TOKYO -- Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu expressed "sincere contrition" yesterday for the "unbearable suffering and sorrow" Japan inflicted on "a great many" fellow Asians in World War II.
Offering other Asians words they have waited nearly 50 years to hear, Mr. Kaifu made Japan's equivalent of gestures German leaders made to fellow Europeans more than a decade ago.
He took the occasion of a major foreign policy speech in Singapore to utter the first unequivocal apology a Japanese head of government has offered for his country's wartime atrocities, the indispensable first step toward clearing away bitterness that lingers throughout the region.
It is a step urged upon Mr. Kaifu and his predecessors repeatedly by Western allies who have long seen Asian countries' bitter memories of Japanese occupation as a central obstacle to any full role in international affairs for a country that is now the world's No. 2 economic power.
"The Japanese people," Mr. Kaifu promised, "are firmly resolved never again to repeat those actions which had tragic consequences."
For more than two decades, many Asians have bitterly denounced the whitewashing of Imperial Army atrocities in Japanese textbooks and the Ministry of Education's systematic censorship of attempts at an unvarnished retelling of that period.
Acceptances of the long-awaited apology came quickly from Singapore and Malaysia.