BEIJING -- Japanese Emperor Akihito, opening his historic visit here yesterday, said he deeply "deplored" the great suffering that Japan inflicted on China during World War II. But he held to past imperial practice by failing to formally apologize.
The emperor's speech -- at a welcoming banquet on the first day of the first Japanese imperial trip here ever -- was much awaited.
Anti-Japanese sentiments still run deep among many Chinese as a result of Japan's invasion and occupation of parts of China from 1931-1945; some Japanese feared the emperor might be humiliated here.
"In the long history of relationship between our two countries, there was an unfortunate period in which my country inflicted great sufferings on the people of China. I deeply deplore this," the emperor said, according to the English translation of his speech.
Slight differences in meaning between the Japanese foreign ministry's English translation and both the Japanese and Chinese versions of his speech set off confusion as to the emperor's precise words.
But Japanese officials firmly stood by their choice of the word "deplore" in their English translation. And in any case, they and Japanese reporters said the emperor's statement did not represent any more than the limited regrets that he had offered elsewhere in Asia.
Chinese officials, who had promised Japan that the emperor would not be expected to directly apologize while here, refused to comment on whether the imperial statement was sufficient.
Chinese President Yang Shangkun's welcoming remarks to the emperor almost mirrored the monarch's own delicately chosen words.
"Regrettable, however, in modern history, Sino-Japanese relations went through an unfortunate period, which meant untold sufferings for the Chinese people," Mr. Yang said. "The past experience, if not forgotten, can serve as a good guide for the future."
The formal purpose of Emperor Akihito's six-day visit, requested nine times by China, is to mark the 20th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic ties between the two nations. It is the first time a Japanese emperor has come here in 2,000 years of contact between Japan and China.
But both governments want to use the trip to foster closer economic ties as well as to soften the growing potential for conflicts between them as they increasingly vie for influence within Asia.
China, almost fully recovered from the diplomatic isolation resulting from the 1989 massacre of the Tiananmen Square protesters, also hopes to gain greater political legitimacy from the trip.
The imperial visit, however, has dredged up strong memories of Japan's wartime brutalities. It also has sparked a grass-roots drive by some Chinese for a direct apology from the emperor and for billions of dollars in reparations -- even though China gave up the right to any claims against Japan when it resumed relations in 1972.
In Japan, the emperor's trip has been opposed by both ends of the political spectrum, with right-wingers claiming it is unconstitutional and leftists fearing that Japanese militarism will rise again.
Leftists in central Japan yesterday were believed responsible for burning a temple dedicated to wartime leaders who were convicted as war criminals. Leftists in Tokyo also recently
launched a rocket attack on the imperial palace that fell short of its target and burned a car.
Extremely tight security prevented any possibility of demonstrations here.
Perhaps to quell potential protests, China's state-run media were decidedly restrained in reporting the imperial visit.
Many Chinese in Beijing did not even seem particularly aware of the arrival of the 58-year-old son of the late Emperor Hirohito, Japan's "living god," in his whose name Japanese troops stormed through China.
"I don't like the Japanese at all," said a Beijing woman in her mid-50s, when asked about the emperor's arrival. "But what can we do about it. It's the government's business."
In inviting the emperor to Beijing, Xian and Shanghai, China's agenda largely boils down to luring more Japanese capital and technology to buttress its development thrust.
Japan already is China's largest foreign lender and fourth-largest investor. Trade between the two nations is expanding rapidly.
This week, Japanese firms announced the launch of a $4 billion oil refinery and petrochemical plant in China, the largest-ever Sino-Japanese joint venture. A Japanese retailer recently said it plans to open 1,000 supermarkets here over the next 18 years.
But China also foresees a natural rivalry with Japan and is worried about the potential remergence of Japan as a military power, according to an internal political directive prepared for Chinese reporters.
"In the Asia-Pacific region, China is a factor of stability and Japan is a factor of hindrance for America and China," the document says. "In evoking friendship with Japan, it must also be noted that this country is becoming a world superpower and endeavoring to become a major military power."