HIROSHIMA and Nagasaki are as much symbols as cities - icons of the nuclear age and the sufferings of the Japanese who experienced its brutal dawning.
But yesterday's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of this city made clear that the Japanese are increasingly willing to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as part of the conflict that preceded the bombings.
For decades many Japanese have considered the devastation of the two cities as adequate atonement for the sorrows that Japanese soldiers brought to China, Korea, and the countries they seized during World War II.
This grim calculus is one reason this nation has trouble acknowledging its own wartime inhumanities.
Officials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki say that the atomic bombs and the ensuing radiation killed more than 290,000 people. But now, said Hiroshima Mayor Takashi Hiraoka in a speech to the 50,000 people who attended the anniversary ceremony yesterday, "It is important to look at the stark reality of war in terms of both aggrieved and aggriever."
He then apologized, in unusually direct language for an elected official in Japan, "for the unbearable suffering that Japanese colonial domination and war inflicted on so many people."
Capitalizing on the anniversary, protesters and politicians also condemned France's recent decision to resume nuclear testing in the South Pacific next month and the nuclear explosion China conducted in May.
"We have strongly urged [Franceand China] to cease nuclear testing and to withdraw the decision to resume tests," said Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.
Other demonstrators called the French plan a violation of the memory of the people who died here and the nearby city of Nagasaki, which the US bombed on Aug. 9, 1945.
Akira Iyagi sat with his granddaughter under a hazy sun in honor of the brother he lost to the bomb. Of the apology offered by Mayor Hiraoka to Japan's war victims, Mr. Iyagi observed: "That is what must be said."
This reappraisal of the atomic bombings in light of Japan's behavior during the war did not begin yesterday. Since 1989, Nagasaki officials have been citing Japan's own atrocities in commemorating the Aug. 9 anniversary. Hiroshima Mayor Hiraoka has also made similar, if less direct statements, in recent years.
Last June, officials in Hiroshima expanded the city's Peace Memorial Museum in order to display the city's role as a military center and Japan's aggressive militarism in Asia. Until then the displays had concentrated almost exclusively on the human and physical devastation the bomb had wrought.
Officials and citizens have slowly acknowledged the tens of thousands of Koreans killed and injured by the bomb whose ordeal was overlooked in the rush to emphasize Japan's suffering. The Japanese had forced many of them to come to this country as laborers during Japan's occupation of Korea.
"A change is taking place," says Shuichi Kato, a social critic and writer speaking here at a symposium yesterday. "We have put the bombings into historical context over the last few years."
The reevaluation para llels the experience of Toshi and Iri Maruki, a pair of painters whose "Hiroshima Panels'' represent perhaps the definitive artistic rendering of the torments of the men, women, and children who experienced the bombings.
In the late 1970s, Toshi Maruki recently recalled in her home outside of Tokyo, the couple displayed their works in the US, where an inquisitive friend asked how they would react to such arduous depictions of Japanese cruelties in the Chinese city of Nanjing. In 1937, Japanese troops occupied the city and slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians and defeated Chinese soldiers.
The pair later researched the incident and painted a monumental work chronicling that atrocity, known as the "Rape of Nanjing." The experience, says Ms. Maruki, "changed my view of the atomic bombing.... Before I learned about Nanjing, I only thought of the Japanese as victims."
The newly expanded Hiroshima museum is also remarkable for its frank presentation of the US rationale for using its newly developed nuclear weapons. One mural offers three reasons that led to the "hurried dropping of the atomic bombs."
The usual Japanese explanations of American motives are presented - in order to gain geopolitical advantage over the Soviet Union and to measure the bombs' effectiveness.
But those reasons are listed second and third. The first reason is: "The US wanted to limit its own casualties by forcing Japan to surrender as quickly as possible."
That is more or less the reason that the US government itself has always offered, and in fact the Japanese capitulated on Aug. 15, 1945, six days after the Nagasaki attack.
But in contrast, the recent controversy in Washington over the Smithsonian Institution's plan to display the fuselage of the "Enola Gay," the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, suggested to many here that Americans are less able to hear both sides of history.
Veterans groups blocked the original plan, which would have included displays on the human damage caused by the attack.
They argued that the curators intended to present a revisionist view of history that emphasized Japanese suffering and cast doubt on the theory that the bombing saved tens of thousands of American lives by eliminating the need for an invasion.
"If it is difficult for a defeated nation like Japan to admit her sins, it must be far more difficult for a victorious nation like the US to admit" hers, writes Mitsuo Okamoto, a peace studies professor at Hiroshima's Shudo University.
"To show the Enola Gay without showing the tragedy of Hiroshima is to blind people to history," he writes.
"To show Hiroshima without showing Japanese aggression of Asian countries is to abandon historical responsibility."
Japan, Professor Okamoto says in an interview here, has newly begun to move in a "healthier direction" than it has in the past - "to combine both sides of history."
The Smithsonian controversy was not far from people's minds at yesterday's commemoration. "People in the US do not know enough about Hiroshima" says a retired schoolteacher named Sugawara Den.
"Japan should recognize that we were the aggressor and with that recognition I hope that Americans will learn more about the bomb," says Mr. Den.
The poet Sadako Kurihara, who lives in Hiroshima, makes a similar argument in a poem:
and we don't hear, gently,
In chorus, Asia's dead and her voiceless masses
spit out the anger
of all those we made victims....
That we may say "Hiroshima,"
and hear in reply, gently,
we first must
wash the blood
off our own hands.