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Japan's Glance at the Past

AFTER considerable bickering, Japan's lawmakers finally came through last week with an official "apology" for their country's actions during World War II. The resolution that passed the Diet, however, may say more about the political compromise in today's Japan than what transpired over a half century ago under the emperor and his generals.

The final choice of words tended more toward self-reflection, with the implication of remorse, than outright regret or apology. Observers in neighboring Asian lands, in the US, and in other countries that battled Japanese aggression may understandably be put off by this apparent unwillingness to squarely face the past. But a few things have to be kept in mind.

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In recent years, Japanese officials have made more forthright apologies to countries ravaged by the militaristic policies of the 1930s and '40s. Koreans, for instance, who suffered the longest from Japanese occupation, received an apology from former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa during his 1993 visit to South Korea.

Moreover, polls show that the majority of Japanese are decidedly more critical of their country's war record than are many of the Diet's politicians. There's a clear recognition among most average Japanese that terrible mistakes were made.

Some older Japanese may resent being singled out for apology when, in their view, others were implicated in Asia's agonies, too - European colonialists, for instance. And veterans groups, which are active politically, reject any cloak of shame.

Politics, in fact, enveloped the entire apology debate. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama had made a resolution on Japan's war record a condition of taking the helm of the current coalition government. Elements of the once-dominant Liberal Democratic Party were determined to dilute the resolution as much as possible. Mr. Murayama threatened to bring down the government over the issue.

What emerged was rhetorically vague. But Murayama got his resolution, and others can interpret the language as they please. Some neighbors, particularly the Koreans, would have preferred a stronger repudiation of the past. The strongest evidence of that, however, is Japan's own democracy, its constructive economic role in the region, and its participation in such peaceable endeavors as the successful UN operation in Cambodia.

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