Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, seeking to end a diplomatic dispute over Japan's rewriting of textbook accounts of World War II, today acknowledged Japan's responsibility for its aggressive military past and said it would change the offending passages.
China and South Korea have protested strongly in recent weeks, demanding that Japan "correct distortions" in school history books regarding its military activities in Asia in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The controversy, which has touched off protests and indignation throughout Asia, has threatened to damage seriously Japan's relations with its two key Asian neighbors.
In a televised press conference today, Suzuki said Japan "deeply reflects on the sacrifice, damage and pain we caused our Asian neighbors during the past war." He said Japan would "listen humbly to the criticism" by its neighbors and pledged to take "concrete actions without delay" to rewrite the accounts.
Suzuki did not address the substance or the precise timing of those steps, however, reflecting the strong objections of Japan's Education Ministry and the outspoken right wing of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Senior school authorities, backed by hawkish Liberal Democrats, have resisted any changes that would, in their view, create the impression that Japan was bowing to foreign pressures. Foreign Ministry officials have vigorously fought to have the offending passages altered to avert further diplomatic fallout over the five-week-old dispute.
The standoff between the two powerful government departments has forced Suzuki to take direct political action. Expressing concern that failure to resolve the issue could damage further Japan's already tense ties with Peking and Seoul, Suzuki indicated today that the government intended to announce plans for revising the books before Foreign Minister Yoshio Sakurauchi leaves Friday on an official five-day Asian tour.
The controversy arose when the Education Ministry disclosed changes in new books for the school term beginning next April that have replaced the word "aggression" with "advance" to describe the Japanese Imperial Army's attacks in China in the 1930s. The Koreans have accused Tokyo of attempts to water down accounts of Japan's 35 years of colonial rule before World War II by, among other things, characterizing Korean demonstrations for independence as "riots."
The issue has touched off angry responses from Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, North Korea and other countries in Asia, where about 18 million people died in the war and bitter memories of Japan's role in the conflict remain.
Attempts to end the dispute have resulted in furious, behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts on the part of Japan to explain its position to China and South Korea. Earlier this month, a Japanese mission failed to appease Peking authorities, and Tokyo's offer of sending a similar delegation to Seoul was rejected flatly by officials there.
While the public furor touched off by the revisions has shown few signs of dying down in either country, Chinese and South Korean officials now appear interested in ending the dispute quickly. Neither has insisted that Japanese school authorities dismantle their screening process for textbooks used in Japan's centralized education system despite earlier complaints that it amounted to official censorship. They have insisted, however, that the passages be revised before the books are introduced into the classroom next April.
At stake are important trade and industrial ties between Japan and China, although Japanese diplomatic analysts said neither side is likely to allow the dispute to harm lucrative relations seriously. Japan agreed today to a $258 million loan to China for major industrial projects.
The controversy has delayed negotiations between Japan and South Korea on Seoul's demand for a $4 billion Japanese loan package to aid economic development.
The official New China News Agency urged Tokyo today to take immediate and resolute action to rectify the "mistakes" of its Education Ministry. In a commentary entitled, "A mere expression of willingness to correct mistakes is not enough," the agency warned that the Chinese would not tolerate the "stubborn attitude" of a few Japanese officials and "neither would it be an act of wisdom to shilly-shally on the matter, which would only cause more trouble."
Yesterday, Suzuki's Liberal Democrats sent two senior legislators, Hiroshi Mitsuzuka and Yoshiro Mori, to Seoul for talks with South Korea's ruling Democratic Justice Party and to sound out government and public attitudes on the issue.
According to government sources here, the Education Ministry has agreed tentatively to accelerate their next scheduled review process by one year. This would put new textbooks originally scheduled for use from April 1986 into classrooms a year earlier.
Meanwhile, sources said, the ministry would issue guidelines to teachers to allow them to teach a version of Japan's role in World War II based on previous textbooks, although next year's books presumably would carry the controversial wording.
Foreign Ministry officials, on the other hand, have insisted that next year's textbooks be changed immediately.
The bureaucrats' failure to find a face-saving solution has complicated Suzuki's bid for reelection as party president, which effectively carries with it the premiership, in November. Liberal Democratic hard-liners have insisted that the handling of the textbooks is a Japanese domestic matter and that they want any concrete moves by Tokyo to reflect clearly a "spontaneous" decision on its part.
Too accommodating a response, political analysts here said, could alienate the party's increasingly influential right wing and damage Suzuki's election bid. Failure to mollify Peking, however, might endanger Suzuki's scheduled visit to China late next month, which is intended to mark the 10th anniversary of the normalization of relations in 1972 and present him with a major diplomatic setback on the eve of his domestic political campaign.
Suzuki said today that he would resolve the textbook dispute "without fail" before his impending visit. "The solution must satisfy both China and South Korea," he said.