In Japan, an Ambivalent Anniversary

Masako Ishikawa, 86, releases a dove in a peace prayer at the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 2.46 million military dead, some of whom were war criminals.
Masako Ishikawa, 86, releases a dove in a peace prayer at the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 2.46 million military dead, some of whom were war criminals. (Bykoji Sasahara -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

TOKYO, Aug. 15 -- Striking a conciliatory note on the 60th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reiterated an apology Monday for "the huge damage and suffering" caused by his nation's past military aggression and pledged it would never happen again.

But a number of events on Sunday and Monday here and abroad illustrated the divisiveness that lingers over Japan's role in the war. In contrast with the cordial relationships Germany now maintains in Europe, several countries in Asia that were occupied by Japan during the war contend that the Japanese government has not atoned fully for its actions.

Groups of anti-Japanese protesters turned out in Hong Kong, Seoul, Manila and Taipei, Taiwan, to mark Aug. 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito spoke on the radio for the first time to ask his country to "endure the unendurable" by accepting defeat.

Chinese authorities in Beijing and Shanghai increased security noticeably at Japanese diplomatic missions, apparently attempting to avoid a repeat of violent anti-Japanese protests in April.

Critics complain about a growing movement in Japan to publish history textbooks that minimize the country's aggression during World War II, when millions of Asians living under Japanese occupation were killed. About 3 million Japanese were also killed in the years between Japan's invasion of China in 1937 and the surrender in 1945. Members of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, meanwhile, support amending the postwar pacifist constitution written by the United States, which renounces Japan's right to wage war.

Koizumi has been criticized in Asia for his annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors 2.46 million military dead, including Gen. Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister who led Japan into battle with the United States. Tojo is among a number of men classified as war criminals who are honored at Yasukuni.

Some conservative leaders had encouraged Koizumi to take a stand against foreign meddling by visiting the shrine on Monday. But the prime minister, concentrating on parliamentary elections set for Sept. 11, avoided the potential controversy. He attended a solemn ceremony at the Martial Arts Hall in Tokyo, accompanying Emperor Akihito, Hirohito's son, to mourn the war dead. Notably, leaders in South Korea and China also delivered subdued speeches emphasizing the need for cooperation and peace.

Koizumi did not use the word "apology" during his speech at the hall. But the word was included in a written statement issued earlier in the day. "Japan caused huge damage and suffering to many countries, especially the people of Asia, with its colonization and aggression," the statement said. "Humbly accepting this fact of history, we again express our deep remorse and heartfelt apology and offer our condolences to the victims of the war at home and abroad."

Officials said that a record 205,000 people visited the Yasukuni Shrine on Monday. The shrine also is the site of a war museum that celebrates Japan's militaristic past, and which houses a Zero fighter plane and Hirohito's sacred sword.

Under a blazing summer sun, members of Japanese nationalist groups -- some clad in World War II uniforms and waving the flag used during the war -- sang hymns that recalled Japan's military past. At least 47 members of Parliament and two of Koizumi's cabinet members attended.

A Japanese student protester was severely beaten by a group of furious men before being pulled to safety by bystanders. He was transported to a local hospital.

His face swollen and bloodied, the young man, who declined to give his name, said the attack began when he voiced opposition to Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni. "I was then beaten up by a bunch of right-wingers who looked like gangsters," he said, panting as he spoke.

In a public opinion poll published on Monday by the Mainichi newspaper, 43 percent of Japanese respondents said Japan's role in the war was wrong. Twenty-nine percent called it an "inevitable war" while another 26 percent were undecided.

Special correspondent Sachiko Sakamaki contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company