Japanese apology breaks no new ground, but impact is in the timing

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's apology Friday for his country's World War II militarism broke no new ground in wording, but the timing and venue were clearly aimed at quelling fiery tensions with China.

Koizumi's speech at the Asian-African summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, largely mirrored a statement made by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 marking the 50th anniversary of Japan's wartime defeat.

A central motive behind Koizumi's statement, however, was not necessarily wording, but timing. It comes at a critical juncture as Tokyo and Beijing are struggling to reverse the deepest plunge in their ties since diplomatic relations were established in 1972.

Fears are also rising in Tokyo that the brewing dispute with China - which is amassing diplomatic clout in Asia and beyond as its economy booms - could cripple Japan's push for a permanent seat on an expanded U.N. Security Council.

The venue was considered important. Murayama's statement was made at home, while Koizumi's apology came at an international forum with many of Japan's former victims - and current financial aid recipients - in attendance.

"The prime minister made a wise decision to publicly offer the apology in front of all the leaders from Asian countries," said Satoshi Uesugi, history professor at Kansai University. "There is a growing move among Asian countries ... to oppose Japan's permanent membership in the Security Council."

Such statements abroad are rare. It was the first time a Japanese prime minister made a war apology outside of Japan since 1991, when Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu expressed remorse in Singapore.

The 1995 declaration, which came after Murayama failed to push a strongly worded statement through Parliament because of conservative opposition, is widely considered in Japan to be its definitive war apology.

But Murayama's declaration was largely dismissed as too timid by Japan's wartime victims, and Koizumi's words on Friday were unlikely to mollify Tokyo's harshest critics.

Wartime history has played a central role in the recent series of violent anti-Japan demonstrations in China, as anger exploded over Tokyo's approval of a nationalist history textbook.

The tensions come as the two countries were also haggling over the ownership of East China Sea islands, gas exploration rights and the delineation of Japan's exclusive economic zone.

Japan never come to a national consensus on how to view the war, and it has long had troubles convincing its former victims of its contrition. Koizumi's move was unlikely to change that.

Like Murayama, Koizumi noted the damage and suffering caused by Japan's military conquest of East Asia - most destructively in China and Korea - and expressed "deep remorse and heartfelt apology" for its colonial rule and aggression.

But the statement does not fulfill what others in Asia have long clamored for: a strongly worded official statement of apology in the name of the government with the backing of Parliament.

Critics, including those in Japan, have also claimed that such statements are meaningless in the face of Japanese actions that call into question such remorse.

"Mr. Koizumi is bringing out an old apology that has been repeated many times over the past 10 years, every time Japan had to repair diplomatic relations with Asian neighbors," said Shinichi Arai, professor emeritus at Surugadai University. "The problem is that only the words were repeated, but Japan has never done anything to prove it really regretted its past."

Top on the list of irritants are Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the spirits of Japan's war dead, including the men who planned and executed Tokyo's militarist march through Asia in the 1930s and 40s.

Just hours before Koizumi's speech on Friday, dozens of Parliament members made a pilgrimage to the shrine, which was instrumental in fanning public support for Japan's imperialist aims in the first half of the 20th century.

Demands for individual compensation for victims also persist. Tokyo's oft-stated policy is that claims of compensation have already been settled by agreements establishing diplomatic relations with its neighbors.

This week a Tokyo court rejected a suit for apology and compensation by survivors and relatives of victims of Japan's biological warfare and the 1937-38 Rape of Nanking, in which historians generally agree imperial soldiers killed 150,000 people.

The court ruled that the statute of limitations had expired.

MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press Writer

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Author`s name: Editorial Team