a campaign of militarism and colonialism, beginning the early part of the 20th century, that killed as many as 20 million people in Asia by 1945. But conservatives insist that the conflicts were waged in self-defense.
In his Aug. 15 statement, Prime Minister Murayama said his country had pursued a ''mistaken national policy'' that ''caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries.''
Mr. Murayama forthrightly referred to his nation's aggression, instead of the usual phrase ''acts of aggression.'' He stated a ''heartfelt apology'' using a direct and unambiguous Japanese expression. Such comments from a prime minister would have been unthinkable a decade ago; moreover, his statement was approved in advance by the Cabinet, giving it unprecedented clout.
The statement was a victory for Murayama, a Socialist who has long advocated a more repentant official view of history, but who failed in an attempt earlier this year to have Japan's parliament issue an apology. His political future is so uncertain that the Aug. 15 ceremonies seemed like a final opportunity for the prime minister to offer a concrete expression of contrition.
Even so, Murayama did not make these comments at Japan's annual memorial ceremony in honor the country's war dead, where he gave a much more pro-forma speech. Indeed, it is still unthinkable for a Japanese leader to apologize for the war and describe it as aggression in front of the emperor and the families of the soldiers who lost their lives.
But Takako Doi, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, risked the condemnation of Japanese conservatives in her speech to the somber, elderly crowd. Ms. Doi, also a Socialist, has in recent years become progressively bolder in her comments on the war. This year she said: ''We have walked for the past half a century merely seeking affluence, and now is the time that we should look back. We have been unable to put the past to rest: our colonial rule in Asia, the violation of human rights through aggression, and the instances of discrimination and contempt against Asian countries.''
Capturing the lingering enmity that has prompted many of Japan's war victims to sue the government for apologies and compensation, Doi added: ''We have not truly come to terms with Asian peoples.''
Pride in Japan's warrior
Aug. 15 is the day when many Japanese visit Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, a Shinto place of worship where the spirits of Japan's war dead are said to be interred. The shrine is also where people express pride in the sacrifices of their loved ones and in the character of the Japanese warrior.
This year, as always, the shrine drew rightists in fascist-style outfits who eulogized fallen soldiers. One man, dressed in white, kneeled and loudly decried efforts to apologize for the war.
''I agree with him completely,'' said a Tokyo shopkeeper who declined to give his name but said he had lost many friends during his service in the Army.
Another visitor said he came to mourn old schoolmates who died as young soldiers. ''We went to war in the belief that we were benefiting the country,'' said Takeshi Nemoto, a retired officer worker from Tokyo. But, he said, ''If we did something wrong, then we should apologize.''