TOKYO -- Fifty-five years ago today, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Earlier, it had invaded China. No one could easily doubt that Japan was the aggressor on both fronts.
But Japan is still reluctant to confront its war record, as has become clear in a controversy over a new government-sponsored museum that would retell how the nation suffered during the war but ignore the issue of its responsibility for the suffering of other nations.
For some in Japan, the question is not so much why the War Dead Peace Memorial Hall needs to be built. It is why a second government-proposed museum that was supposed to "look squarely" at Japan's nationalistic past can't seem to get off the drawing board.
"There's a kind of indifference," says Hideyaki Asahi, one of three bureaucrats in charge of the second museum, suggesting through nervous laughter and smiles that many officials want nothing to do with the project.
Suspicions and hard feelings in Asia linger about Japan because of its seeming inability to come to terms with its wartime acts. Periodically, the issue reaches a flash point when a prime minister addresses the war years but fails to offer a clear apology, or when a government official disputes a historical fact like the use of sex slaves by the imperial army.
Rarely, though, does Japan's penchant for denial come into such sharp relief as over the plans for the two museums.
While the government has just broken ground on the memorial hall, it appears that the second museum, which was meant to counter the perception that Japan lacks remorse, may never be built.
The second project, to be called the Asian History Document Center, is supposed to be a research center that examines Japan's relationship with Asia. It will pull no punches in addressing the nation's aggressions and atrocities during the war years, its organizers promise.
But they can't find a government ministry to sponsor the project, and they don't yet have a building site or an architect. Organizers are working temporarily from the prime minister's office, where the bureaucrats in charge try to sound optimistic but readily admit they will probably miss the scheduled opening 10 years from now.
Meanwhile, the memorial hall, itself slowed by controversy, is scheduled to open in 1998.
The projects are independent of one another but they have been linked by supporters and detractors. Organizers of the memorial hall defend its lack of historical perspective by saying the second project will satisfy that objective. Critics say Japan's image will be damaged if the memorial hall opens while the second project remains unrealized.
"The memorial hall will focus on the domestic war experience," Health Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference recently. "If have only this hall, it could develop into an international problem."
The $120 million memorial hall, to contain a museum and library, will examine what wartime life was like for the Japanese and focus on the sacrifices the nation endured. The idea for the hall was proposed by the Japan War Bereaved Families Association, a conservative and politically powerful organization that also will manage the hall.
The government committee in charge said the hall's exhibits won't address questions of Japan's responsibility for the war and won't depict the suffering of Asian nations at the hands of the Japanese because of the debate in Japan about whether it was the victim or aggressor.
"It's difficult to exhibit the facts of the war objectively, because there are so many differences among the Japanese people about how to look at the war," says Satoru Miyata, chief of the Health Ministry agency in charge of constructing the memorial hall.
A major cause of Japanese feelings of victimization is the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there is also a commonly made argument, frequently cited by conservative politicians, that Japan was bullied into the war and fought it to liberate Asia from Western imperialism.
That idea is rejected by many in Japan, including several committee members who quit the memorial hall project in protest. They declined to comment, but Shigenori Nishikawa, leader of a coalition of groups opposed to the construction, lashed out at the government for ignoring the fact that Japan started the war.
"This memorial is only to comfort the souls of Japanese and praise their sacrifice," Nishikawa says. "We were the aggressors. We have no right to build this kind of thing."
Another layer of political complexity and controversy comes from the fact that the memorial hall is being built near Yasukuni Shrine, where the spirits of Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals, are enshrined. When Japanese politicians like Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto visit Yasukuni to pray, they are harshly criticized by Japan's former enemies and victims, such as China.
The idea for the second project, the document center, came in 1994 from then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who proposed a $1 billion program to mark the 50th anniversary of the war's end that would "look squarely to our history."
"The basic idea is to start neutral and provide information from both sides, offering an opportunity to think and understand," says Yoshiyuki Ueda, one of the government officials in charge.
But Murayama, a Socialist who has come closest among prime ministers to offering an outright apology for Japan's World War II actions, was succeeded in office this year by Hashimoto, a former president of the War Bereaved Association.
With the political landscape changed, the old questions of how Japan should account for its past are being treated more cautiously, making the construction of the document center less likely.
"We don't clearly know where we stand -- war victim or aggressor," says Ueda. "So we don't have a clear idea on this center."
Pub Date: 12/07/96